While breaking big courses down into small chunks is one of the hottest e-learning trends in 2014, the concept originated nearly 60 years ago.

In 1956, George A. Miller, a cognitive psychologist at Princeton University, suggested in a research paper that the average human can retain seven items in his or her working memory at any one time, plus or minus two. We now refer to this as “Miller’s Law.” Long before corporate training was delivered online, “Miller’s Law” was an industry standard in determining how much information should be covered at one sitting.


Miller used the word “chunk” to describe the largest meaningful unit in presented material that a person can recognize.

His controversial work was either disputed or supported by a number of follow-up studies, with some studies researchers bringing the number of items retained in one session down to four or five.

We now know through the work of other cognitive researchers that how much our working memory can hold depends not just on numbers but on the type of information we are absorbing, the format of the information, and the individual abilities of the trainee.

Nonetheless, the idea that people remember things easier when we break up learning settled into our collective intelligence and stayed. It has just been re-fuelled by another study.

A team led by Philip Guo, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Rochester, observed how long students would stay focused on both short and long videos.

“Unsurprisingly, students engaged more with shorter videos,” Guo wrote.

He discovered that the average engagement time of any video maxed out at six minutes, regardless of its length. Engagement time decreased with a video’s length.

The take-home message for trainers is that when you are setting up e-learning methodologies, break up big topics into smaller ones. That’s because once the student’s working memory fills up, he or she will not retain additional information.

When devising e-learning programs, it is important to pay particular attention to chunking information—since most are delivered without a classroom instructor present to see students nodding off at their computers.

Here are three ways to “chunk” complicated training subjects down into bite-size pieces that your employees will retain:

  1. Edit course content with memory bites in mind. Count the key points that are being featured in each lesson and see how close they come to five or seven things to remember. Ask yourself if certain information really needs to be included to get a point across.
  2. Study the progression of the course. Think about whether there is a logical thought process to the order in which topics and lessons are presented. Is that how you would remember them?
  3. Take a course module and break it down into smaller course chunks. Each chunk then becomes one lesson. Make sure no lesson covers multiple topics.