Magical seven; real or coincidence?

If we wanted to give some complicated instructions to a friend, intuitively, the first thing we would do is to try to split the instructions into multiple steps or chunks so that he or she can remember most of the information that we are trying to provide.

In learning, splitting the course materials into chunks means breaking down the information into small-sized pieces so the brain can more easily digest them. The reason the brain needs this help is because immediate memory imposes limitations on the amount of information we can receive, process, and remember.

George A. Miller has provided the idea of “chunking” and the capacity of immediate (short-term) memory. Miller (1956) presented the idea that, by organizing the input into several dimensions and successively into chunks, we can manage to break this informational bottleneck.

He also theorized that immediate memory can only hold seven plus or minus two chunks. A “chunk” could refer to numbers, concepts, or instructions. He even joked about magical number of seven and considered a possible coincidence behind it.

“And finally, what about the magical number seven? What about the seven wonders of the world, the seven seas, the seven deadly sins, the seven daughters of Atlas in the Pleiades, the seven ages of man, the seven levels of hell, the seven primary colors, the seven notes of the musical scale, and the seven days of the week?

Perhaps there is something deep and profound behind all these sevens, something just calling out for us to discover it. But I suspect that it is only a pernicious, Pythagorean coincidence.”

For the instructional designers, the most important thing to learn from Miller is that, what a learner can take into her immediate memory is limited and if it is full, the excess information will not be consumed.

This is our challenge as course designers and instructors.

We have to be smart when designing courses and consider this factor when conveying complex and long topics by splitting them into small, consumable chunks. Regardless if the information is being delivered in a classroom setting or online, this approach will help us to improve learning experience and how much each learner will retain.