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Macro vs. Micro? Arguing for the Whole and Not the Chunk!

By Nirupama Akella / October 2013

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I know the weekly content, but I don't understand it!

Sad but true—this is the present scenario of contemporary online education. Students know the material but why they know it, they just don't know! Contemporary online course design has become a stage for chunking and content fragmentation. Course material is chunked and sequenced from simple to complex to enable faster processing by the student. But research shows a student learns faster and better if he/she is presented with a holistic vision of the entire material right in the beginning. Thus, a student knows why they are learning the material before they begin to learn it. Chunking does serve the purpose of easy digestive learning, but also leads to a fragmentation of the final outcome. It is not enough to pack each chunk with synthesizers, cognitive strategies, activities, discussion forums, and assessments. The learner should have the opportunity to realize, recognize, and comprehend why they are learning the content.

The solution lies not in micro-managing but macro-managing the content for elaboration causing deep learning and comprehension. But, the practice of content micro-management still prevails, namely due to its ease of design and development. Hence, the focus of online courses seems to be centered around instructors and instructional designers who want to be the kingpins of the online learning and teaching process, while the student, who is the principal audience and receiver of this process, seems to have faded into the background. It is time instructors and instructional designers propelled the learner into the limelight again. Online learning is supposed to be learner-centric and not teacher-centric. In this article, I argue the focus of online learning needs to shift to a macro-holistic design. I garner support for my argument with two empirical case studies, which pinpoint issues and explain them in the context of Reigeluth's elaboration theory. The discussion investigates and explores the elaboration theory focusing on "how it should be"—learner-centric and holistic.

The Case Studies

Contemporary course design follows a micro-oriented course design approach; online course design is no different. The inclusion of the case studies is to highlight the micro-oriented approach used in both courses, and analyze the courses in the context Reigeluth's elaboration theory. The courses, although divergent in content, are both offered online and follow a similar structure. These specific courses were chosen based on time, locale, and easy flexible access. The names and locations of the institutions have been disguised to ensure privacy and confidentiality. A convenient sampling technique was employed for observation and data collection.

Case Study 1. Cognitive Strategies, IDD 615, is an online graduate three-hour credit course at a large mid-Atlantic university. The course is a core instructional design course offered every fall. This specific course seated about 25 non-traditional and traditional instructional design graduate students. Students were told to complete a number of tasks before the official start of the course, such as posting to the discussion forum and procuring the textbook, either online or at the bookstore. The time allotted for the completion of these tasks was usually three-four days. Each week covered a maximum of two topics for which students were expected to read assigned chapter/s. As evident in Table 1, each week comprised of a sizeable chunk of the course content. The course itself was sequentially organized from simple to complex. Students had to actively participate in many individual and group activities, discussion forums, and a quiz every week. According to the course instructor, such activities ensured each weekly chunk was a complete set of information. This enabled students to understand and learn the weekly content better. The course was capped off with a comprehensive final, which tested students' knowledge about each aspect of the course content.

Table 1. IDD 615 Course Outline Excerpt

Week/Class Topic Assignments
Week 1—Class 1
Chapters 1 & 2
Information Processing Theory
Upload VITA in Document Sharing under VITA folder ASAP (vita should have photo)
  1. Webquest on Working Memory
  2. Research Paper on Metacognition—Importance/role, link to Working Memory
  3. Discussion Participation
  4. Quiz 1
Week 2—Class 2
Chapter 3
Cognitive Strategies—An Introduction
Organizational Cognitive Strategy
  1. Chapter Summaries
  2. Research Paper on Implications of Cognitive Strategies
  3. Webquest on organizational Cognitive strategy use in classroom (5 examples)
  4. Quiz 2
Week 3—Class 3
Chapters 4 & 5
  1. Research paper on bridging cognitive strategies (20-25 pages, APA referencing)—due in week 5
  2. PowerPoint presentation using Camtasia on Frames—10 slides
  3. Discussion Participation
  4. Quiz 3

Case Study 2. This online undergraduate course is a four-hour credit course taught at a community college located in the mid-Atlantic region. Seating more than 100 students, the course is offered every spring. The course content was organized in weekly chunks of eight topics, arranged sequentially from simple to complex. As shown in Table 2, each weekly chunk was packed with individual assignments, discussion forums, debates, and quizzes.

Table 2. COM 255 Course Outline Excerpt

Reading Assignments
Topic Activities
Week 1
Chapters 1, 2, 3
Foundation of Communication Theory
Communication in a Gendered Society
Discussion Forum 1
Discussion Forum 2
Quiz 1
Week 2
Chapters 5 & 6
Perception of Self & Others
And Communication
Discussion Forum 1
Discussion Forum 2
Research Paper 1: Self Perception & Communication
Quiz 2
Week 3
Chapter 4
Verbal & Non-Verbal Communication Discussion Forum 1
Discussion Forum 2
Research Paper 2: Communication & Culture
Quiz 3

Both courses followed a sequential, linear approach of course content that was presented in chunks. In IDD 615, each weekly section was designed to emphasize student participation and learning; there were discussion forums, student activities, and a weekly assessment. The comprehensive final at the end of the course ensured students had acquired knowledge of the entire course content. Similarly, COM 255 was also organized in a sequential manner. Each weekly section was treated as a small concept and packed with participative discussion forums, and engaging individual response papers and debates.

It begs the question, do these two diverse courses focus on achievement rather on deep learning and holistic comprehension? Is chunking the content to aid faster, easier memory storage and retrieval actually causing thought fragmentation and split learning? Is micro design impeding a learner-centered macro approach to the design of instruction?

Dissecting Reigeluth's Elaboration Theory

IDD 615 and COM 255 follow the micro-prescriptive approach of Reigeluth's elaboration theory [1]. But as Reigeluth argues, elaboration theory is much more than that. The theory, as intended ,is a macro-prescriptive approach involving the selection and sequential organization of content. It primarily offers a holistic macro framework for understanding and learning content in appropriate context. And the macro approach embodies the micro strategies of sequential arrangement of content from simple to complex. One has to understand and study the theory in its entirety to use it effectively for course design.

Elaboration theory puts the learner in the center of the learning process. Designing instruction is about analyzing and addressing the needs of the learner in a macro fashion. A learner will always need to know the path and goal of instructions. Why is he/ he studying this particular concept? For instance, take a simple example of crossing a stream by hopping from one stone to the other. You know where you are going i.e. your goal and destination. Similarly a learner needs to know the where, why, and how of instruction. And the macro-oriented elaboration theory answers this explicitly. It places the learner within the learning context taking the concentration away from hierarchical instructional events [2].

Reigeluth further explains instruction should start with an "epitome" [1, 3]. Epitome, he clarifies, is a large holistic comprehensive tangible example that should be positioned at the top of all weekly content. The epitome—which can be a case study, a worked-out example, a story, or an anecdote—should comprise dual qualities of not only showing but also telling the learner what the course is all about [1]. The presence of the epitome enables the learner to start with a wide-angle view and then zoom in on relevant parts. Similarly, a student after reading, seeing the epitome has the opportunity to view the entire concept as a single piece of large information. He/ she can then construct a single schema and fill in with relevant information with weekly chunks or sub-concepts. Let's go back to week 2 in IDD 615; presenting a case study of a teacher using multiple cognitive strategies in an educational setting would have helped the students immensely in constructing a single framework or schemata of the large single concept of "cognitive strategies." The epitome would have enabled the learner to recognize, realize, and understand the purpose and significance of the course. Extending the argument to the analogy of an architect building a house, the architect will first design the house on paper, formulate a plan with all the details, envisage the financials, and produce a blueprint. The same needs to be done with an educational course. A plan has to developed, careful detailing has to be done, and a holistic tangible epitome has to be constructed. Without the macro, a person cannot conceptualize and design the micro to achieve proper results [4].

But, as seen in the above outlined courses, educational institutions are following and advocating the micro-prescriptive approach of elaboration theory, and have done away with the macro. Each chunk is packed with micro strategies to help students master the section and achieve an "A" grade for that week. The chunk has become more important than the whole. But, ultimately "chunk learning" leads to fragmented and superficial learning. After all, the concept of the frame is meaningless with no context; without the anchor of proper schemata.

Wilson and Cole explain the macro approach of designing instruction has following micro components [4]:

  1. Organizing content in sizeable chunks.
  2. Arrangement of chunks in sequential format from simple to complex.
  3. Sequential organization of within lesson concepts.
  4. Summarizers and synthesizers enabling learners to assimilate each chunk within a context to add meaning and value, ultimately leading to deep learning.

Reigeluth and Stein further state elaboration theory has three components of macro, micro, and sub-micro [3]. Contemporary education practitioners tend to favor micro and sub-micro components ignoring the macro component, which is the crux of deep learning. Chunk learning allows learners to build and develop multiple schemata, as each sub-concept is treated as a complete set of information. For instance, in COM 255, a learner develops multiple schemas relating to social communication, verbal communication, non-verbal communication, gender communication, and so forth. Each schemata is separate from the other. Thus, there is no connection and the whole concept of "interpersonal communication" gets lost amongst these multiple mental frameworks.

According to Wilson and Cole, in order to ensure deep holistic learning, learners need to be presented with an epitome followed by a simple to complex sequential content organization [4].

Effective Course Design
Figure 1. Effective Course Design: Macro+Micro+Sub Micro.

The above figure shows us how an effective course design can be structured. The focal base only works if the elaboration theory is understood in its entirety. In a nutshell, the elaboration theory holds the key to an effective course design. Elaboration theory is a macro approach to the design of instruction. Reigeluth stated elaboration theory involves three types of elaboration [5]:

  1. Elaboration of the entire task
  2. Elaboration of the sub task
  3. Elaboration of the mini task

Contemporary education practitioners focus on the second and third aspect of elaboration; course design has to start with the foundation i.e. the macro. This is the first step of the elaboration theory:


Macro design includes epitome design and content selection. This is followed by micro design, which is the sequential arrangement of content in chunks from simple to complex. The final design step would be the finishing touches, in case of the tower, but it refers to within-course micro design strategies. This refers to packing each chunk with various synthesizers, discussion forums, and assessments. In other words, the course designer has to micro design the chunk. This chunk will generate information that will then be filled into an appropriate place in the macro-course mental framework developed by the learner.


There needs to be a re-evaluation and re-examination of elaboration theory. Perhaps it would be prudent to reconsider the true meaning and purpose of education. Are achievement and/or learning two different unrelated concepts or, two related concepts belonging to two sides of the same coin? Does learning embody achievement as macro embodies micro? Combining the two approaches of the same theory could improve and better course design making it more learner-centered and holistic. The learner should be the starting, and ending point, of instruction. Hence, when starting course design, it is imperative to consider the needs, goals, attitudes of the learner. A learner needs analysis will determine the macro format of the course. Learning needs will further shape micro i.e. selection of learning episodes and the sequential organization of content. This further guides the sub-micro elaboration approach. Selection of finishing touches is a function of learner needs, attitudes, and motivations. Hence, course design is rooted in a full implementation of elaboration theory, which is dependent and shaped by learner needs analysis.

It is time to revisit the basic goal of education i.e. learning. The learner has to be pushed forward to take center stage, while instructors and instructional designers have to be content with the backstage. Their job and responsibility should be ensuring that the student learns the content not only for a good grade but understands it for practical uses. Micro-design should be a part of macro design and not a separate entity.


[1] Reigeluth, C. M.. In search of a better way to organize instruction: The elaboration theory. Journal of Instructional Development 2, 3 (1979), 8-15.

[2] Smith, P. L., and Ragan, T. J. Instructional Design (2nd Ed). New York: Wiley, 1999.

[3] Reigeluth, C. M., and Stein, R. Elaboration Theory. In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed), Instructional design theories and models: An overview of their current status. Hillside NJ: Erlbbaum, 1983.

[4] Wilson, B., and Cole, P. A critical review of elaboration theory. Educational Technology Research and Development 40,3 (1992), 63-79.

[5] Reigeluth, C. M. The elaboration theory: Guidance for Scope and Sequences Decisions. In R. M. Reigeluth, (Ed.), Instructional design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory, Volume II. Mawah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999, 425-454.

About the Author

Nirupama Akella is an instructional designer at Georgia Military College, Milledgeville, Georgia. She is a graduate in Instructional Design and Communication. Resident in Milledgeville, Akella is active in several instructional design professional associations. She is an academic reviewer, and has published in many journals. Her research interests include exploring the tenuous relationship between instructional designers and subject-matter experts; online pedagogies, and educational technologies.

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