Each day we are flooded with information! Having a limited attention span and working memory capacity, humans would have a really tough time making sense of the world had our cognition not developed strategies to help us cope. One such cognitive strategy is chunking. Chunking is a process by which information is first atomised, and then re-grouped into a meaningful whole according to internal patterns – just like this sentence you read is basically a bunch of letters grouped in “chunks”, words, that make sense to an English speaker. To see how it works in real life and how you can use it to study, read on!
The full story
081127882 is a hard number to remember. If you chunk the number into 081 127 882 it’s easier. Cutting large bits of information into smaller pieces helps us to understand. If we put small pieces back together, we can see the big picture and that helps us to remember. The process is called Chunking. This is how it works.
Our short-term memory is fast but tiny. According to learning expert Dr. Oakley it can hold only 4 chunks of information at once. So when new inputs arrive it has two ways to pick them up. First, it can overwrite and forget what it has to make space for new information. Or it can use mental effort to move a chunk from the working memory into the long-term memory where it can be stored and remembered later.
This is why it’s almost impossible to recall 9 digits like 081127882. There is simply not enough space. Once chunked, there is.
There are several ways to chunk. You can break a larger piece into smaller bits, identify patterns or group pieces to see the larger picture. Once a chunk is created, you can use deliberate practice to move it into your long-term memory where it connects with exercising experiences. Now it can be stored for years and if regularly used, accessed without much mental effort.
To make this transfer more effective it helps to add context which acts like memory super glue. Great instructors always try to give you the big picture before going into detail. If you study by yourself, you can skim through your textbook first by reading chapter headlines. Learning facts without understanding the big picture is pretty useless, as we will forget what we have learned very fast.
Professional piano teachers first show their students the entire song so they understand the mood. Then they ask their students to practice one measure at the time. Once the part has been learned and the neural connections in the brain have been built, then students go to the next measure. After all chunks can be played separately, they are combined until the entire piece is connected. Now the student can play the piece with less mental effort.
Chunking also helps to understand complex topics, say trade between China and India. First study China: the people, the culture and the economy. Then summarize and put what you learned in your own simple language. Repeat the process for India. Then study trade itself: the mechanics, benefits and problems. Again, simplify to form an underlying idea. At the end, you might just have summarized several books onto one napkin.
Try chunking next time you feel the limits of your working memory. Just like how clever restaurants chunk their menus into starters, mains, desserts, with 3-4 options each. With chunking it’s easy to compare our options and make a decision.
“Honestly, this video made me smile. Very good analogies. Not boring or too detailed… had things I could relate to and showed me ways of looking at “chunking” that I didn’t see before. This made it obvious!”– Dani
- Chunking – Wikipedia
- How Chunking Pieces of Information Can Improve Memory – Verywellmind
- Learning how to learn – TED talk by Barbara Oakley
Chunking has been shown to be an effective way to increase retention of taught material. Check out our video Chunking Lessons to Increase Retention to see how it works.
Now, try it with your class!
Assign one paragraph from the description of the new topic you are covering to each student/group of students. Their task is to write down the main idea of the paragraph in less than 10 words. When each student/group has presented their reduction, give feedback and use the short version to compile revision notes for your students. For more ideas, click here.