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Learning how to Learn: Chunking

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by | Nov 20, 2018

A study/learning technique that I am sure we are all familiar with is one known as “Chunking”, even if you have not been consciously aware of doing it. If you have ever made a word using the first letter of all the words on your shopping list: that is chunking. Or maybe you can recall an entire phone number by reciting small grouped together parts of it, similar to an American phone number, (737)-345-9167: that is also chunking! Chunking is just the grouping together of small pieces of information through meaning or use. You can even use chunking to better memorise information that appears random as long as you link it together in some way, it’s the process of “hacking” your focused thinking mode and making better use of short term memory. At it’s core, it is the technique of breaking large pieces of information into much smaller pieces. The aim is that you will then be able to recall these smaller chunks of information and link them together in a seamless fashion, when required. Chunking can be used to memorise things like a shopping list or a phone number, but it can also be extremely useful at being able to memorise and enhance your learning!

If you skip back to the focused and diffuse modes of thinking. The focused mode, our short term memory, has very limited space. If we have chunked together pieces of information, we can recall it more easily and without getting bogged down by minute details: we have grasped the key concepts when making our chunk. Chunking allows us to reach into our long term memory (that big storage container) using one of the four slots in the focused filing cabinet and take advantage of existing information. e.g if I have five little chunks, that is five groups of information vs five individual words or ideas.

You form a chunk through repetition and practice. When you first start to learn something new, read broadly about it. What are the main headings in your textbook/paper? How do they relate to one another? What are the key concepts or aims of the lecture? Once you have these, they form the main structure of your chunk, then you can fill in the details. Understanding the broad concepts also means that even if some information is missing in an exam or an interview question, you are still able to understand the main ideas and can link them to other things you may have learned. These are some helpful steps to creating a chunk:

First: You want to provide your undivided attention to the information you want to chunk. No distractions! Turn off that phone!

Second: You want to understand the concept. In maths and science, you are often given worked through examples to aid understanding. However, do not focus too heavily on the example given and try to understand in a broad sense how/why the concept works. Otherwise you will have “illusions of competence”, you understand the problem when given the exact same question, but not if the teacher frames the question in another way. This part can take some time and effort! Maybe watch a video about what you’ve read, listen to a podcast about it, complete a group task based on the topic or find a website with problems to solve that are asked in a different way from the worked examples you have from school.

Third: Gain context of your chunk. Why has this been done this way vs another programming language/equation/subject? By giving your chunk context you will be more confident answering questions on your own, even if they are asked in a different way.

Rinse, wash and repeat. Repetition, as previously mentioned, is best done as spaced repetition. You can’t chunk effectively in one night and expect to be able to recall the information for your exam weeks later. Chunking itself can aid this repetition. Once you have finished one chunk, maybe you start to learn another piece of information and realise it links to the previous chunk of information: therefore refreshing your memory of the first chunk whilst creating the second! Chunks should build upon one another.

In summary:

  • Break big ideas into smaller ones
  • Relate these ideas to each other in a way that is meaningful to you. Maybe you associate a certain image with the heading of a chunk? (this has been shown to be highly effective!)
  • Understand the problem, don’t just memorise the examples given
  • Give Context of the “why” and where your chunk fits into the bigger picture of your subject
  • Repeat : spaced repetition

If you think about it, I have “chunked” these blog posts about “Learning to Learn” …

Cited from  “Learning How to Learn”, Coursera , Medium , Forbes, verywellmind  and lifehacker

Photo 1: Medium: Playing Mind Games with your Memory