Use the chunking technique to improve memory, communication & reading
Memory retention is something that humans have struggled with since the beginning of time. If you have experienced getting frustrated during an exam, forgotten talking points at meetings, or had your mind draw a blank on some items on the grocery list, you are not alone. At one point or another, we’ve all been mocked by this elusive luxury we call memory.
However, there are several techniques to improve memory and organize both your personal and professional life. One of the most popular strategies to push the limits of your memory is the chunking technique. In this tutorial, I discuss the core concepts, usage cases and strategies on how to apply the chunking technique for learning and memorizing things.
What is chunking? An Overview
Chunking, as evident from the name, is a learning technique that involves breaking down large pieces of content into smaller chunks that are easier to process and remember.
Chunking is essentially the categorization of similar or connected items into groups that can be scanned or understood faster and retained in memory for longer.
The concept behind chunking, as established by the Harvard Psychologist George A. Miller, is that the human mind can only retain an average of seven pieces of information at a time. Chunking is a way to get around that natural limitation of memory.
Numbers – While chunking may be a novel term to some, it’s something all of us put into practice in our daily lives. The most common example is memorizing phone numbers. None of us can remember a string of random numbers such as 3124497473 unless it is separated into chunks and presented as 312-449-7473.
Words – Similarly, long words with more than seven letters can be learned by breaking them down into shorter words or syllables. Hippopotamus can be better memorized as hip-popo-tamus. Pomegranate is more likely to be retained in memory as pome-gran-ate.
Table – Another great example is the periodic table of elements which is a tabular display of the chemical elements, and you get the idea, organized by type of characteristics or specifications such as atomic number, electron configuration, and chemical properties.
There are three main strategies: Grouping into seizable chunks, finding similar patterns, and organizing by meaning and affiliation. Let’s see below in which areas you can use the chunking technique to achieve better retention, communication and reading performances.
Chunking & Memory
Chunking can play a vital role in enhancing your memory, thus retaining more information for a longer period of time. Below we outline basic principles and how to use them for memorizing information.
Short term and working memory
In order to establish how chunking can help retention, we need to first learn about short-term and working memory. Although sometimes used interchangeably in theory, they’re conceptually different.
Short-term memory is a cognitive system that holds the information, including words, names, sounds, and images for a brief period of time, not more than 20-30 seconds. The number of items retained is also not more than seven. This information either gets filed into long-term memory or lost forever.
Working memory, on the other hand, is referred to as maintenance and manipulation of memory while receiving new information or recalling old ones. In easier words, it is the process of meaningful learning by storing newly acquired data and integrating it with existing knowledge in long-term memory.
Working memory further has two components: visual-spatial and auditory memory. Visual-spatial memory registers the images we see and auditory memory processes the sounds or voices we hear.
How chunking helps
General benefits – The chunking technique is very useful in learning and can improve the limitation of short-term memory while also helping with working memory. Whether you are a student or a teacher, instead of confusing your brain with huge bandwidth of random information, break it into smaller chunks. Classify the similar or connected items.
Chunking is visual – Seeing the easy to remember smaller chunks, the visual-spatial memory part of your working memory will be more receptive and register the information faster. It will also be easier for your working memory to recall any old knowledge already stored in your long-term memory and connect it to the new one.
Better retention – Similarly, your short-term memory with the natural bottleneck of not holding data for more than 20 seconds will also benefit from the strategy of chunking. When you chunk a random grocery list into pieces and group the items according to the categories or aisles of the department store such as frozen food, bakery items, vegetables, and so on, your short-term memory is more likely to retain that information for longer.
2 principles – Reaching the level of full understanding and retention is possible with chunking. To recap, memory can be improved for effective learning by:
- Chunking data into meaningful pieces that help the short-term memory to better retain it.
- Letting those chunks call into use the working memory, which recognizes patterns and integrates new information with old knowledge, resulting in retention.
Chunking in Communication & Business
After you have got the hang of chunking to learn and improve your memory, you can implement this powerful technique in your personal or professional communication as well.
Communication is much more than merely imparting information; it is also the process of making the other person understand your message clearly and concisely. Communication is a soft skill that can transform a follower into a leader. It is essential for both management and leadership roles in organizations.
The problem – From memos and reports to emails and meetings, a lot is going on at an organization. While working in a fast-paced environment, it is especially difficult to process and retain the sludge of information day in and day out. However, the way that information is presented can make a huge difference. You can deliver or lose valuable information.
A solution – Delivering too much too fast hampers the audience’s ability to listen and understand what’s being said. More often than not, simply speaking is not enough. A supporting visual or written document is necessary for people to process and assimilate complex data. When you chunk that data into well-organized groups and define a hierarchy, it becomes logical, easier to understand, and more likely to stay with your team for longer.
Ask yourself. When you read a manual, will your mind process single-step instructions better or elaborate multi-step directions with supporting visuals? Definitely the latter. The same goes for dispensing information to your team effectively.
How the chunking technique helps
Remember to chunk the message you want to communicate before the meeting and define a hierarchy. Group similar information and data together in one chunk, and if necessary or beneficial visualize them
Talk about critical chunks of information first, the bigger heads that you will be further explaining and elaborating. Before jumping to the next thing, encourage your team to give feedback or put forth any inquiries they might have.
Connect chunks – Ensure everyone understands the critical chunks before adding further chunks in detail. Establish a connection between the new chunk and the previous one. This could be through visualizing or by adding internal memos, jokes, or trigger words. Anything the audience would be able to understand or even laugh at.
Repeat the same until you’ve communicated all the information. Don’t forget to hold a Q/A session in the end to clear any lingering ambiguities. It doesn’t mean that you have to repeat a meeting or speech but to focus on summarizing critical information and data chunks.
Chunking & Reading Performance
The brain actively uses working memory while trying to read, concentrate, or follow instructions. It processes the words being read, registers them, and scavenges long-term memory to find meaning and connection. We are able to make sense of the text with our grasp of the language and vocabulary stored in long-term memory.
If a text is chunked into sections or paragraphs, it will not only be easy on the eyes but also help working memory to process it faster and shift it to the long-term storage. Bullet points, columns, images, graphs or well-sized paragraphs are just easier to skim and scan.
When you encounter challenging content of impossible length, it is best to record that information in chunks or even summarize the paragraphs in fewer words. Follow the chunking techniques below to better speed read and understand the content in front of you.
Chunking techniques for reading
- Start by breaking down content into similar units of text. For example, who, what, and why of a particular subject should fall into the intro, whereas further details should follow suit under multiple sub-headings.
- Circle unfamiliar words and scribble down the meaning next to them.
- Underline or highlight critical dates, persons, or keywords. This makes them stand out and help in retention.
- Read aloud multiple times to establish a text-brain connection.
Word chunking – There are other opportunities in reading to use the chunking technique. You can read group words aka chunks of words together in order to understand more in less time. Start with 2-3 words and then improve to 4-5 words at the same time. There are tools to learn how to chunk text. Ron Cole, author of the book “Superreader” provides free training PDFs to learn this type of technique.
Better comprehension – Chunking greatly aids comprehension while reading long texts. Growing up, we all have incorporated chunking into reading one way or another, while subconsciously underlining and highlighting the most relevant material in our books to focus on later during exam preparation.
Tip – However, if you are new to this strategy, it’s important to start small. Ask your teacher to help chunk a text with you or work with a partner. To further improve and retain the information, try rewriting the chunks into your own words. With this practice, it is more likely for the content to be engrained in your mind.
Chunking Technique – 6 Tips To Get Started
Regardless of the kind of content you are working with, chunking helps in enhancing your memory. Whether it is vocabulary, grocery list, or a complex sales presentation, these useful chunking techniques can enhance your memory and boost productivity.
1. Prioritize the information
Prioritizing and structuring the content in your subject of learning is the first step towards successfully harnessing the power of chunking. This can be best achieved by following the inverted pyramid method that presents information in descending order of importance.
For example, while learning about specific software, the most important information, such as its purpose and key features will form the base of the pyramid. The middle part will be occupied by additional facts and supporting details such as set up procedure, business tools, compatibility, and pricing. And finally, useful but non-critical content will house the tip of the pyramid.
This break down of one whole into multiple smaller pieces makes it easier to retain that data in our memory for a longer period of time.
2. Find similarities
While chunking a big block of information into smaller units, look for similarities in items. Do they have something in common? Do they belong to particular groups? Do they serve the same purpose?
For example, the list of all the Nobel Prize-winning people in a particular year is already grouped according to the area of performance. Those with an exemplary contribution to the chemistry field make one group, physics another one, economics another, and so on.
You can use the same technique when chunking. A list of random animals will be easier to remember if you categorize them according to their classes e.g., mammals, reptiles, birds, and so on. You can create your categories, of course. Be creative here.
3. Make links and associations
Associating the information with existing memories is also a neat trick to remember it. For example, Dubrovnik, Split, and Sibenika are cities of Croatia, which are also the filming locations of the famous TV show Game of Thrones and can be forever etched in your memory if you create that mental connection. Similarly, you can associate more pieces of information with something you have experienced or watched.
4. Create and use acronyms
This is the most fun technique to deploy while chunking. If you cannot find a connection or commonality between the items, it’s best to use mnemonics or acronyms for storing that information in memory. The most common example is the mnemonic Roy G. Biv used for memorizing the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Try to make such easy to remember acronyms for the information you want to retain.
5. Incorporate visuals
Images and visuals significantly enhance memory retention. A big block of text is not only hard to skim through, but it is also difficult to memorize. Breaking it down into bullet points and adding supporting images is a great way to imprint it into memory. Even the most boring presentation loaded with interesting visuals will help you remember the context and information better.
6. Practice is the key
Practice and consistency will help you master the process of chunking. Start with the chunking technique to memorize at least five items. Once you are successful, push yourself to increase the number of items over time. Gradually, you will train your mind to shift new information from working memory to the unconscious.
Chunking Technique – Summary
Chunking transforms bulks of information and dull episodes in our lives into a meaningful, interconnected web of data that stands out and remains in our memory for longer.
While chunking can be used to enhance the memory, communication, and learning process alike, adding some handy tricks into the mix further cements the new information in our brain.
Find similarities, make associations, come up with mnemonics or acronyms, keep practicing, and have chunking help you in many areas of life.
Chunking Technique – 6 Steps
- Prioritize the information – Chunk most important data first.
- Find similarities – Group similar items together.
- Make links and associations – Add exisitng information to chunks.
- Create and use acronyms – Visualize chunks yu cannot remember easily.
- Incorporate visuals – Add viusali media to deliver info chunks effectivly.
- Practice is the key – Start small and grow bigger. Use it daily.
Do you use the chunking technique to enhance your learning strategies? Do you use chunking to remember TO DO or shopping lists? Let us know in the comments below.
Web resources to learn the chunking technique
Of course, while I use chunking every day to understand and remember information effectively, the principles are not new and I have not developed them. Below are more resources you can use to dig deeper into the topic.
- Very Well Mind – Chunking
- LifeHacker – Memory and Chunking
- Tony Robbins – Chunking and productivity performance
- Noop – Chunking and productivity
- Dashe – Power of chunking
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