Chunking Information

By far, my favorite unit of study in my AP Psychology class is cognition. I love instructing on the many different aspects of memory (encoding, storage, retrieval, short-term/working memory, long-term memory, et cetera) and providing students with different strategies for enhancing their studying to retain more information. It is so cool to be able to tell students why spaced practice is a much more effective learning strategy than cramming for an assessment…and to have these types of conversations be part of my curriculum is a huge bonus.

Along these lines, there are three strategies included in my discussion with students aimed at giving them a few simple ‘tricks’ to retain more information. They’re quite simple, and they’ve probably heard of them before, but they are so woefully utilized. I think this may be due, in part, to their simplicity. Unfortunately, I believe that we’ve somewhat trained our students (and teachers) that the more complicated a new strategy is for learning or the more steps there are in an assignment, the better it is for learning. I often find this to be incorrect. Usually, what happens is the material to be learned is lost amongst a deluge of other information that is important for that particular assignment, but not for the overall understanding of the subject matter.* Don’t underestimate simple. Simple is good.

One information processing strategy that is very useful is chunking of information; breaking down a large swath of material into smaller, more easily digestible bits of information. This is usually mentioned along with a discussion of the capacity of short-term (AP Psychology focuses on George Miller’s 7 + or – 2). There’s a simple demonstration of short-term memory’s capacity, which nicely transitions into a discussion of chunkings benefit for learning. The demonstration goes something like this:

  1. Read a list of random digits out loud for students, beginning with 4 digits. Be sure to take care not to read them out with any obvious inflection and space the number about one second apart.
  2. After you’ve read the list, students should copy down the digits to the best of their ability.
  3. Read out the four digits again and see who got it wrong/right.

Continue these steps for five digits, then six, seven, eight, nine, and ten. Without fail, the more digits required to retain in short-term memory, the more errors students will make. This also highlights how fleeting information is in short-term memory when it is not rehearsed, increasing its ability to be stored in long-term memory.

When the demonstration gets to about eight digits, students may begin audibly chatting about how difficult this is and some may even stop participating out of frustration. Those that are maybe more inclined to be competitive will continue on and one or two may even get all of the digits written down correctly when nine and ten digits are recited by the teacher. However, a vast majority will not successfully complete this task. It is just asking too much of our short-term memory.

Now to introduce chunking.

I tell the students that I want to try one more set of ten digits and I promise they will be more successful if they give quality effort. At this point, I read off the school’s phone number. Instead of reading the digits off individually at a pace of about one digit per second, I read it much more “naturally”, like we normally speak phone numbers. At least, in the US, this means three chunks of information: 256-534-6830 (no, that’s not actually my school’s phone number. Somewhat magically, students are now able to remember ten different digits much more successfully. And I can almost see the thirty small light bulbs turn on above their heads in the classroom. They get it…but they’re not sure why, yet.

On the one hand, it’s clearly still ten digits to remember. On the other, the information has been chunked and the brain no longer processes the numbers as ten distinct bits of information to remember, but three or four chunks of information. So, short-term memory is now taxed much less and the ability to retain the material is much greater.

Now, how does this translate to the much bigger picture of retaining actual subject matter and not just random numbers?

I’m glad you asked.

I encourage students to look at their material to be learned and compare/contrast among the information. What similarities and/or differences do they notice? What categories do they notice? How can they chunk this material into smaller, meaningful bits along these lines? All of these questions are important to consider when chunking.

Not only are they experiencing the benefits on short-term memory by chunking the material, but they are also processing the information on a deeper level. This can also increase the possibility information will be retained. Instead of possibly seeing the different bits of information as singular facts, they are made to consider how the subject matter relates (For more on this topic, I encourage a read of this post).

So chunking can be quite effective and efficient for retention and learning. It also facilities a very healthy study habit for students and can be very widely applied across different grade levels and subjects. It’s a winner of a strategy.

How can you apply chunking in your classroom?

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