Chunk it

Chunk it! How we learn and understand better

Information tidbits help to understand the big picture

Sometimes we study for a whole day and in the end we don’t know anything. The learning method is just not right. Did you know we can process and remember information particularly well if we take it in small bites? This also works digitally.

How do you remember a telephone number? Even as children, we follow a certain way of remembering telephone numbers. In case we had to call our parents, we were taught a way of speaking that made it easier for us to remember the sequence of numbers. The number is divided into small units, similar to verses in a poem. We go from unit to unit in a kind of chant until the number is completed. Try it out!

This division into units is also found in telephone directories. The large units represent country code, area code, house connection. Depending on the number of digits, these units can be divided again, into packs of two or three. (I prefer to recite telephone numbers in packs of two, don’t you?).

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Miller’s Law

By breaking things down into small units of information, we (unconsciously) follow a rule: Miller’s Law. As early as 1956, the US psychologist George A. Miller recognised that a person can simultaneously hold only 7 +/- 2 units of information, so-called chunks, in short-term memory. In cognitive psychology, chunking is understood as a process in which a totality of information is broken down into its components and regrouped according to certain criteria. The result is that we can hold more units of information in our short-term memory (nowadays, we speak of working memory).

Take vocabulary lists, for example: we can group vocabulary by verbs, nouns or adjectives. Or we can arrange them according to topics, word length or even word origins. Whatever categories are obvious to us. By assigning them, we can remember the individual vocabulary better – as a small part of a whole.

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Richard H. Lindley found that it is even easier to learn and recall things when the groupings and categories have a meaning to us. In this case, we use available information from our long-term memory to learn new things. This means that we learn even better when we group the information units ourselves – and are then able to absorb even more chunks. Because of this, we know that chunking is also suitable for long-term memory.

Information particles need context

It seems counterintuitive to chunk information – but it increases focus, leads to faster processing, and ultimately to better comprehension. That’s why Miller’s Law can also be used as a learning technique for complex contexts: We find it hard to take in the big picture at once, but each piece of information can be seen in larger and smaller chunks. Moreover: chunks need context. Without seeing the big picture, learning is futile. That is why it is advisable to give an overview of the topic at the beginning.

Let’s imagine that our memory is a bottle. The wide belly of the bottle, that is our long-term memory. That’s where information should end up in the best case scenario. To get there, it has to pass through the neck of the bottle, our working memory. However, the working memory has a lower storage capacity than the long-term memory – not every piece of information automatically moves on. With a large amount of knowledge material, this can take time – or information can get lost along the way. Information that can be linked to existing knowledge in the bottle belly flows more quickly from working memory to long-term memory.

Cognitive Load Theory also deals with these limitations of our minds. The theory assumes that learning is associated with a certain load. Depending on the amount of information, the load is small or big. If our mind is overloaded, all the information must first be processed before we can continue learning. Anyone who studies particularly hard just before an exam knows the feeling: at some point, nothing more can be added.

Chunking expands the working memory!

The good news: we can train how many units of information we can hold! Through chunking, we can manipulate and expand our working memory, argues neuroscientist Daniel Bor of Cambridge University. And he proved it too, with a 20-month experiment and a student: When the man started training, he could only remember seven numbers of a sequence – exactly as Miller’s Law describes. By the end of the experiment, he could remember an 80-number sequence!

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And why? Well, the participant was also a runner. So… he memorised the numbers within the sequence as running times – in other words, he used a familiar category from his long-term memory. Then he combined the running times into a kind of “superstructure”, and grouped them again. Interestingly, he never used more than a handful of these grouped superstructures – following Miller’s Law. In the end, he was able to remember information units with a maximum of 24 digits, but only a few of those big units, of course.

Chunks for the big picture

We can either break down the big picture into specific units of information (“chunking down”), or build up a bigger picture starting from details (“chunking up”). Depending on which perspective we choose, units of information need to be reorganised. This requires logic and structure. At the same time, there is the question of the level of detail of the information units. The units should be in-depth enough – but not in such a way that the context or the learner’s attention is lost. If the topic is still unknown to the learner, the chunks should contain less detailed information.

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Related techniques: Micro-learning and segmented learning

There are also learning techniques where the small chunks of information are deliberately not combined into a big whole. At least not for the time being. So-called micro-learning is about acquiring knowledge situationally in just a few minutes. A learning unit should not last longer than five minutes. The idea behind this is that nowadays we have very little time to educate ourselves in everyday life. So we divide the path of knowledge into small stages, going step by step. If we learn regularly in short units, the cognitive load is reduced, the stress level decreases – motivation and learning success, on the other hand, increase.

In micro-learning, morsels of information are administered in small explanatory videos, mini-podcasts, graphic gifs, tweets or interactive games. This makes them predestined for flexible learning in between – and on the side. Because of their brevity, micro-learning is ideal for the way to school or university, or for the break.

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What micro-learning is not: simply dividing a long training or chapter into 5-minute units. That would be more in line with the Segmenting Principle: American educational psychologist Richard E. Mayer argues that we learn better when we divide complex lessons into different sections. For example, when we learn about the blood circulation, it is easier to start with the individual components: the pulmonary circulation, the systemic circulation, deoxygenated blood and rich blood. This way our “working memory” is not overloaded with too much information.

Attention: Competition of information

In the digital context, chunking seems to have become even more important in recent years: We are constantly confronted with information, different things require and compete for our attention. At the same time, our attention span is only about 8 seconds, according to a 2015 study funded by Microsoft, which means that our attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish – which can focus on something for a whole nine seconds. In 2000, our attention span was said to be 12 seconds. The fact that our attention span has decreased is also noticeable in everyday life. If you watch an old film – it should be at least from the 90s – some scenes will seem incredibly long, almost unpleasant. That’s because fewer cuts were made, the shot was left longer. Today, the eye and the brain are used to fast cuts.

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The reason for our reduced attention: we own several internet-enabled devices, scroll through various news feeds day after day, hour after hour – and don’t even know where to look first. We end up where the information and its presentation appeal to us. Information chunks fit into this environment because they can be grasped, processed and understood more quickly.

Tips for better attention

But here, too, we have good news: we can train our attention, i.e. prolong it. Because… our speed of thought, our ability to focus, select and decide, also depends on our working memory.

If you want to focus your thinking, you should first minimise external stimuli. So: turn off the radio, turn off the mobile phone, and also close social network pages in the browser. This relieves the working memory and allows it to concentrate on the essentials.

And then it’s a matter of following something attentively: chess is good because moves are planned in advance. Other researchers recommend meditating, playing music or reading. When reading, you can increase your attention by marking certain words, for example.

No matter what you choose: Regular practice and regular breaks are crucial.

Digital chunking

Nonetheless: information chunks are up to us and our working memory, even digitally. Besides content, the presentation of information is also important: short paragraphs, headings for new chunks, pictures and graphics for visual support. Bullets in lists or step-by-step instructions also follow the chunking principle.

The New York Times uses the chunking principle in complex multimedia reports and documentaries, for example in this feature on Easter Island. To introduce the project, individual sentences, short sections, are placed on the screen all by themselves. By scrolling, the reader gets to a new unit of information: the topic builds up. This equalises the content, the page becomes longer. But that doesn’t matter: the fewer elements, concepts and information have to be absorbed at once, the better the user can focus.

The point is to create meaningful, visually distinguishable units of content. However, chunking should not be used as an argument for improved readability or clear page design – but as an argument to improve the processing of information.

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Miller’s Law is often misunderstood: The fact that we can only remember 7+/-2 things does not mean that there should also be only that many chapters, menu items, or slides in a presentation overall. After all, menus and chapter overviews can be viewed at any time. Instead, it is about what (and how many) categories and subcategories, units and subunits information is divided into in order to understand it and put it together. So we could divide information into seven categories, which differentiate into sub-categories, which in turn split into sub-units for our information. We should look for ways to relate the units of information to each other in a meaningful way. What do these elements have in common? How are the chunks related?

Yes, knowledge becomes more fragmented. But it also makes it clearer and easier to remember.


Cover photo: by Mae Mu on Unsplash