Study Central: Chunking


Melissa Schmitz, OPINION EDITOR

Chunking is when you take bits of information and link them together in your brain through meaning to create a new logical whole. A chunk is simply a network of neurons that are used to firing together meaning that, with practice, a chunk can be accessed from many different angles. This technique makes it easier to remember the information you’re trying to memorize as well as helping you discern the “big picture”. You absolutely must be focused to do this and it will be most effective if you’re not super stressed, which is another reason why cramming is bad for you: it makes it more difficult to make the neural connections necessary to form solid memories. Gradually creating chunks and relating the new to the old is how experts are made.

So you now know vaguely what a chunk is [it can be hard to describe but, in fact, you probably already know this intuitively, just didn’t know it had a name]. How can you make one, though?

It all starts with undivided attention. This is a tall order for many with the distractions of technology ever-rising, but it is a very important step in the chunking process. The next step might seem extremely obvious, but many people don’t actually do it: close the book and try to solve problems or explain concepts by yourself. One tool you might use for this is the “blank sheet method” where you essentially just take a blank sheet of paper and write down everything you know about a certain topic or question, again, without looking at your book or your notes. When you think you have everything down, check your answers and try to focus on understanding why you got certain things wrong as well as reminding yourself and practicing the pieces you may have forgotten about completely.

I see many people looking at a book and whispering to themselves, “Oh, yeah, I would’ve gotten that question right! Next!” without actually doing the problems. This is a huge mistake because whether you believe it or not, seeing and understanding the solution to a problem doesn’t mean you can solve the problem yourself. This requires practice and repetition of both related problems and non-related problems so you learn when to use or not use certain pieces of knowledge. Context, the how and the when, are key to forming a solid chunk. For example, in physics you have many equations at your disposal; it’s important to practice a wide variety of problems so you can gain that sense of when to use what equation so that you don’t end up like a deer in the headlights on your next exam.

As you continue to master the material and form new chunks, be sure you’re always relating these new chunks back to the old ones. This will strengthen those neural connections further and allow you to more easily grasp the big picture. More explicitly, you need to learn the major concepts first, connect them, and then add in the minor details. Depending on the subject, sometimes the minor details are something you can figure out with the knowledge you have, so you don’t even need to memorize them. It depends on the class, but it’s something to keep in mind. Your neural real estate is a prime property, after all.

To summarize, chunks are best built with focused attention, solid understanding of the material and a great deal of practice. There are no specific steps to creating a chunk, especially because it varies with the type of information you’re trying to memorize, but the strategies I explained in this article should help you get there.

Happy studying!