Chunking is a memorization technique. It refers to grouping similar bits of information together to make them easier to remember.
A simple everyday example of chunking is the digits on a credit card: they are grouped into sets of four (or a single ‘chunk’) to make them easier to memorize. Instead of remembering 16 individual digits, you’d need to remember 4 groups of 4-digit numbers.
This allows you to store, remember, and recall more information because it’s more effectively sorted in the mind.
Chunking in education can also refer to the chunking of information so it is learned in manageable bites. A teacher will complete one quarter of the learning materials in a ‘chunk’ then allow the students to take a break before moving on.
This prevents cognitive overload and breaks complex concepts down into manageable and simpler parts.
Chunking Definition in Psychology
A simple, clear definitions of chunking in psychology is:
“Chunking is the process whereby the brain perceives several items of information as a single item.”(Oram & Wilson, 2010)
There are several advanced types of chunking (Sousa, 2003), such as pattern and categorical:
- Pattern chunking involves remembering patterns in order to retain groups of information. This may take place, for example, when creating acronyms: you can remember the ROYGBIV pattern easier than trying to simply recite all the colors every time. Similarly, you might remember a series of patterns of chords in a musical piece to help you remember how to play the piece.
- Categorical chunking involves placing things into categories in order to remember them more easily. This coheres with the constructivist idea that things that are connected somehow are easier to recall. An example of categorical chunking is the practice of remembering categories of animals (albatrosses, puffins, and seagull are all species of sea birds; kangaroos and wombats are species of marsupials). If trying to remember a long sequence of animals, you might categorize them so you remember there are three sea birds in the sequence and two marsupials, so you’ve created two chunks to remember instead of five separate animals.
Chunking Examples (Psychology)
- Chunking Phone Numbers: The hyphen that appears in a phone number helps people group the 7 digits into 2 chunks.
- Categorizing Clothing Accessories: It’s easier to remember fashion accessories in their respective categories (those that are carried and those that are worn) than in any random order.
- Credit Card Numbers: Credit card numbers are grouped into 4 chunks of 4 digits each to make them easier to remember.
- Memorizing Events and Dates: When studying for a history test, it is better to group key figures and events that are related. For example, you might chunk all events in a 10-year period in your mind into an ‘era’.
- Categorizing Expenses in your Accounts: It is easier to remember the details of a budget by organizing items in terms of equipment, personnel, and training.
- Learning a Guitar Tune: It helps to group sequential notes that form meaningful parts of a song when learning how to play a new tune on guitar.
- Organizing a Shopping List: Making a long shopping list will be easier to remember if individual items are placed in categories such as dairy, fruits and veggies, meats, bakery and snacks.
- Remembering Distant Relatives’ Names: If you are going to attend a large family reunion with people you hardly know, try to memorize names based on family groupings instead of age ranges (or those you like and those you don’t).
- A Server’s Memorization Tactics: A server who needs to remember a large table’s orders decides to chunk the order into drinks, appetizers, meals and desserts. This helps her memorize all the peoples’ orders.
- Phonics: When learning to read, children memorize repeated chunks of letters, such as ‘ing’, ‘ish’ and ‘pre’. This makes it easier for them to sound out words in parts rather than every single letter.
- Acronyms: An acronym creates a chunk of ideas into a memorable and catchy phrase. Instead of remembering “Federal Bureau of Investigation”, you just have to remember “FBI”, and this will job your memory and you can unpack it into the full phrase from there.
- Writing in Paragraphs: Each paragraph in a written text is a chunk. The paragraph represents one coherent idea or concept, and the paragraph ends once that coherent idea is complete.
- Scanning Subheadings: When reading textbooks, we will scan through subheadings with the awareness that each subheading is a signpost that you’re moving onto a new chunk of information.
- Literature Reviews: An academic literature review chunks concepts by similarity. A good literature review will identify themes in a topic. Each theme is a chunk, demonstrating a cluster of people who share a theory or line of thought on the topic.
- Language Learning: In order to memorize new words in a new language, students are often taught the words in chunks, such as being taught all the farmyard animals one week, then all the colors of the rainbow the next week. This is an application of neuroeducation, which refers to the blending of neuroscience with learning theory.
Origins of Chunking
The concept of chunking was first discovered in research on chess players by de Groot (1946). He found that Master chess players perceived and stored the positions of pieces as “large complexes.”
A seminal paper by Miller (1956) elaborated on how “bits” of information are grouped together to form chunks and utilized in working memory.
“Since the memory span is a fixed number of chunks, we can increase the number of bits of information that it contains simply by building larger and larger chunks, each chunk containing more information than before” (p. 93).
According to Miller, the human brain can hold about seven items (plus or minus two) in short-term memory. However, if you can group several bits of information into a chunk, that counts as one ‘bit’ of the seven.
So, the average mind could hold (in short-term memory):
4, 7, 1, 7, 6, 9, 2
47, 17, 69, 24, 23, 74, 19
By chunking digits into pairs, the short-term memory can end up remembering those 14 digits instead of just seven!
Case Studies and Research Basis
1. Chunking Using Acronyms
One of the most common chunking strategies is to use an acronym. By using an abbreviation, remembering a name or long list is much easier.
Probably the most famous example of an acronym is ROYGBIV. Nearly every primary school student in North America is taught to use this acronym to remember the colors of the rainbow.
A lot of people might not know this, but the word “scuba” is actually an acronym that stands for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.”
Acronyms are actually all around us and used to remember everything from government department names to the order in the periodic table.
2. Chunking and Playing Piano
Chunking not only applies to working memory of concepts and bits of information, but it also applies to procedural memory as well. It is possible to chunk sequential strokes when playing the piano that represent specific parts of a song.
When taking piano lessons, teachers will often instruct their students to master different sections of the song separately.
It would be very ineffective to learn how to play an entire song sequentially, from beginning to end. Instead, it is better to create chunks of the song based on notes that are related in some meaningful way.
The chunks can be based on the verse, rhythmic grouping, melodic contour, or measures.
As each chunk is mastered, eventually they are strung together to form the whole song.
3. Chunking to Facilitate Website Content Processing
How many times have you clicked on a link to a website and then been overwhelmed with a sea of endless text? When designing a web page, this is a sure-fire way to lose an audience. Internet users today don’t want to get bogged down reading a novel in the form of a website.
Designers today integrate chunking principles to make processing website content easy and efficient. Here are a few tricks of the trade:
- Chunking text: Writing short paragraphs of 2 or 3 straightforward sentences. Nothing with lots of commas. Paragraphs have plenty of white space in between. This helps the reader chunk the information in each paragraph.
- Support scanning: Create headings and subheadings in bold or colored text that helps the reading distinguish it from the paragraph. The contrast in color, size, or boldness helps the reader scan the page and locate what they want.
- Bulleted lists: Nothing says short and to the point better than a bulleted list. Using phrases instead of complete sentences, in addition to italics and bold font, really helps steer the reader’s eye to the key points.
4. Chunking as a Reading Strategy
Young learners often struggle with learning how to read. Even when they have phonics mastered, stringing the phonemes together to form a whole word still takes practice. Most teachers begin with simple CVC words (cat, dog) and build from there.
However, as children encounter multisyllable words they can become frustrated. Some students will resist trying to learn how to read these words because they lack confidence. A string of 7 or 8 letters can be very intimidating for a 6-year-old.
This is where chunking can help. The technique involves explaining to students that when they encounter a long word, they should not try to read it all at once. Instead, students are instructed to find a part of the word they already know.
Teachers can demonstrate this technique by using compound words such as snow/man, rain/coat, or butter/fly.
By covering one part of the word, asking the child to read it, and then revealing the next part, students learn to segment longer words into smaller chunks.
5. Chunking and Chess
Chess is a wonderfully complex game of strategy. Chess masters have been studied by cognitive psychologists because of their incredible long-term memories and nimble analytical skills. Because chess is such an intense exercise in cognitive processes, it produces numerous neurological benefits.
As it turns out, master chess players are experts at chunking.
Research by de Groot (1946; 1978) found that master-level players were better able to memorize the board than lower-level players.
But only if the pieces were arranged in a game-relevant manner.
Chase and Simon (1973) explain why:
“…their superior performance with “meaningful’ positions must lie in their ability to perceive structure in such positions and encode them in chunks. Specifically, if a chess master can remember the location of 20 or more pieces on the board, but has space for only about five chunks in working memory, then each chunk must be composed of four or five pieces, organized in a single relational structure” (p. 56).
Chunking is a way to make a lot of information easier to remember. For example, instead of trying to remember each color in the rainbow, using an acronym will make it much easier.
Chunking was first identified by studying chess players and their incredible memory for the sequence of moves in a game. It was discovered that they intuitively use a chunking strategy that involves memorizing blocks of related moves.
Chunking also applies to learning how to play a song on the piano or other musical instruments. Website designers utilize chunking to organize website content to help the audience find content. Teachers even use it as a strategy to help young students learn how to read long words.
Bilalic, M., McLeod, P., & Gobet, F. (2008). Expert and novice problem solving strategies in chess: Sixty years of citing de Groot (1946). Thinking and Reasoning, 14(4), 395-408. https://doi.org/10.1080/13546780802265547
Chase, W. G., & Simon, H. A. (1973). Perception in chess. Cognitive Psychology, 4, 55-81.
de Groot, A. D. (1978). Thought and choice in chess (2nd English ed.; 1st Dutch ed. in 1946). The Hague: Mouton Publishers.
Gobet, F. (2018). The psychology of chess. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315441887
Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63(2), 81–97.
Oram, A., & Wilson, G. (2010). Making software: What really works, and why we believe it. New York: O’Reilly Media, Inc.
Sousa, D. A. (2003). The leadership brain: How to lead today’s schools more effectively. New York: Corwin Press.
Thalmann, M., Souza, A. S., & Oberauer, K. (2019). How does chunking help working memory? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 45(1), 37-55. https://doi.org/10.1037/xlm0000578