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How to Form Chunks and Improve Your Memory as You Learn


In this article, you will learn about how to form chunks when learning. This is a follow-up on the previous article which introduced the idea of chunking. You will also learn how important chunks are for effective learning.

Pause and Think: “How can I chunk this song?”

Imagine you’re learning to play a song on the piano and you plan to present it at a local event. Your presentation is going to require that you sing the song as you play. How can you “chunk” this song in memory so that you can smoothly play and sing without mixing things up?

Learn From Examples But Don’t Stop There

Recall from the previous article that chunking helps you unite scattered bits of information into a meaningful whole and the best chunks are the ones that are so well ingrained, that you don’t even have to consciously think about connecting the neural pattern together which is the whole point of chunking.

Learning any subject or skill is usually done bit by bit. For instance, in sciences and mathematical subjects, when you’re learning a new concept, you’re often given example problems with worked out solutions before being given problems to work out on your own.

This is done because when you’re first trying to understand how to solve a type of problem, it usually feels rather herculean and extremely difficult. You wouldn’t give a two-year old a bucket of water to carry when she can barely lift a cup of water (although some children might shock you like the one in the image below).


Photo: CollegeHumor

When learning something new, it helps to start with a worked out example. You might watch a teacher or lecturer solve a mathematical problem in class before attempting to solve similar problems on your own.

However, it is important to note that the point of seeing an example is to identify the key steps taken and why they are taken, and not just in a “do-as-you-are-told” manner, otherwise you might not be able to figure it out on your own when it’s your turn.

How to Form a Chunk

Learning approaches differ from one field to the other. Some subjects or skills like in sciences and mathematics are more mental while others are more physical such as dancing or playing basketball. However the following steps should still be helpful for whatever you’re trying to chunk.

1. Focus your attention

The first step you might want to take when trying to form a chunk is to focus your attention on the information you’re trying to take in. When learning something new, your brain makes new neural pathways and attempts to connect them to preexisting ones. This is the reason why you might want to avoid multitasking and eliminate all forms of distractions otherwise it will be very difficult for your brain to make any meaningful associations.


2. Understand the Basic Idea

The next step you might want to take is to allow the focused and diffuse modes of thinking take turns in helping you figure out what’s really going on. Understanding means interpreting or perceiving something in the way it was intended. In order to fully understand and chunk a concept or an action, you need to identify the basic ideas, steps and principles underlying the concept or action.

You might be able to create a chunk without really understanding the basics. But, such chunk might end up being useless and unable to fit in with other related things you’re learning.

3. Practice to help you gain mastery and a sense of the big-picture

Just because you’ve understood what’s actually going on doesn’t guarantee that you will be able to remember the concept later or that you can actually perform the action yourself. Practice is necessary for you to strengthen your chunk and make it easier to access when you might need it. 

Also, it is very important to find out the use cases for your chunk—the circumstances surrounding the concept or action you are trying to chunk. Doing this helps you know when your chunk can be used and when it might not be very useful. It’s not helpful to have a tool when you don’t know how to use it.


As you create your chunks, you often have to grasp little bits to form mini-chunks. These then join with other bits to form larger ones. Every once in a while, take a step back to see how your chunks fit into the big picture of what you’re learning, like pieces in a puzzle.


Photo: Shutterstock

So, how might you be able to “chunk” your musical piece in preparation for your presentation? Well, first it would be helpful to get a sense of the parts, steps and patterns. To achieve this, you could listen to the song a couple of times or perhaps watch someone play it. Afterwards, you might deconstruct the song into bits which you can each learn to play to form mini-chunks. Putting these mini-chunks together with adequate practice, it’ll only be a matter of time before you’re ready for your presentation.

Happy Learning!

Recommended Video: The Science of Thinking by Veritasium


What do you think about the ideas shared in this article about how to form chunks? Have you used any of the steps mentioned in the past when you were trying to understand something? Leave your comment below.

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