Chunking: How to Effectively Learn and Retain Important Information

DAVE ANDERSON | 5 MIN READ

Have you ever started a new job and been told learning the role will be like “drinking from a fire hose?” Did you ever pull an all-nighter in college to cram for a test?

If you answered yes to either of those questions, chances are you don’t remember the experience fondly. Attempting to learn a lot of information in a short time is not only unpleasant and stressful. You’re also forcing your brain to do something unnatural. Despite your best efforts, “drinking from a fire hose” or “cramming for a test” are learning processes that don’t work.

Short-term memory is not a computer hard drive. No matter how hard you try, you can’t quickly download a mass of information. You can, however, learn a handful of details on the fly. If you learn the right ones, in the right way, your mind will piece them together so you grasp a major concept.

This is known as chunking—the process of learning small bits of information that combine to form a big picture.

Why is chunking an effective learning process?

In 1956, a Harvard professor named George Miller discovered that our short-term memory can only store between five and nine pieces of information at a time (although, today scientists agree four-to-six pieces of information is more accurate). When a new memory enters the fold, an old one has to go. And it’s not necessarily the most important information that stays.

While a human’s short-term memory is extremely limited and arbitrary, long-term memory is vast and orderly. That’s why you can remember countless profound lessons and moments experienced throughout your life, while also forgetting where you put your keys two minutes ago.

The goal of learning is to move information from your short-term to long-term memory so it can be easily accessed later. And chunking helps you do precisely that. You can’t force a large concept into your long-term memory, no matter how hard you try. But you can use your mental energy to learn it piece-by-piece until the entire concept sticks.

Chunking in action

Think back to when you memorized your social security number. You likely didn’t learn all nine digits one-by-one. You probably didn’t even try because you intuitively knew that wouldn’t work.

Instead, you looked at your card and noticed the good people at the Social Security Administration used dashes to break the number into three chunks. So you learned the first three digits, then the next two, followed by the last four. Even now as your reciting it, (in your head, hopefully) you’re likely doing so in three parts.

How can you make chunking work?

Now that we’ve hammered home the idea of incremental learning, let’s explore what else goes into making chunking work. Especially since taking in an abstract concept is different than memorizing a string of numbers.

Start by looking at the big picture

Even though you’re striving to learn each chunk individually, you should start off by getting an idea of the big idea you want to comprehend. Think about how a musician learns a new song. Before they master each note, they listen to the whole song to get a sense of what they’re working toward.

Give context to chunks

As you learn each chunk, think about what they mean in the grand scheme of things. Understanding why a bit of information matters helps you remember it later when you’re presented with a question or challenge.

Link chunks as you progress

Consider how each chunk builds on or connects with the previous one. If you’re learning how to fix an engine, for example, think about how the different parts work together to make the car run.

Bring chunking to your employee training

Asking your team members to learn by “drinking from a fire hose” or “cramming” is ineffective and makes for a poor employee experience. You want them to come away from training with a complete understanding of what was covered so they can immediately apply it to their work. We’ll leave you with a few tips for using chunking in your organizational training:

  • Start high level – Start with the big picture as you plan your lesson and present it to your employees.
  • Break up core concepts – Work your way down from the big picture, breaking each core concept into a maximum of four consumable chunks.
  • Use one chunk per slide – Assuming your training is presented in PowerPoint format, devote a single slide to each chunk. Then use follow up slides that provide examples and context to the chunk to help your employees retain it.
  • Refine until you get it right – Breaking a complex topic into a limited number of chunks is easier said than done. Fine tune the lesson plan until you have the right number of chunks that each consist of the right amount of detail.

Knowledgeable employees make your organization a success. Especially, when they have the right knowledge. Bring chunking to your employee training and watch as your employees learn the information and processes you need them to know.

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