William Wadsworth

by William Wadsworth

The Cambridge-educated memory psychologist & study coach on a mission to help YOU ace your exams. Helping half a million students in 175+ countries every year to study smarter, not harder. Supercharge your studies today with our time-saving, grade-boosting “genius” study tips sheet.

For most of us, our memories have their limits!

Chunking helps you overcome the natural limitations of your memory, and is therefore a very powerful trick for helping you to learn information and get it into memory.

Read on to discover what chunking is, and to explore the evidence for just how much chunking can improve your capacity to remember things.

I’ll share a wealth of handy “trade secrets” for applying this theory to your studies, a treasure-trove of techniques you can use to make memorisation far easier, using learning by chunking.

Some you may be familiar with.

Some will almost certainly be new.

All will make your life far easier if you’ve got a lot of information to learn for tests and exams.

Let’s do this:

What is chunking

So what exactly is “chunking”?

Come to that, what is a “chunk”?

We need to go back to George Miller and his “Magic Number Seven”.

Miller’s “Magic Seven”

“I have been persecuted by an integer [a whole number]”, George Miller wrote, “for seven years this number has followed me round”.

George was a psychologist, and he was referring to the number “seven” which seemed to come up remarkably often as about the limit of the number of discrete pieces of information we can remember at any one time.

The information might be words, numbers, locations: it didn’t really matter – most people can remember at least 5-6 “units of information”, and no more than 8-9 “units”, with seven being the most commonly-observed number people could handle.

So much so, it’s often known as “Miller’s Magic Number Seven (plus or minus two)”.

If “seven” is the limitation, then chunking is the hack to get round it.

Chunking definition and demonstration

The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines “chunking” as “the process by which the mind divides large pieces of information into smaller units (chunks) that are easier to retain in short-term memory… one item in memory can stand for multiple other items”.

Each individual “chunk” is a group of information units – words, numbers, phrases – that are strongly related to each another, but fairly unrelated to information in other groups (ref.) So “chunking” describes the process of grouping related bits of information together, effectively reducing the number of “things” you need to remember.

If you’re technologically minded, you can think of chunking as being a little like a compression algorithm in your computer or smartphone that allows large image or video files to take up less space on your device’s memory.

This is best understood with an example.

Give yourself five seconds to look at the letters below, then look away and try and remember as many of the 18 letters as you can.

What is chunking - demonstration, 18 letters before chunking
What is chunking – try and remember these letters

Not easy.

Let’s try again:

Below are the same letters, but with the order reversed, and grouped to make meaningful 3-letter strings.

You could take it a step further if you want, and categorise into three groups, by theme.

What is chunking - demonstration, 18 letters after chunking into 6 groups of meaningful 3-letter-acronyms, then grouping again down to just 3 categories
What is chunking – much easier to remember 3 categories than 18 letters

So rather than 18 separate pieces of information – 18 letters – you’ve reduced it down to just 3 concepts: animals, companies, alphabet. That’s much easier to remember!

The power of chunking

Scientists have demonstrated how chunking helps facilitate faster learning and easier memorisation in a wide range of situations:

There is also good evidence that our sensory systems automatically “chunk” incoming sounds and sights to help you process the world faster and more easily, without you giving it a second thought.

Chess players seem to “chunk” the positions of pieces on the board into common patterns, allowing them to process what’s happening on the board more easily than if they had to process the position of each piece individually.

You’ve probably been using chunking for years without realising it, in order to remember your phone number.

I have the phone number for my childhood home etched into my memory as “09982-330-508”, grouping those 11 digits into groups of five, three and three. (I’ve changed a few of the numbers to protect the privacy of whoever lives in that house now).

But if you gave me that same set of numbers with different grouping – e.g. “09-9823-305-08” – I’d have real problems recognising whether that really was my number or not!

How do you group the digits in your phone number?

Try grouping the digits differently, speak it out loud and see how quickly your familiar number can start to feel alien. That’s the power of chunking.

Chunking memory techniques

So chunking more than just an abstract psychological principle, it has powerful practical applications, particularly for students trying to get information into memory for tests and exams.

In the examples below, I’ll share some “trade secrets” for simplifying complex information to learn it far more easily.

These techniques are united by using grouping and patterns to reduce the number of separate items you need to commit to memory, which is what chunking is all about.

1.     First letters (“acronyms”)

A popular way to use chunking for improved memory is by taking the first letters of a set of words you want to learn, and making another word from those letters: an “acronym”.

If you’ve ever had to learn the Great Lakes of North America, you may have taken the first letters of each lake –

  • Huron
  • Ontario
  • Michigan
  • Erie
  • Superior

– and spelt the word “HOMES”.

This is a form of chunking because you’ve simplified five separate items down to just one: though you still need to make sure you can remember what each letter stands for.

Here’s another example of this in action, with some slightly more complex information that will be familiar to students of business or finance:

Chunking memory techniques: acronyms
Chunking memory techniques: acronyms

An acronym is more easily remembered if it’s a real word (like “homes”), but can still be helpful if it’s a pronounceable nonsense word (e.g. “R GON VFIT”). You can always add an extra letter or two in your head to improve pronounceability and perhaps incorporate a little meaning – e.g. “aRe GOiN’ V. FIT”, sounds a little like you’re embarking on a rigorous new exercise regime.

2.     Made up phrases (“acrostics”)

The second technique uses phrases: “acrostics”.

An “acrostic” is a bit like an acronym in that it takes the first letters of the words you’re trying to remember, but rather than make a single word from the first letters, you assign each letter a new word to make a memorable phrase.

For the Great Lakes, rather than “homes” (an acronym), you could make a phrase from the first letters, like “Hovering On My Extreme Surfboard”.

This particular acrostic has the advantages of being slightly water-related, in keeping with the “lakes” theme, and also suggests a crazy, and therefore memorable, image of a floating surfboard.

For instance, you may have come across the acrostic “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally”, for remembering the order of operations in math(s): Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction.

For a crazier mental image, try “Please Email My Dad A Shark” (credit to Randall Munroe for that one).

If you’re trying to come up with an acrostic yourself, there are free tools available to help, like this one.

Given the choice, I’d generally go for an acronym over an acrostic – they’re much easier to “decode”, requiring only two steps rather than three:

Chunking memory techniques: acronyms vs acrostics. Acronyms are generally easier to use.
Chunking memory techniques: acronyms vs acrostics

3.     Chunking lists using associated concepts

The third strategy is all about making lists easier to remember. Any time I’ve got a list that’s got more than about five items in it, I look for opportunities to simplify through chunking.

If you’re going shopping, much easier to remember two things (“pancakes and burritos”) than twelve (flour, eggs, milk, syrup, lemon, tortillas, chicken breast, rice, peppers, avocado, lettuce, rice). Sure, you need to know the ingredients for each recipe: you might already know that, but even if you don’t, chances are that adding a little structure to your shopping list by grouping related items together will make it much easier to remember.

You can look for all kinds of associations, depending on your level of prior knowledge, and how much meaning items on the list have for you.

See the figure below for some inspiration. Hopefully there’s a way of grouping which adds meaning (as in examples #1 and #2 below), but if you really have to, you can always fall back on how linguistic similarities (example #3 below).

Chunking memory tricks: examples of associated meanings for learning EU countries. Grouping by geography, by type of language spoken, or by word similarities.
Chunking memory tricks: examples of associated meanings for learning EU countries

This whole example is full of mini-examples of how to do learning by chunking effectively. Say you’ve decided to go for example #1, grouping by geography. You’ll need to make sure you can remember what your category headings are, and the number of items under each category heading.

Chunking can help us out on both counts:

  • For the different categories, how about an acrostic: “Never Eat Shredded Wheat Cereal” for “Northern Eastern Southern Western Central”.
  • For the number of items in each category, maybe you can remember the string of numbers in order: “33443344”. Make it easier by adding some grouping, “phone number” style, e.g. “33-44-33-444”. Much better.

Same idea for the language groups example: the acronym of the first letters makes a pronounceable word “AHN-BIGS” – and the numbers make an ascending sequence 1234567.

4.     Chunking to learn related numbers

One final trick if you have a lot of numbers to remember.

This works a treat for dates in history, for example, provided you’re reasonably comfortable with basic arithmetic.

If you’ve got a long list of dates to learn, the first step, as before, is to group them by related concepts. Maybe 1776, 1781 and 1788 are the key dates of battles in a notable war: learn those as a group.

Instead of learning each date individually, you might find it easier to remember how they are related. In the example below, rather than learning 12 digits’ worth of information, you can reduce the work you need to do by just remembering the first date (1776 – 4 digits) and two further digits (5 and 7) for the year intervals between the dates.

Learning by chunking: memorising numbers and dates by looking for mathematical patterns
Learning by chunking: numbers and dates

Look for patterns to remember strings of dates more easily

To give you some other ideas for how this can work in practice, the two dates often stated for the fall of the Roman Empire are 476, when Ancient Rome (in Italy) and the Western Roman Empire was defeated by the Goths, and 1453, when Constantinople and the Roman Empire in the East fell to the Ottoman Empire.

It probably doesn’t help much to learn the difference between the two dates (977 in this case). Better, perhaps to look for other patterns.

  • These dates are nicely separated by approximately 1,000 years – so we know the first digits for each date should be “4” and “14”, respectively.
  • You could also remember that the final digit for 1453 is half the value of the final digit in 476.
  • Which just leaves the “5” in 1453 and the “7” in 476 to remember – perhaps remembering them as a pair is useful, with a difference of two between them.

You can even use patterns to remember a single number

Let’s go back to 1453 to demonstrate this in action:

  • It may help to notice that the first three digits are a sum: 1+4 = 5. So if you can remember it’s in the 1400s, you’ll easily be able to get the “5” by adding the “1” and the “4”.
  • Maybe you can remember the “3” from the 1 and 4 too: 4 minus 1 = 3.

The human brain is brilliant at pattern-finding.

Use this to your advantage to turn bland strings of digits into something meaningful by looking for the links and associations between them, cutting down the number of separate digits you need to recall individually.

Learning by chunking

So how to incorporate chunking into your studying?

On its own, chunking isn’t really a stand-alone study technique – in other words, you can’t go home tonight and get an hour’s quality chunking done!

See it more as a useful addition to your toolkit of “how to learn” strategies, and deploy it whenever you see opportunities to simplify complex information, to make it easier to remember.

One word of caution, though: watch out for times when your chunking strategy “gets in the way” of learning.

If the chunking you’re using is particularly complex or elaborate, you might find you’re making life harder for yourself, it might actually be easier to strip it away and just learn the underlying information.

For example, I mentioned a strategy to “chunk” related dates: some people (me included) find it relatively straightforward to see patterns in numbers.

But if you’re very under-confident in math(s) and find adding and subtracting a real struggle, you might prefer just learn the dates separately rather than worrying about how they are mathematically related.

Retrieval practice and spacing

Whether you’re using chunking or not, any good study routine should be grounded in retrieval practice – an extremely powerful technique for studying by practising remembering information – while spacing out your work by revisiting a topic on several different days, rather than just cramming all your time on that topic on a single day.

Chunking works very nicely with retrieval practice and spaced learning: once you’ve decided how you’re going to chunk the information, practise remembering that information using your chunking strategy (retrieval practice) on several different days (spaced learning) separated by time intervals.

You’ll often feel like you’re remembering in two stages.

  • Step 1 is remembering the “big picture”: going back to the “countries of the European Union” example, that would be remembering the categories (e.g. “AHN-BIGS” in our language groups example) and the numbers in each category (1234567).
  • Step 2 is remembering the details: the individual countries under each heading.

Be sure to practise both steps, and diagnose which parts of the recall process you find hardest.

Perhaps you have problems with Step 1 (remembering the categories themselves) or maybe you struggle more with Step 2, such as having issues remembering all 7 “Slavic” countries. Focus your efforts on the areas you struggle most with, and look for opportunities to group and simplify further if necessary.

You might find it’s tough to remember the information accurately the first time you leave a time interval of a few days before attempting retrieval practice – even if you’re using chunking.

Don’t worry: that’s simply because of the nature of the “forgetting curve”, and it’s why spaced learning is such a good idea. Take a moment to refresh your memory of the information, and try and remember it again. Repeat until it starts to stick, and you can reliably remember it after you haven’t looked at it for a few days.

Have fun with your chunking strategies and get creative: good luck!

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