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The Power of Chunking: Meaningful Groups and the Memory Palace

Mon May 27, 2019 at 07:30 AM

We often seek the limits of our memories, from how many names and numbers we can hold in our heads to how far back our memories can reach. We marvel at how much some students can hold in their minds. At other times, we might wonder how our students could forget the point we have covered multiple times. While we are right to reject the notion that rote memorization is the goal of learning, recall is an important skill for performing higher levels of thinking. So, how do we get the most out of our memory? Consider the challenge below: recall 13 letters.

Which group of letters is easiest to remember?




Each of the three groups holds the same letters, but most English language speakers would agree that these groups get increasingly easier to remember based on how the letters are arranged and spaced. This is the power of chunking: if we know enough about a knowledge area, such as the English language, to know how concepts are typically grouped and how those groups relate to one another, we can recall an astounding amount of information. With no chunking system in place, we could hardly function. While 13 randomly arranged letters would be very difficult to memorize in one minute, literate English speakers could easily memorize the letters when arranged to make two words. They could memorize 100 letters in a minute--as long as the letters formed words whose meaning fit together.

Build a Memory Palace

One popular chunking strategy is the Memory Palace, which involves organizing concepts one wants to recall by mentally visualizing a palace with many floors, rooms, and closets--even drawers!--in which to place each concept. This visualization gives someone a limitless capacity to recall a vast array of memories. Students can use such a strategy to memorize vocabulary, historical dates, formulas, and more.

What does this mean for students? 

If students are very new to a content area, they start with a very limited capacity to chunk information presented to them in a lecture or textbook. They might be able to do some chunking, such as the progress made from the first group of letters to the second group of letters, but they will still not only struggle to recall the content (nine letters from the English alphabet, some repeated twice), but also be able to figure out the ultimate concept (well wishes on the anniversary of your birth!). We use chunks to understand what tools are required to assemble a chair or what a group of molecules form compounds and other organic matter.

Students who are more advanced in their degree programs should be expected to not only make advanced chunks, but create new chunking systems. These chunking systems can be individualized to each student to increase capacity. 

What does this mean for faculty? 

As an expert in your field, you likely chunk information related to you field without realizing it. When course content requires students to memorize and connect concepts, be explicit in how concepts can be grouped and how they are related. Depending on your students’ proficiency levels, determine when to model chunking and when to have students chunk material. 

How to Use Chunks in Class to Boost Memory

1. Explicitly model chunks at the beginning of a course, starting with the syllabus and Day 1.

Day 1 of a semester sets expectations for how the whole semester will operate. Start with the syllabus, an often long document that can strike students as a random splatter of information. Ask students to chunk its content:

  • How is the syllabus organized?
  • How would you “chunk” the course schedule (e.g. Weeks 1-4 introduce rhetorical terms; Weeks 5-8 connect rhetorical strategies to different media…)
  • How would you chunk this coursework with past coursework? (e.g. Interview projects: This class’s research project requires primary research, such as an interview. I have done interviews as part of a research project before: 10th grade interview with veteran and 12th grade research project with two interviews. 

2. Have students create chunks as a repeated homework task.

Use frequency to communicate the value of chunking as a thinking skill. Make chunking a component every period of out-of-class work, from locating how a reading chunks information to chunking how class activities match up with required reading. 

3. Open class with a chunking activity.

Since textbooks often chunk material for students, they can often have the illusion of competence, or make students believe they know the material just because they have seen it. To prime critical thinking in your class session, open with an exercise that requires students to chunk class concepts. Students could organize concepts related to one or four units worth course content. They could also chunk course concepts with events, media, and other material beyond the course.

  • Simple example: “What do [concept 1], [concept 2], and [concept 3] have to do with one another?”
  • Intermediate example: “Organize these 15 concepts into groups. In five minutes, be ready to explain the groups you created.”
  • Challenging example: “Draw a memory palace that organizes the content you read this week--Chapters 14-17.”

4. Conclude class by asking students to chunk material learned over several class sessions.

Based on your students’ knowledge and skill level, challenge students to chunk material in structured or unstructured ways:

  • Structured: “How does [concept 1, 2, and 3] from this class session fit with [concept 4, 5, and 6] from earlier this week?
  • Unstructured: “Consult your class notes to draw a concept map of all of this week’s material.”

Construct a Memory Palace. A good memory palace is an ongoing construction. As a method of concluding a class session or unit, ask students to construct a memory palace that can be built upon incrementally.  

5. Challenge students to “chunk” questions on a practice test.

Have students analyze a practice test to identify areas of the most importance. Ask them to identify patterns in question form, vocabulary, and concept and how these patterns can inform their study strategy.

  • If most questions are multiple choice, how can you best prepare for this type of assessment? 
  • Do these tests require working knowledge of 10 formulas or proficiency in four formulas?
  • The phrase “choose the best answer” is used multiple times. What separates a “good” and “best” answer?

For other projects and assessments

Students can do a similar exercise to best prepare for other types of assessments. For research papers, have students chunk their draft components based on the rubric to determine if they have prioritized the correct elements.

6. End the semester with a “memory palace.”

Research and experience suggests that unless students employ strategic study and reflective skills, they will retain a small fraction of the material they learned during a semester. Give students a creative project that challenges them to translate the memory palace to the course content they learned. Since visualization is important to memory, encourage students to choose a structure fitting of the course--a biome, a neighborhood, a school, a library. Assess students based on the accuracy of their chunks and the varying layers of grouping (e.g. memory palaces that go from large hallways to individual shelves). 

Chunking and Memory, from OU’s Barbara Oakley’s Learning How to Learn MOOC

For more on the content presented in this CETL Teaching Tip, view the videos and readings on Chunking (Week 2) in the Learning How to Learn MOOC, featuring OU engineering professor Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski, UC San Diego biological studies professor.

Save and adapt a Google Doc version of this teaching tip.

About the Author

Written by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC

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