The number 081127882 is a hard number to remember. If you chunk the number into
081 127 882 its easier. Cutting large bits of information into smaller pieces helps us to
understand. If we put small pieces back together, we can see the big picture and that
helps us to remember. The process is called Chunking.
This is how it works. Our short-term memory is fast but tiny. According to the learning
expert Dr Oakley it can hold only 4 chunks of information at once. So when new inputs
arrive it has two ways to pick them up. First, it can overwrite and forget what it has. To
make space for new information. Or it can use mental effort to move a chunk from the
working memory into the long-term memory where it can be stored and remembered
later. This is why its almost impossible to recall 9 digits like 081127882. There is simply
not enough space. Once chunked, there is. There are several ways to chunk. You can
break a larger piece into smaller bits, identify patterns or group pieces to see the larger
picture. Once a chunk is created, you can use deliberate practice to move it into your
long-term memory where it connects with exercising experiences. Now it can be stored
for years and if regularly used, accessed without much mental effort To make this
transfer more effective it helps to add context which acts like memory super glue.
Great instructors always try to give you the big picture before going into detail. If you
study by yourself, you can skim through your textbook first by reading chapter
headlines. Learning facts without understanding the big picture is pretty useless, as we
will forget what we have learned very fast. Professional piano teachers first show their
students the entire song so they understand the mood. Then they ask their students to
practice one measure at the time. Once the part has been learned and the neural
connections in the brain have been built, then students go to the next measure. After all,
chunks can be played separately; they are combined until the entire piece is connected.
Now the student can play the piece with less mental effort.
Chunking also helps to understand complex topics, say trade between China and India.
First study China: the people, the culture and the economy. Then summarize and put
what you learned in your simple language. Repeat the process for India. Then study
trade itself: the mechanics, benefits, and problems. Again, simplify to form an underlying
In the end, you might just have summarized several books onto one napkin. Try
chunking next time you feel the limits of your working memory. Just like how clever
restaurants chunks their menus into starters, mains, desserts, with 3-4 options each.
With chunking, it's easy to compare our options and make a decision.