The chunking method does not sound like a memory device. Where I grew up, that was a way to throw something – you had the tossing method, the hurling method, and the “chunking method.” (I hear in other places in the world, that’s actually the “chucking method,” but to each his own).
But that’s not what we’re talking about today. We’re talking about a strategy for memorizing information.
Basically, the strategy works by taking a whole bunch of items you have to learn, and chunking them down into a smaller number of items. The simple fact is that you can’t remember more than about 5-9 items at once. The human working memory is just not capable of doing it well. Daniel Bor, a neuroscientist at Cambridge wrote about it, and you can read a summary of his findings from the Atlantic here.
But you can memorize large groups of data if you break it down into chunks with something in common.
This “chunking method” will become important for all of us at some point.
Why you ask? At certain times in your academic career, you will have to memorize a lot of information. Perhaps you’ll take a career path that requires little rote memorization. But I’m yet to find one that requires no rote memorization.
Anyone in the medical field has to memorize a whole lot of specific details – the names of bones, muscles, ligaments, and other important things you want them to know before they stick a knife in you. Pharmacists need to memorize a lot of information so that you aren’t given the wrong medication. I hear that has potential to do bad things to you. Even waiters and waitresses have to memorize a lot of information. It’s just a fact of most careers
Another classic area that requires an awful lot of memorization is learning a language.
We’re going to talk about using the chunking method of memorization today – which we contrasted to flashcards in a recent post – specifically in relation to memorizing vocab.
Globalization ensures that wherever you live, you’ll need some language learning skills. You will interact with people whose first language isn’t the same as yours. If you have any doubt, consider this: we have blog readers from all 6 continents (those not covered in ice, anyway).
Language learning is important.
And now to the good stuff. Here are 4 steps to using the chunking method to memorize vocabulary:
1. Chunking Method Step 1 – create a list of all your vocabulary words
This is the first step in the process, and it’s also the biggest difference between using the flashcard method and the chunking method. As we noted previously, flashcards are excellent resources. But they simply aren’t as effective when it comes to first time memorization of new vocabulary words.
Instead of creating a number of flashcards, write out all of your words on one piece of paper.
If you’d like to fold a sheet of notebook paper in two to help, that’s a great idea. That way you can flip it back and forth to quiz yourself later on.
The goal, though, is to get all of those words on a page where thy are connected naturally to another word (if by no other means than being on the same page)
2. Chunking Method Step 2- Create groups of words (aka, “chunks”) within that list
After you’ve written all of your words down, look for connections between the words that can help you create some natural chunks.
When I do this, I typically don’t have a set breakdown that I use. For example, I don’t look at it, think “I have 12 words, so I should break it into 3 chunks with 4 words each.” Instead, I look at the list and find some way that words naturally connect with one another. Here are a few possibilities to consider:
a. Part of speech: if the list has a few verbs, a few nouns, and a few pronouns, you can split it based on part of speech rather easily.
b. The way a word sounds: sometimes words just sound like one another – I like grouping those words together because it tends to cut down on my confusion between the words and sounds.
c. What a word means: occasionally you may find that several words have similar meanings. If that’s the case, you can use the chunking method to group a few items together that may be similes. This is an especially helpful boost on vocab tests where you have to provide definitions for vocab words.
3. Chunking Method Step 3 – Quiz yourself on the words using the chunks
It’s always a good idea to quiz yourself. If you are using flashcards it’s built in, and it should be no different with the chunking method of memory. Cover the answers and ask yourself to define each word. When you do that, though, specifically try to remember which chunk that word is a part of. If you can remember the chunk first, you’re far more likely to then remember the definition.
4. Chunking Method Step 4 – Write out the chunks without looking back
This is a step few students take, but it will revolutionize your test prep if you do it. See if you can write out all the chunks without looking back at the paper with your vocab on it. When you can do that, the chunking method is working at it’s best. The chunks are firmly in your memory (for the time being, anyway), and you’ll be far more likely to ace your quiz when it comes up.
We’d love to hear what you think about this strategy. Contribute on social media — we’d love to hear about your success!