How to Use Chunking to Make Learning Easier

15.08.2017 |

Episode #4 of the course Learning how to learn by Ace Eddleman


The hardest part about learning something is figuring out where to start. Information is everywhere, and it’s incredibly easy to get pushed and pulled in a million different directions—especially when you’re completely new to a domain.

A common mistake when starting out is what I like to call, “Zero to Navy SEAL,” which is when someone decides to take on the most difficult tasks imaginable without any kind of ramping-up process. It might sound appealing to take such a “hardcore” path, but it’s completely counterproductive.

Why is taking the hard route first a bad idea? Because you can only learn by breaking down a subject or skill into small, easy-to-understand pieces. This is a process known as “chunking,” and it’s absolutely critical for learning.

The reason it’s so important to chunk what you learn comes from the limitations of your working memory. Working memory is limited in that it can only hold a few items at a time, and utilizing it is a drain on your brain’s resources (remember the “lazy brain” concept from earlier in the course?).

A simple way to understand what working memory does is to view it as that part of your memory that allows you to “think.”

When you think about something, you’re combining new information with information you already have in long-term memory. If you already understand something very well, then you can think about it without taking up much space in working memory, which, in turn, means it requires less energy to process.

This only happens after chunking has occurred. To understand how this all works, think about the process of learning to drive. When you’re first learning, you need to think about everything—how to press the pedals, how to turn the wheel, how to use turn signals, etc.

As you gain more experience driving a car, the process transitions from a bunch of chunks (“turning the wheel, pressing the pedals, using the turn signal, etc.”) that each take up space in working memory to a single chunk that can be identified simply as “driving.”

Your ability to think clearly about a subject is tied heavily to how much space it takes up in working memory, and the end goal should always be to reduce the amount of hard thinking you need to do in order to accomplish a task.

If you were going to tell someone else who is familiar with what driving is about your drive to work today, you don’t tell them about all those parts of the process. You’d just say something like, “I drove to work today,” and you both can process that without thinking much about it.

On the other hand, the opposite side of this dynamic is highlighted if you have some kind of specialized knowledge and you talk to someone else who lacks that knowledge. If you’re a physicist, for example, you couldn’t just casually discuss the finer points of Schwarzschild wormholes with a non-physicist.

Doing so would generate a glossy-eyed look from the other person, and you’d have to break down what you’re talking about into analogies or use concepts they’re already familiar with. What seems elementary to you might be an advanced concept to other people, and it’s largely because we all have different libraries of chunks.

To take advantage of this core process of learning, you need to do something most people have a hard time with: Swallow your ego. If you’re learning a new subject, be humble and recognize when you don’t understand basic concepts. Once you’ve done that, focus on mastering those basic concepts.

As your library of chunks gets bigger, they’ll start to congeal into larger and larger masses. When you have a few large chunks—as opposed to many small ones—you can think clearer and faster about the subject at hand.

That’s all for today. Keep an eye out for the next lesson tomorrow!


Recommended book

Memory by Alan Baddeley


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