Can you try and remember these digits?
Does this sound like a hard number to remember? How about If you chunk the number? Remembering (081) (127) (882) just became a whole lot easier. Cutting large bits of information into smaller pieces helps us to understand them better. The process is called Chunking.
“If we put small pieces back together, we can see the big picture and that helps us to remember better”
This is how it works. Our short-term memory is fast but tiny. According to learning expert Dr. Barbara Oakley, it can only hold upto 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 it’s 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. Just like how clever restaurants chunk their menus into starters, mains, desserts, with 3-4 options each.
“With chunking, it’s easy to compare our options and make a decision”
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. You can use this technique with your students as well. Great instructors always try to give their learners the big picture before going into detail. For instance, you can ask your students to skim through their textbook first by reading chapter headlines before delivering the lecture or explanation. 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 a 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 Pakistan for social studies class. First study China: the people, the culture and the economy. Then summarize and put what you learned in your own simple language. Repeat the process for Pakistan. Then study trade itself: the mechanics, benefits, and problems. Again, simplify to form an underlying idea. In the end, you might just have summarized several books onto one napkin.
Another useful trick is the Memory Palace. It is a technique to remember facts, numbers or other things, like a list. It has been around since ancient times and is also known as the Method of Loci. Memory Champion Marwin Wallonius used it to remember, in just 30 minutes, the correct order of 5040 binary digits or a complete deck of 52 cards in just 33 seconds!
Here is how it works: Close your eyes and imagine some sort of familiar physical space, like your house, school or office, and then add a mental image of the thing you want to remember. To remember a bunch of things you can use different rooms and visualize how you would walk through that space following the same specific route. As you walk through, place the things you want to remember at specific locations. Ideally, imagining things in a funny or crazy way also helps to remember. Once we have placed all the items that we want to remember our memory palace is complete.
“The day we return to our palace and want to remember what’s inside it, we have to go back in. We have to concentrate and imagine opening the door and walking our route”
Once we pass by the specific location that we used to place our things, the item will pop back into our mind. You can do this fun activity with your students as well. Ask them to try and remember 7 ingredients to make some pancakes for their early year’s cooking class.
You open the school door and see a full cup of flour next to some swings in the play area. You walk into the supply closet and inside your desk cubby, you find a teaspoonful of baking powder. In the library sits a massive egg reading a book. And on top of the bookshelf is a cup of milk, almost full. You go into the classroom and see 6 teaspoons listening to a story from a wise bottle of vegetable oil. You leave the class and enter the science lab. But it’s full of sugar canes and in the middle, a teaspoon is standing wearing a white lab coat. At last, you turn around to check the cafeteria. The only thing you find there is salt eating lunch with half a teaspoon!.
If we put these small pieces back together, we can see the big picture and that helps us to remember better. Try chunking or the method of loci next time you feel like testing the limits of your student’s working memory. You can use it to make them learn the names of neighbouring countries, circle theorems, bones in the skeletal system, and even the constitution. The possibilities are endless. Good luck!