Chunking: A proven way to improve learning

Have you ever felt frustrated when you were trying to learn something new? If so, you’re probably just processing information the same way you were taught in schools: memorize for the test.

If you’ve ever considered yourself to be math or science phobic, don’t give up hope. Recent neuroscience discoveries have revealed better ways to optimize your brains natural thinking and problem-solving patterns.

What is Chunking?

Chunking is a form of pattern recognition. Think of it like a rhythm in your mind. It’s how we process information for efficient future use. We divide or parse long sequences into “chunks.”

Chunking is how we expand the capacity of our working memory. It’s a cognitive compression mechanism that allows us to process complex information through simplification.

How to use Chunking

Remember the last time you typed in someone’s phone number? There are ten digits, and you can’t input them all at once. You have to type out one. number. at. a. time. Then you can type out little bursts of three-digit chunks. That’s information chunking.

Steve Jobs once said, “Creativity is just connecting things.”

When you break it down, chunking is just about building on your understanding to get to the next level. First you understand how one system works and then you connect the dots.

In a nutshell, here’s how the process happens:

1. Search for the chunks

2. Notice and memorize the chunks

3. Use chunks we’ve already built up

When to use Chunking

Any time you’re learning a skill or concept, chunking comes into play. It’s a type of meta-learning that allows you to move forward one step at a time. First you master one chunk of information or skill until it becomes automated. There’s little brain energy needed to access and use this chunk. Then you can move onto the next one.

Here are a few more examples when this meta-learning has clear application:

· Learning math or science

· Learning to drive a car

· Learning to play soccer

· Learning to dance ballet

· Learning to play a musical instrument

When you’re trying to play a song on the piano, you don’t suddenly start playing the song. There are steps, or chunks, needed to get there. First you have to learn how to play a single chord, and then multiple. Slowly you string the chords together to create a flow.

Building Each Chunk

Now you’re playing through the whole song, but there are still a few parts where you’re fingers fumble or your timing is a bit off. It’s almost a waste of time to replay the easy parts because they’re already mastered and accessible. Instead, pour your efforts into the hard parts.

If it were easy, everyone would do it. Playing through the difficult chunks can be painful. Using the powerful technique of deliberate practice is how you build on your working memory. Chunk by chunk you can master an entire piece of music.

If you’re feeling like learning is hard and painful right about now, trying setting time limits. Barbara Oakley, creator of “Learning How to Learn” University of California course, recommends setting a 25-minute timer to avoid procrastination. This helps to isolate ultra-focus times into a little box, which usually helps.

Learning without Pain

If you’re still struggling with procrastination, the Pomodoro Technique breaks the timer process down even further. A pomodoro is actually a type of timer that sounds with a ringing alarm. Working in short sprints and taking regular breaks is the key to the method.

Sometimes despite our best efforts and strategies to focus, distractions happen. Whether that’s a coworker, meeting or emergency, it’s likely to postpone your focus session. Here’s a few ways to graciously respond to these situations without crushing your learning time:

1. TELL your coworkers that you need some space

2. ARRANGE another time to address their needs

3. FOLLOW through with your intentions as soon as possible

4. RETURN to other tasks after finishing the focus sprint

Learning to avoid distractions and get into focus mode is only half of the problem. That all sounds great… until you get stuck.

Focused and Diffused Modes

When you’re stuck on a problem, the normal response is to focus even harder. We go deeper and deeper into a frustrating problem, and it physically hurts our brains. Your prefrontal cortex and little working memory start to cringe, especially when the concept is tough.

If you keep your brain in focused mode for too long, you’ll experience tunnel vision. That narrow focus makes seeing big-picture possibilities impossible. But there’s a way around it.

There are two primary modes of information processing: focused mode and diffused mode.

1. Focused Mode

Clear off the desk, silent the ringers, open your laptop and click open that expense report. That’s what focused mode looks like. It’s means you’re putting intense focus on a single topic.

In focused mode you’ll experience:

· A concentrated form of thinking

· A mind full of the important details

· An effort to understand new concepts

· Attempts to solve tough problems

When we go deep into focus mode, our brain operates in this tiny set of neural networks. That’s great for building new chunks, but not always for solving tough problems. We get stuck because we’re using a narrowed network of neurons to process a concept. Instead, in order to connect the dots you’ll need to switch into a separate mode of thinking.

2. Diffused Mode

Unable to move forward with that expense report, you get frustrated and decide to step away. Maybe you decide to take a snack break or divert your attention with an interesting news article. While you’re distracted, that tough problem continues to process in the background.

Within that free-wandering diffused mode you can:

· Utilize a form of unconscious learning

· Process in a relaxed thinking state

· Combine existing ideas in new ways

· Develop solidified understanding and insights

Diffuse thinking is a zooming out and taking on a big-picture view. It helps us to connect the dots in free association that we can’t possibly notice in focused mode.

While focused mode happens in a tiny neural network, diffusion happens all over your brain. It’s like day dreaming, you’re igniting activation through inattention.

How the Modes Intertwine

The diffuse mode happens in the background while your attention is on something else. That means you can’t be in focus and diffuse processing modes on the same topic at once.

When you’re stuck on a problem, here are some great ways to move into diffuse mode:

· Cooking

· Enjoying a scenery

· Listening to music

· Any physical activity

· Sleeping

Consider a pot roast that’s cooking in the oven and then taken out. When it’s sitting on the stove, cooking and ingredient synthesizing still happens.

When you’re learning a foreign language, you naturally move in and out of learning modes. First you have to focus to learn new vocabulary and sentence structures, but then you have to pull back. You have to connect the dots and begin to communicate. There’s no way to learn by only using straight memory repetition.

When the Modes Intertwine

Coffee shops are the ideal place for bouncing between modes. In these community spaces you’re free from the distractions of home, which is great for focused mode. Then people start moving and talking around you, and suddenly something snaps away. These momentary distractions can be the key to pull you out and back to a bigger picture view.

If you’re mastering a topic or progressing in a difficult project, you’ll need both modes. Here are some ways to practically apply this information:

· Switch often between focused and diffused modes

· Divide your learning into smaller, regular sessions

· Use alternate days for small reviews

· Revise after intervals to improve retention

Zooming in and out is the secret to accelerated learning. We have two modes of processing for good reasons. The best learners go in and out of modes. Just remember, study hard and then allow time for the learning to sink in.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to understanding neuroscience, here are a few parting ideas to consider:

· Our brains are 15 times the size of a monkey’s brain

· However, our working memories are almost the same

· Human Brains can hold 4 different items in working memory

· Monkey Brains can hold 3 or 4 different items in working memory

· What makes our brains better? Chunking

· Chunking expands our capacity for creativity

Now that you know how to learn, it’s time to decide WHAT to learn.

❤️ Writing on psychology, feminism, and relationships. Words in: The Ascent, Better Advice, Fearless She Wrote, CYMCYL, An Injustice, and The Virago. (she/her)

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