Fish & Chunks: Chunking Theory

Is it 3, 4, 5, 7 or 9? That is the number of spaces (or slots) we have for our working short term memory. Or is it different for everyone depending on prior knowledge, intellect, workload, stress or the topic being studied? No matter the number, this neuroscience theory believes we have to find a way to convert this short term memory information into our long term memory before another juicy piece of information comes our way. Just think to when you are studying and the mass of new information you come across, we need to consider how we learn and how to retain this new information. This is where ‘chunking theory‘ comes in, and the ‘hooks‘ we use to move all the information into our long term memory.

Definitions by Oakley & Sejnowski (2016) 

Chunk: A package of information, made up of separate items which you have united in your memory through association or meaning. For example, a part of the coagulation cascade can be a chunk—several concepts can be combined together to become a larger chunk.

selective focus photo of young girl in red dress playing with building blocks
Photo by cottonbro on

Chunking: Chunking is the act of grouping or organizing lists of information or concepts into compact packages of information that are easier for your mind to access.

Task: Try to remember 3141592653589793, now break it down into smaller chunks to learn, just like you will find on a credit card and you see how much easier it becomes to process.

Image titled Find Your Credit Card Account Number Step 1

Slots (memory): You can think of your working memory as metaphorically having roughly four memory spaces or slots, each slot able to hold one chunk or small thought, for example, a number at a time.

Practice: Challenge yourself to remember lists of things, whether it’s your grocery list, vocabulary words or important dates. As you become better at remembering larger chunks of information, continue to challenge yourself to remember even more.

Look for Connections: As you are creating groupings, look for ways to relate units to each other in meaningful ways. What do the items share in common? Consider the function of the item, how it is categorized and even how the item is spelled. You might group items together because they are each spelled with four letters, because they start with the same letter or because they share a similar purpose.

Associate: Linking groups of items to things from your memory can also help make things more memorable.

Overall Aim: Chunking allows people to take smaller bits of information and combine them into more meaningful, and therefore more memorable, wholes.

Studying in Nursing 

The overall approach is to link and recall. So link nursing theory into practice, if you relate this to an actual patient it is likely to be hooked into your long term memory. You are more likely to remember a patient or event than reams of notes from a textbook.

  • Mix it up: do different levels of difficulty. It’s easy to focus on what we know or understand, add in those difficult concepts as well.
  • Studying is like exercise, have set study time and focus. Take yourself away from distractions (i.e. your phone, television or kids) and make it quality study time. Try the Pomodorro technique for organising and maximising your study time.
  • Flick through your prescribed readings before you start, to understand the key concepts and topics you will be expected to learn.
  • Note taking- makes you take time to think and process what you have read. Try to make clear points, link ideas (try concept mapping).
  • Regular testing- set some questions, use the tests at the end of chapters
  • Flashcards for recall.
  • Remember to sleep well, exercise and take breaks. This gives your brain time to reorganise your thoughts and to recuperate. Stress can be both positive and negative, so mindfulness and well-being are vital.

This learning theory is based on human neuroscience and the functional cerebral reorganization that occurs related to the neural patterns of these chunks of information.

10 Rules of Good Studying by Barbara Oakley (2014)

  1. Use recall. After you read a page, look away and recall the main ideas. Highlight very little, and never highlight anything you haven’t put in your mind first by recalling. Try recalling main ideas when you are walking to class or in a different room from where you originally learned it. An ability to recall—to generate the ideas from inside yourself—is one of the key indicators of good learning.
  2. Test yourself. On everything. All the time. Flash cards are your friend.
  3. Chunk your problems. Chunking is understanding and practicing with a problem solution so that it can all come to mind in a flash. After you solve a problem, rehearse it. Make sure you can solve it cold—every step. Pretend it’s a song and learn to play it over and over again in your mind, so the information combines into one smooth chunk you can pull up whenever you want.
  4. Space your repetition. Spread out your learning in any subject a little every day, just like an athlete. Your brain is like a muscle—it can handle only a limited amount of exercise on one subject at a time.
  5. Alternate different problem-solving techniques during your practice. Never practice too long at any one session using only one problem-solving technique—after a while, you are just mimicking what you did on the previous problem. Mix it up and work on different types of problems. This teaches you both how and when to use a technique. (Books generally are not set up this way, so you’ll need to do this on your own.) After every assignment and test, go over your errors, make sure you understand why you made them, and then rework your solutions. To study most effectively, handwrite (don’t type) a problem on one side of a flash card and the solution on the other. (Handwriting builds stronger neural structures in memory than typing.) You might also photograph the card if you want to load it into a study app on your smartphone. Quiz yourself randomly on different types of problems. Another way to do this is to randomly flip through your book, pick out a problem, and see whether you can solve it cold.
  6. Take breaks. It is common to be unable to solve problems or figure out concepts in math or science the first time you encounter them. This is why a little study every day is much better than a lot of studying all at once. When you get frustrated with a math or science problem, take a break so that another part of your mind can take over and work in the background.
  7. Use explanatory questioning and simple analogies. Whenever you are struggling with a concept, think to yourself, How can I explain this so that a ten-year-old could understand it? Using an analogy really helps, like saying that the flow of electricity is like the flow of water. Don’t just think your explanation—say it out loud or put it in writing. The additional effort of speaking and writing allows you to more deeply encode (that is, convert into neural memory structures) what you are learning.
  8. Focus. Turn off all interrupting beeps and alarms on your phone and computer, and then turn on a timer for twenty-five minutes. Focus intently for those twenty-five minutes and try to work as diligently as you can. After the timer goes off, give yourself a small, fun reward. A few of these sessions in a day can really move your studies forward. Try to set up times and places where studying—not glancing at your computer or phone—is just something you naturally do.
  9. Eat your frogs first. Do the hardest thing earliest in the day, when you are fresh.
  10. Make a mental contrast. Imagine where you’ve come from and contrast that with the dream of where your studies will take you. Post a picture or words in your workspace to remind you of your dream. Look at that when you find your motivation lagging. This work will pay off both for you and those you love!

These rules are excerpted from the book A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel in Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra), by Barbara Oakley, Penguin, July, 2014.

Short Term Memory

The magical number 7 or is it magical 4, or really only 2? See below references from Gobet & Clarkson (2004), Cowan (2001) and Miller (1956) for some discussion on the theory of short term working memory.

Keywords: chunk; learning; hooks; chunking; working memory.


Oakley, B. & Sejnowski, T. (2016) Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. Coursera.

Oakley, B. (2014) A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel in Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra). Penguin, July, 2014. [Goodreads blurb]

Cowan, N. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24, 97-185.

Gobet, F., & Clarkson, G. (2004). Chunks in expert memory: Evidence for the magical number four… or is it two? Memory, 12(6), 732-747.

Gobet, F., Lane, P. C. R., Croker, S., Cheng, P. C. H., Jones, G., Oliver, I., & Pine, J. M. (2001). Chunking mechanisms in human learning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(6), 236-243.

Guida, A., Gobet, F., Tardieu, H., & Nicolas, S. (2012). How chunks, long-term working memory and templates offer a cognitive explanation for neuroimaging data on expertise acquisition: A two-stage framework. Brain and Cognition, 79(3), 221-244. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2012.01.010

Miller, G. A. (1956) The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.

Rawson, K. A., & Dunlosky, J. (2011). Optimizing schedules of retrieval practice for durable and efficient learning: How much is enough? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 140(3), 283