Chunking: A Student’s Best Weapon for Exams

Ever wonder why remembering a phone number is easier than memorizing a random string of ten digits? It all boils down to a powerful learning technique called chunking.

Chunking is the process of taking small pieces of information and grouping them into larger, more manageable units. It’s a bit like organizing your pantry – instead of having dozens of individual spices scattered around, you categorize them by type (Italian herbs, baking spices, etc.).

This makes it easier to find what you need and frees up mental energy you can focus elsewhere (like making a great pasta al dente).

Our brains work similarly. Our short-term memory is limited––if that limit is reached, we have reached cognitive overload. Chunking allows us to consolidate smaller bits of information into a single, meaningful and memorable unit so we can sidestep cognitive overload.

Research shows that we can hold around 4 pieces of information in our short term memory at a time––chunking allows us to group multiple smaller ideas into a single big piece of information. Basically, we’ve tricked the system.

So why is chunking so important for learning? Here’s the science behind it:

Why Chunking is Important

  • Encoding: The act of chunking strengthens the connections between individual pieces of information. When you encode information (learn it for the first time), you want it to enter your short term memory with as much street cred as possible––having it in a group gives it the street cred it means to enter your long term memory earlier.
  • Relational Power: Chunking taps into the brain’s natural ability to identify patterns and relationships. By grouping similar ideas together, we can see how they connect and build a stronger mental framework for understanding the bigger picture.

Now, I’m sure this must all sound very floaty and abstract, so let’s see it in action.

Chunking in Action: Mastering APUSH

Take AP United States History (APUSH) for example. Imagine you’re studying conflicts between Native American tribes and European settlers throughout American history. Instead of trying to memorize each isolated event, use chunking to group them together based on common themes or geographical regions.

  • Chunk 1: Conflicts over land acquisition in the Northeast (King Philip’s War, Metacom’s War)
  • Chunk 2: Resistance movements in the Southeast (The Creek War, Tecumseh’s Rebellion)

Or, you might chunk Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR)’s New Deal policies if you’re studying the Great Depression:

  • Chunk 1: Job programs (CCC, CWA, PWA, TVA, etc.)
  • Chunk 2: Aid programs (REA, FERA, etc.)

This chunking approach makes the information easier to digest, but most importantly, easier to compare to other pieces of information. If you want to compare the job programs of FDR to Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ)’s Great Society programs, you can just say “FDR’s job programs were more robust than LBJ’s” instead of having to compare each individual FDR organization to its LBJ counterpart.

You can then come back to it later to delve deeper into the specifics of each war within a chunk. Remember: learning is a cyclical process. To fully learn a group of concepts, you need to approach it in multiple passes, starting with just concepts and large chunks, and gradually going deeper and deeper into details so you don’t get lost.

Chunking Beyond History

Chunking is a versatile technique applicable across various subjects. In biology, you can group different types of cells based on their function (muscle cells, nerve cells, epithelial cells). In literature, you can chunk the characteristics of different literary movements (Romanticism, Realism, Modernism).


I’ll say it again––learning is a cyclical process. Chunking on the first pass should focus on grasping the overall structure and key concepts. Subsequent passes can then deal with clarifying the relationships between the smaller details within each chunk.

By incorporating chunking into your study routine, you’ll be well on your way to transforming overwhelming information into manageable, memorable knowledge. So next time you’re faced with a mountain of information, remember – chunking is your secret weapon for conquering complex concepts and achieving deeper learning.





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