Week 2 of Learning How To Learn is all about Chunking. This is a method of learning, where you break down the huge amounts of information you want to learn, into smaller more manageable pieces, called Chunks. Breaking down your learning into chunks makes learning on the larger scale, much easier. It’s like eating a meal, you don’t swallow the whole thing in one, you take many small bites.
What Is a Chunk?
A single piece of a concept or skill formed from many scattered pieces of information that share a similar use or meaning. If you can perform a skill automatically or you just “get” a concept, it has been chunked.
Chunks are like puzzle pieces. They can be joined together to create a bigger picture. For example when playing a song on the guitar, one Chunk will be strumming the strings in a certain pattern, another Chunk is forming the hand shapes to play the chords, another Chunk is the rhythm and together you can use these Chunks to play a complete song.
Once you know how to play the whole song, that song becomes a Chunk, rather than the individual parts of playing the song. In other words, Chunks can become more complex and larger. This allows you to perform more complicated tasks, solve more complex problems or come up with deeper ideas.
When you are stressed or scared, it can become harder for your brain to access Chunks, this is why some people perform much worse under stress, such as a public performance or an exam. They know the material when they are relaxed, but once their brain starts producing adrenaline, they can no longer retrieve the knowledge they need.
How to Form a Chunk
All disciplines are different, but Chunks are universal in learning. There are 4 steps to forming any Chunk:
Focus on the thing you want to Chunk ONLY
No multitasking allowed. If you want to learn how a new mathematical trick, you focus on just that one trick.
Aim to understand
It becomes much easier to remember something you understand, than something you have just memorised. Make sure you figure it out for yourself to really understand.
Review the Chunk soon
You need to refresh your memory to strengthen the connections in your brain. Remember spaced repetition.
Knowing how to do a skill or understanding a concept is only half of the battle. Knowing when to use a skill is equally important. There is no point in having a particular skill if you never know when to use it and there’s no point knowing when to use a skill you don’t have.
The Value of a Library of Chunks
The more chunks you collect, the more skills and ideas you can use as you learn to piece together different Chunks in different combinations.
There are two types of thinking when it comes to problem-solving: Sequential thinking and Holistic thinking. Neither is better than the other, they just each have separate uses.
This way of thinking, allows you follow a train of thoughts one after the other, like a sequence. Sequential thinking uses the focused mode and is good for following a logical process to it’s conclusion, such as in a maths problem, understanding a series of events or cause and effect.
Holistic Thinking allows you to make intuitive links between multiple disciplines, ideas and concepts. In the diffuse mode, you can join up seemingly unrelated Chunks to come up with more creative solutions to problems. This is great for brainstorming, solving complex problems, where logic isn’t enough and creating something new.
Illusions of Competence
An illusion of competence is when you feel like you understand something, but you actually don’t. You may go to a class and think “that really made sense” then you go to explain it to someone else and you can’t quite explain it right, the words just don’t fit together as well as they did when the teacher said it. Sound familiar?
How Illusions of Competence Form
Illusions of competence form when you don’t use the best methods to learn. Re-reading feels good, because you feel like you are putting in the effort and you are understanding it better, but this is actually an Illusion of Competence. You aren’t trying strengthening the neural pathways in your brain, you are tricking yourself into thinking you are learning better.
Highlighting is even worse. Just don’t do it.
Re-reading can be good, if a significant amount of time has passed since your first reading, so your memories of the material have faded.
What are the Best Ways to Avoid Illusions of Competence?
Trying to recall the material is best.
Try quizzing yourself or having someone else quiz you. This causes your brain to actively retrace the neural pathways of that Chunk and therefore strengthens your abilities to remember and understand said Chunk.
You need to answer practice questions, solve problems or teach the Chunk to another person, to see if you really understand what you’re trying to learn. If you can’t solve the problem, or explain the concept easily, you don’t understand the material well enough. Simple.