Go up to any student on campus and ask them, “If there was a foolproof way to increase the amount of information you can retain from your working memory, would you try it?” and I can almost guarantee that if they are able to understand what you are asking them, they will say yes. I mean, who wouldn’t want to increase their memory capacity? Especially around mid-terms and final exams, every student on campus is looking for a way to make all the facts and concepts of multiple subjects stick in their minds at least long enough to make it through whichever exam they have coming up next. Unfortunately, I don’t know any foolproof ways to increase your memory capacity (and to be honest, if I did, I would probably write a book about it and then sign some multi-million-dollar contract to become one of those self-improvement lecturers that live on massive yachts in the middle of the Caribbean, not put up a post detailing it for our class). However, in class we learned about an excellent strategy to help Improve our working memory; Chunking.
Before I continue with the rest of my article I want to bring your attention to the difference between Improving and Increasing:
To Improve is to make or become better; To Increase is to become or make greater in size, amount, intensity or degree. In relation to Memory:
To Improve Memory is to become better at remembering information; To Increase Memory is to make greater the amount of information that can be remembered.
Back to the article, our book defines a “chunk” as the hypothetical storage unit in working memory; essentially a piece of information. In class we defined Chunking as the repackaging of information to create meaning from working memory. To simplify that, Chunking is combining multiple individual pieces of information into a larger group. This group of associated information then becomes its own chunk (the more I read it, the more it looks like “chunk” is not a real word). According to a study by George Miller (Miller, 1956) working memory holds 7 plus-or-minus 2 chunks. The theory behind chunking improving memory is that you can increase the amount of information in each chunk. You are still only remembering approximately 7 chunks, they are just larger chunks of information. It does not increase the size of working memory itself. In class, Dr. Rettinger listed the following series of letters for us to remember:
H, O, P, T, R, A, S, L, U.
While it is certainly possible for someone to remember those 9 letters as they are, isn’t it a lot easier to remember when broken up into chunks?
HOP, TRA, SLU.
The 9 individual pieces of information became 3 chunks of extremely easy to remember information. Another, much more relatable example of chunking involves numbers:
5, 4, 0, 6, 5, 6, 8, 7, 9, 2.
This string of 10 random digits is much harder to remember than the following three chunks:
540, 656, 8792.
Phone numbers (and yes, for those of you who were wondering, that is my number, you’re welcome) are generally remembered in chunks for the area code, prefix, and line number (learn something new every day) making them easier to remember. Then they came out with this handy thing called the Contacts App on cell phones so who needs to bother remembering phone numbers.
I found an article online titled “What is Chunking and How Can it Increase Your Memory?” The article initially just summarizes Chunking similarly to the way I did above and then goes into a few ideas for how to group together similar items to help remember them:
- Group Items by the First Letter
- Break Strings of numbers up into groups of three or four
- Categorize items, like on a grocery list
While I can’t help you Increase your memory capacity, Chunking (I swear I’m almost done with the word) is an effective way of Improving working memory. Practice and you might find you can remember more with this technique than whatever method you use currently.