Learning How to Learn: The Chunking Puzzle

02.01.2018 | Cameron Ficca

I recently started an online course through Coursera called “Learning How to Learn,” after a colleague recommended it. While there are no shortcuts that completely revolutionize the way that we learn new information, there are several tips and tricks that people can employ to enhance their pursuits.

For me, my biggest breakthrough came in the second week of the course. In week one, we learned about the different modes of thinking: focused and diffuse modes, which Jennifer Gehrt wrote about in a blog post titled, “Master Your Mental Toolbox in 2018.” While I found focused and diffuse modes of thinking interesting, my biggest “ah-ha!” moment was in week two when I learned about “chunking.”

When you learn something new, your brain creates chunks of knowledge to help to understand a concept. The easiest way to understand “chunking” is to think of chunks of information as a puzzle. Each chunk is a set of separate pieces that, once connected, allows you to see the full picture of the puzzle.

Building these chunks is not always easy. To build a solid chunk of information or understanding, it takes intent, focus and repetition to make the. In fact, there are even some popular study habits that stunt chunk development. Some of these habits include:

  • Highlighting too many notes in a text book or notebook. By highlighting too much information, you can overwhelm your brain with facts and limit your brain from understanding the context of how or when to use the chunk.
  • Studying material you already know. Often it is tempting and affirming to review material you already have mastered, but this is problematic because this creates a false sense of mastery. Instead of feeling like there is more to be learned, our brain relays messages of completion. Think of math. Just because we know the pythagorean theorem specifically, does not mean we know algebra as a whole.

There is also a concept called the “Illusion of Competence,” which is when the mind completes a task related to learning and you think the learning is done, when in reality, learning has not taken place. Think of a student in lecture who is flipping between note-taking, texting, and tweeting for example. The student may feel that the lecture was easy, but in reality, the mind was not fully engaged with the material. This gives a false sense of understanding, which tends to cause a relaxation, because the student feels he or she knows the material and will not need to review or think deeper.

Barbara Oakley, one of the course instructors recommends these strategies to help improve comprehension and information retention so you can successfully build chunks of knowledge and avoid the Illusion of Competence:

  • Recall: After reading material or a lecture, try and comprehend as much as you can without referring to notes. This will show how much information you retained initially.
  • Self-testing: You should try and quiz yourself to see how much you know — another variation of recall. This is one of the most effective ways to retain information.

Studies have shown that those who were able to recall the information after reviewing it knew the material better than those who simply reread the material multiple times. And by self-testing, you challenge yourself to focus more on the material, rather than quickly skimming over it and tricking your brain into a false sense of competency.

If you’re interested in learning how to learn, I would encourage you to check out Coursera’s free online course. It has been of tremendous value to help me understand how the mind works and how I can take further control of my own learning, whether it is in the classroom or when you’re attempting to build new professional or personal skills.


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