May 08, 2016

Week Two of my pretty interesting Coursera course is about "chunks" and not this kind Truffle Shuffle Goonie Chunk. The chunks of which we speak are shorthand for small packages of information our minds can easily access. You can Follow the Learning How To Learn class on Twitter and Like them on Facebook.

To take advantage of what I know now about the Pomodoro Technique and also the Pomodoro App I built I am going to use this timer to alternate working on my Climate Cents rails project and then listen to my Coursera lectures.


Chunks are compact pieces of info that your mind can process and recall. Learning to deal in chunks is to speak the lingua franca of the mind - your brain seems to work in chunks so that is what you should use. There are also illusions of competence in learning. These are ineffective study methods that waste your time. There is also overlearning that can ingrain information into your mind but overdoes the connection building, putting in ever-deeper ruts into your synapse connections. By contrast, interleaving provides variety in your studies, mixing it up as it were.


Chunking is the mental leap we take where we pull the puzzle pieces into a whole, into a narrative. We need context to make sense of information and store it. Chunking unites bits of infomation together and assigns them meaning, putting them in context of other concepts and things you already know.

The working memory, the 4 chunks we can hold in our brain, in our prefrontal cortex, is presented whilei n focused mode as an octopus connecting the four temporary working memory to synapses and connections in your long term memory. Stress, fear and emotions damage the ability of the octopus to connect the working memory to long term memory.

Chunks then are pieces of information that are bound together through meaning or use. Learning language for example connect words to images - madre to a visual of a mother - which is why immersive learning for babies is so effective. Effective language programs combine rote learning and repetition (focus mode) with open ended speech with native speakers (diffuse mode). Ideally the words and phrases you learn are embedded in your mind similarly to your native language, so you can start to use your new language freely and creatively.

Gaining expertise requires us to create conceptual chunks. These are mental leaps that combine scattered bits of information together via meaning. A chunk, neurologically, is a network of neurons that are used to firing together. This enables thoughts, concepts, and actions to appear or flow automatically. Focused practice and repetition helps us to create chunks, and expertise is built chunk by chunk. Chunks can be made large, made of other chunks.

Chunking helps the brain run more efficiently, because the concept can appear automatically without needing to recall all of the underlying details and memories.

Makin' Chunkies

Some analogies are when learning to play a song, you learn chords, or particular progressions first, building up bit by bit until you learn how to play the whole song. Similarly, when learning a sport, we drill on the little things like dribbling and throwing and build up to actually running plays and then playing the game. Ideally chunks become wholly subconscious, we simply know them. This is the point of the chunk - to get to a point where it is automatic to recall the chunk or the chunk activity.

One danger in math and science is that we are provided worked out example problems. All too often students then become overreliant on the cookie cutter instructions and not enough aware about how to apply the principles being shown to other problems.

How To Chunk

  1. Focus your undivided attention on the chunk. Keep the brain focused on the new material. You need connections between your limited working memory and giant long term memory storehouse.

  2. Understand the basic idea you are trying to chunk. This helps the chunk puzzle piece settle into your brain as context. But know that the A-Ha moment is not learning - you can understand something in class and forget it later. Be sure to review the material quickly after class and quiz yourself, or try to explain it to another person. Do it yourself! This builds neural pathways.

  3. Context aka bottom up learning helps cement the idea. This helps you see how your new chunk fits in. Practice helps the chunk connections strengthen. The Top-Down big picture process allows you to see where the chunk fits into the larger narrative. Chunking can involve learning a specific technique. A quick two minute picture walk through a notebook - looking at charts and headings - before studying can help provide context, as well as running through a well organized lecture.

  4. Focused attention

  5. Understanding

  6. Practice

Skipping ahead, even when we do not fully understand the material, can help! Don't get bogged down, because sometimes context can help illuminate things we fail to grasp at first.

Bottom up learning is practice and repetition (focused attention) where we really get to know our chunk.

Top down learning is diffuse learning where we start to see the big picture, and where our new chunk relates to other chunks.

Context shows where our chunk is relevant to other chunks, and for example, where to use the new chunk technique instead of some other chunked techniques.

The Illusions of Competence

For the record, I thought this was going to be about the Dunning-Kruger effect, the 2016 internet's favorite concept to toss around. I have a relative that suffers from this in regards to economics, of which he knows nothing about but I majored in. Of course, I will opine on music and politics and then impose my own ignorant assumption of competence on someone else.

Jeffrey Karpicke proved that trying to recall things we just read can vastly improve our learning. The Recall technique is simply reading a text, looking away, and then recalling all that you remember. Then repeat this - read the text again, and try to recall all that you read again. This approach vastly outperformed rote memorization or multiple readings.

What seems to happen is that we can condense the four working memory slots to a single chunk occupying a single working memory slot. This is actually much like 'bouncing tracks' on a four track music recorder, where 3 tracks are copied to a single track to open up the other tracks for more music, like the Beatles did on early albums. Neurologically, our brains need context to store data effectively, what are called 'mental hooks' in the lecture, hooks that we hang our thinking on.

So the Recall technique is more effective than re-reading. Also, re-reading is only effective if there is a time gap between the first and second reading. Then it takes on the characteristics of spaced repetition.

Illusion of Competence

Just looking at problem solutions is actually not all that helpful. Observing a correctly solved problem instead of working through it fails to knit the problem solving technique into the brain. We have to actually do things to make them stick.

Highlighting and underlying are dangerous! We can trick ourselves into thinking we know things because of all the marks me made. Try writing notes that provide synthesis, and highlight and underline sparingly. Similarly things like concept mapping appear to not really help all that much when we want to learn something.

Just reading and re-reading can make us feel like we know something when we do not. Testing - using the recall technique, for example - help us identify thinking flaws and build chunks and chunk context even from mistakes.

We also take subliminal cues from our physical environments. We can erroneously connect visual cues to chunks. So be sure to mix up your environments to disconnect visual cues from chunks, and better prepare for a test taking environment that will be different from your study environment.

The Octopus of Attention

I love this analogy, because I think the Octopus is a glorious, smart animal we should try to eat vastly less of. Basically there is an 8-tentacled octopus representing your focused state, and she connects one of your 4 working memory slots to 4 near infinite storage memory areas to help build connections and chunk your thoughts.

A different analogy could be that of an old school telephone operator who connected incoming calls to other people via cords. An operator can very likely not handle more than one call at a time but perhaps with training could connect 4 incoming calls to any number of receiving phone numbers.

With understanding, we can connect these calls and build context so that we chunk the short term information faster and make it part of our brain tapestry.