Chunking concepts to solidify and compress topics building chunks of information you can recall and reuse later

This is part 2 of a three parts assignment for the Learning how to learn course on Coursera. Also check Part 1 - Your brain on thinking and learning and Part 3 - Fighting procrastination.

Chunking is the process of filing information in your brain, it’s how you turn the text, the classes and the practice into mental patterns that can be recalled later when you’re trying to solve a problem. As such, the act of chunking is one of the most important pieces of your learning experience and one that needs careful attention.

The ideas behind it are very old and can be found in many different cultures, each in it’s own specific way. In martial arts, you can see the same concept presented as the Shu-ha-ri, which translates to obey, digress and separate, respectively.

At the Shu step, you are repeating a movement to build the muscle and mental memory of the steps you have to perform. Let’s take the common armbar as an example:

The armbar is one of the most basic submission movements in many martial arts like Judo and Jiu-Jitsu, it’s something you’ll surely learn at your very first weeks of practice. At the beginning, you will be presented to the movement and will be told to repeat it many times. You are focusing your attention on the steps that have to be performed for the move.

You need to remember that if you catch the the right arm, your right leg will be the one lifting you. Many times, when I was learning the armbar, I would hold the right arm and lift my body using the left leg, as you might expect, it didn’t work. As I repeated the process, the focus on performing the armbar and nothing else eventually led me to perform the right movement. I could repeat it correctly (from the mount position, on top of someone) whenever I tried.

Once you reach this point, you move to the Ha step. This is when you understand what you are doing. At this point you think about why the armbar works, how your legs on top of the opponent pins him to the ground and how, if you push your body up and keep your legs down, he has to either give up or risk a broken arm.

Can you still form a chunk if you don’t understand what you’re doing?

Of course, but it will be an useless one, since you won’t be able to relate it to other pieces of your knowledge. As much as being able to perform the movement is important, knowing how it actually works is important for you to reach the next level.

You might be able to perform those statistics exercises you have in the book, but if you don’t understand what the concept means it’s unlikely you’ll be able to link it to other concepts to form a larger (and compressed) chunk of information. You must understand the topic you’re studying for it to be useful in the long term.

And here we get to the last step, the Ri. The separation or transcendence represented by Ri means building a context around this chunk that has been repeated and understood. In an armbar, this would be thinking about the variations and when you can effectively apply it. See, for instance, how Ronda Rousey, an MMA fighter famous for her many armbar submissions, presents a variation:

The movement was learned from a mounted position, but there are many other ways and positions where it can be applied. There are also many moments when you should not try to apply it as it might put you in a bad position and make you lose a battle.

Building context around chunks is needed because we must learn when they should be applied so we can just not bring it to mind when tackling a problem we know can’t be solved using that specific practice. This also helps you file the chunk with other related chunks you already have or, even better, include it inside another chunk that already exists, making it use less space in your mind.

To summarize, the steps to chunking are:

Working memory and chunks

Researchers nowadays believe we have four working memory spots. These spots are the places where you hold chunks when you’re focusing on something. When you’re learning a new concept, all four spots are usually focused on chunking it, which is why it’s hard to learn when you have other distractions going on, they are holding up your working memory spots and leaving less space for your focused mode to grasp and build the chunk.

Once you actually build it, it either forms a new chunk in your brain or is mixed with another chunk you already have. Once you have to recall that chunk, instead of filling up your whole working memory, it will fill a single spot leaving more space for the other stuff you’re focusing on.

For instance, when learning functional programming, you will often need to pull the chunk of recursion and place it in your working memory. You’ll have to remember how you turn imperative loops into their respective recursive versions, how you use helper functions to pass state around and how they relate to the new method you’re learning. Once you understand the basics of functional programming, recursion won’t be sitting alone anymore, it will be accompanied by maps, folds, flat maps, cons lists and other concepts that make extensive use of recursion in functional programming.

Every chunk you build allows you to cram more information into your limited working memory (the memory you use to focus and think now) and also simplifies pulling data from your long term memory as they will be filed together. When you think about a fold/reduce method you’re also pulling the other related methods, like map and flat map since they’re all together inside the same concept.

The illusion of learning

One of the main pitfalls we encounter while learning and building chunks is the illusion of learning. This happens when you think you’ve learned a concept but since you’re really close to the actual material and you can look into the book to remind yoursef, it seems like you have already memorized the concept.

I learned the armbar on a monday, the next wednesday and friday trainings involved other movements other than the armbar, wednesday the other week we started doing it again and I felt helpess as I was making the same mistakes I did when I learned it the first time. What was wrong here? Didn’t I learn this just a week ago? Why am I making the same mistakes again?

Because it was an illusion of learning. While at that moment I could clearly reproduce the movement, it was still a very faint pattern in my brain, I needed more repetition to make it be a strong chunk that could be recalled later.

The best ways to build lasting chunks is by spaced repetition and recall. Since it took me more than a week to practice the armbar again, the original chunk had almost faded away, there were still some traces of it and I could get back to the right movement much faster than the first time, but it still required me to reconnect the brain patterns I had built before.

This is where spaced repetition comes into place. While repeating the same process many times once you have grasped it offers some return, it diminishes the more you repeat in a single session. What you want is to separate this repetition over different periods of time, first a day, then 3 days, then a week, until you have the chunk readily accessible in your brain at any time. Just re-reading some text or re-waching a class many times in a row might help you take a test tomorrow but the knowledge you’ve built will be gone the day after as you stopped practicing it.

Another important technique is recalling the content. Get a pencil and a piece of paper, look away from this screen and start writing the main ideas you can recall of what you have read so far. Now, look away!

Was it hard? What could you remember? Did you remember the Shu-Ha-Ri? Armbars? Ronda Rousey? Chunking?

Recall is a powerful technique because it forces you to go through the patterns in your brain that are being formed by what you are focusing on right now. Since you weren’t looking at the screen, you really had to remember something out of what you’ve read. Whenever you’re studying something new, stop for a bit, look away and try to remember what you’re reading, this will be much more effective than just re-reading everything without any practice.

Interleaving concepts and exercises

Imagine you’re going through a course that is separated in units and each unit has a quizz. Usually, these quizzes include only the concepts presented over that unit, it wouldn’t reference stuff from previous units directly. If it did, students might say hey, we didn’t prepare for this!, they possibly crammed for the previous unit and by now have very little memory out of what was learned back then.

Given we want to solidify the concepts, this is exactly what we have to do. As said earlier, re-reading the same text over and over in a single session (or overlearning) offers very little returns once you’ve grasped the concept, instead, you should interleave the concepts and exercises to force you to exercise your chunks.

This is what improves your context detection, the Ri part of the chunk building process. It’s easy to know which part of the knowledge you must use to solve a problem when you know it’s quizz is specific to unit 3. But if the exercises are mixed between unit 1, 2 and 3, for every problem, you would have to think, which part of the knowledge is this about? How do I apply what I have learned so far to solve it?

Even if your exercises come in sequential lists, you can apply interleaving by doing a couple of exercises in one subject and then jumping to other ones. Try to randomly pick problems to solve so you don’t get used to the steps you’re following. If you always solve the problems in subject sequence, after the second problem solved you’re not even thinking about it anymore, you’re just repeating the same steps you did for the previous one.

You have to keep your brain alive, strengthening the connections you have and avoiding the shortcuts. Your brain is lazy, it will always try to do the least amount of work possible, you have to take the reins and drive it towards your learning objectives.


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