Math and physics tutoring by Dr. Dave
Researchers know that learning math can be challenging.

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Chunking

A chunk is made of pieces of information - thoughts, ideas and techniques - that are related by their meaning or use. In neuroscience, it's a network of neurons that often fire together in support of an action that you want to perform smoothly or efficiently, like hitting a baseball or playing a piece of music. For math and physics a chunk could be a method for solving a particular type of problem like a linear system of equations. Deliberate practice and repetition builds strong memory pathways, and helps create chunks. With time, small chunks come together to form larger chunks. It's like learning a song on guitar: we learn brief passages, focus on and practice the more difficult parts (small chunks), then eventually put all the bits together in a coherent piece (larger chunk). Once the chunk is formed, the action - playing a song or doing a particular type of math problem - becomes second nature.

In math and physics, using a worked example is a great place to begin forming a chunk that will be a guide to solving all similar problems. Instead of dwelling on the details of a particular step, it is much more important to focus on how each step relates to the others - the process of the solution.

Chunks are best built with:

  • Focused attention
  • Understanding the basic idea
  • Practice to master the idea, and get a sense of the big picture and how your chunk fits in

Practice and recall is a proven and very effective way to form chunks. Here's how it works: after working through a new section and practicing, close the book and test yourself on how much you remember. It's also very useful to try the recall step in a number of different locations to make sure you are not remembering from visual clues in your usual study spot.

Chunking can also be described as bottom up learning, in which many small pieces are related to and fit in with a larger concept. Equally important is top down learning, where you start with the big picture to establish a context for new ideas, then study at the details. Both are integral parts of effective learning.

Finally, don't confuse an aha moment with the formation of a chunk. That moment is only the beginning and you'll have to continue practicing and recalling to get that chunk embedded in your brain.