Chunk It Up: Why Your Students Don’t Remember What You Tell Them

Imagine you sit down on the couch after a long day and plan to finally relax for the evening. Then, you remember that you forgot your drink in the kitchen and get back up. “Hey honey.”

Right on cue, my wife also needs some tasks completed before I can relax. “Yes, baby,” I reply.

“Can you get me…,” and then she proceeds to stream a long list of to-do’s at me. When I forget one of the eight tasks she asked me complete, I wonder to myself if she teaches her students the same way. Hopefully, unlike with me, she chunks her tasks and requests to students.

Chunking is an ultimate weapon to enhance memory and this section will delve into why chunking works so well.

Author: K. P. Miyapuram
Photo: K. P. Miyapuram

The Chunking Hypothesis

Why are phone numbers only seven digits long?

We can all thank George Miller for coming up with the Chunking Hypothesis in 1956.[i]

Miller decided that people, on average, could keep seven pieces of information in our memory. This number had a deviation of two, depending on the task. Thus the title of his paper, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information. “He demonstrated that one can repeat back a list of no more than about seven randomly ordered, meaningful items or chunks (which could be letters, digits, or words).”[ii]

Chunking information in seven pieces seemed to be a very good measuring stick until recently. New research suggests, that we are only able to keep about 3 pieces of information in our working memory.[iii]

(Learn How to Develop #Grit in the classroom Here)

Think back to the phone number’s digits.

A phone number is broken down into two 3 digit chunks and one 4-digit chunk (555-555-5555). Once upon a time before cell phones, we tried to memorize numbers of our closest friends. How did you remember them? Chances are that it was by chunking the numbers into these three or four number chunks.

People will usually remember three things that you ask them to do. Anymore than three and you are really going against our brain’s natural processing. When telling students to do things, remember the rule of three.

(To Find out what motivates students more than anything else click here!)

Cognitive Backlog

Giving Directions

         Chunking also needs to be addressed in how you give directions to students. If you tell them, “Take out your books, turn to page 45, and begin the practice questions.” Chances are that less than 50% of the class will comply with your request. That is because you overloaded them with commands.

The Working Memory Model, an influential model of short-term capacity for information, estimates that verbal information can be memorized at a 2 second capacity.

Information that requires less time than 2 seconds can be stored reliably in working memory. However, once this capacity is exceeded, the temporary storage of auditory information becomes unreliable.[iv]

Even though this does follow the rule of three (with three commands), many will still ask you to repeat parts or all of the command. Instead, chunk the commands into three short phrases. Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to instructing students to do something explicit like the previous request.

The Rule of Three

People can perform two or three well-learned automatic tasks at once. But, if there is a need for concentration or considerable thought they can only attend to one task at a time.[v]

Multitasking will lead to decrease in the quality of the work and the students will be less efficient in performing tasks that need attention.

As a principal, I have to constantly remind myself of the rule of three. When coaching a teacher, it is easy to come up with lots of solutions to their teaching issues. But I know that I must only give them three pieces of advice at once. This technique has worked more effectively than when I used to just stream advice to them.

Researchers discovered that there is an actual “constant chunk capacity in verbal working memory,” and it was identified through a new procedure. The researchers concluded that,

“We have extended the conclusion that there is a constant capacity in chunks… supporting an important but rarely tested cognitive hypothesis.” Their conclusion, “There is an approximately constant capacity of about 3 chunks, regardless of list length, provided that covert verbal rehearsal is suppressed, and participants are not held responsible for serial order information.”[vi]

Chunking information, directions, and other aspects of school into three chunks will result in less frustration from both the students and the teacher.

Thanks for reading!

David Palank

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[i] Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychology Rev. 63,81–97

[ii] Cown, N. (2010) The magical mystery four: how is working memory capacity limited, and why?. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2010 Feb 1; 19(1): 51–57. doi:  10.1177/0963721409359277

[iii] Cowan, N. (2001, Feb). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(1):87-114.

[iv] Cown, N. (2010) The magical mystery four: how is working memory capacity limited, and why?. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2010 Feb 1; 19(1): 51–57. doi:  10.1177/0963721409359277

[v] Banikowski, A. K. (1999). Strategies to enhance memory based on brain research. Focus on Exceptional Children, 32(2)

[vi] Chen, Z., & Cowan, N. (2009). Core verbal working-memory capacity: The limit in words retained without covert articulation. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. doi:10.1080/17470210802453977


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