Chunking refers to an approach for making more efficient use of short-term memory (STM) by grouping information.
Chunking breaks up long strings of information into units or chunks. The resulting chunks are easier to commit to memory than a longer uninterrupted string of information.
The term “chunking” was first introduced in 1956 by George A. Miller in his paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information.” Through his research, Miller found that short-term memory has a limited capacity.
Miller’s research into short term memory concluded that people can retain seven plus or minus two items of information in the short-term storage process of working memory at any given time. In contrast, long-term memory indefinitely stores a seemingly unlimited amount of information.
Because of its limited capacity, STM is the bottleneck in the memory system. If we can only retain about 7 items at one time in STM, then there are significant restrictions on how much information can be transferred to long-term memory (LTM). These restrictions can be overcome by chunking information into groups or units, making the seven items larger.
Chunking Increases Memory
Miller’s research showed that by organizing items into chunks short memory capacity can be substantially increased.
Miller discovered that an organized chunk of information functions as one item, and that a person could hold around seven chunks of information in short term working memory at the same time. These units or chunks can be thought of as seven containers each capable of holding one chunk of information in memory.
Individual letters can form into words; words can be formed into sentences, and then even into stories. Thus, more than seven letters or words can be held in short-term or working memory.
Examples of Chunking
The classic example of chunking is numbers. It is much easier to remember three sets of numbers, instead of 8 or 10 seemingly random numbers strung together.
8605554589 is chunked as 860-555-4589
11261995 is chunked as 11/26/1995