How Chunking Pieces of Information Can Improve Memory

7 Techniques to Increase Memory: Loci and Chunking

How Chunking Pieces of Information Can Improve Memory

Our fast-paced lives and technological reliance has made our memory fade and attention spans smaller. According to a study by Microsoft, the average human being has an attention span of 8 seconds.

Research also shows that within one hour, people will have forgotten an average of 50% of the information presented to them and within 24 hours, they will have forgotten an average of 70% of new information.

You may have experienced the frustrations of conducting a meeting, just to have your employees forget key talking points or stumbled on your last speech because you couldn’t remember what to say. In both scenarios, poor memory is to blame.

There are several ways to incorporate memorization techniques in both your personal and professional lives. These techniques include loci, acronyms, rhyming, linking, chunking, PQRST, and writing things down.

This article is the first of a series that will discuss the varied techniques to remember more. In this article, we explore the loci and chunking methods. Below is a description of each memory technique, how you can put loci and chunking into practice, and a comparison between the two options.

The loci technique, or memory palace technique, was created over 2000 years ago to help ancient Greek and Roman orators memorize speeches. Orators were only deemed successful if they could deliver their speech by memory. Similar to today, audiences were more ly to believe that the orator was competent and authoritative if they did not refer to their notes.

“Loci” (being Latin for “places” is a memory technique the idea that a person can best remember places that they are familiar with. So if you can link something (key ideas, items to a list, etc.) with the place that you know well, the location will act as a cue to help remember what you are trying to memorize.

As mentioned in Memory Palaces and the Method of Loci, the Greeks and Romans practiced loci by mentally placing key points of their speech in locations along familiar routes through their city or palace.

To remember the key point, each item they passed on the street represented an idea. As they passed each location, they visualized the idea interacting with a specific location.

When they were ready to give their speech, they mentally walked through the same journey in their memory palace, retrieving the key ideas they wanted to discuss.

How to Use Loci

  1. First, think of a route that you know well, such as walking through your home.
  2. Next, visualize each part of the information that you want to memorize in a different room or area of your house.
  3. Then, mentally place each item that you want to remember at one of the locations
  4. Finally, when you want to remember the items, visualize your house and go through it room by room in your mind.

    Each time you walk through the locations in your mind, a memory should arise.


Here’s how it would work if you wanted to memorize key talking points for a speech:

  • Mission
  • Customer Service
  • Money-Saving
  • Design

As you visualize your house, imagine a huge marquee with your company mission hanging from the door. Don’t just imagine the words, but rather see the lights flashing around the mission.

Now open the door, enter the living room, and imagine tons of people running across the room to help someone in the far corner of the room. Then, walk through the living room, taking a left at the dining room and visualize money raining from the ceiling.  Last, envision paintings coming to life through your kitchen walls.

Once you have walked through memory palace, when you try and remember your list, all you have to do is think of your front door.

The loci method has proven to be an effective memorization technique from ancient to modern times. This form of memorization is great when you are trying to prepare a speech, meeting, or presentation.

Chunking refers to the process of taking smaller pieces (chunks) of information and grouping them into bigger units. By taking smaller pieces of a larger whole, you can improve the amount remembered. An example of chunking is how phone numbers are put into chunks rather than one long line of numbers.

According to neuroscientist Daniel Bor, author of The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning, chunking represents humans’ ability to “hack” the limits of our memory and combine the information in a more meaningful way resulting in more information being retained.

How to Chunk

  1. If you are in the process of rolling out a complex system, try breaking down the major concepts into smaller topics.
  2. Look for connections to relate each unit in a relatable way. What do the items have in common?
  3. Practice going over each chunk.

    For example, periodically repeat each subtopic to associates to ensure that they retain the information.

A good manager can help employees handle a greater bandwidth of information by effectively chunking information.

Managers should build upon the chunks and recall information from past chunks using repetition and connection.

Loci Vs Chunking

Both loci and chunking allow you to recall greater amounts of information at a time. Loci is a great method to use when attempting to memorize speeches, lectures, or lists. Chunking is best used when trying to memorize long numbers or breaking down complex topics into relatable chunks.

Which method works best for your organization?

Don’t forget! At Learning Tribes our blended learning solutions use a combination of techniques to maximize corporate learning. To get started contact us.


The Power of Chunking: How To Increase Learning Retention

How Chunking Pieces of Information Can Improve Memory

In 1980, K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues published a fascinating experiment. They took a student of average intelligence, memory capacity, and IQ and had an experimenter test the limits of his memory.

The experimenter read a series of random numbers and then had the student recite them back in the exact order. If he was able to recite the numbers in the correct order, the experimenter would add another digit to the next random set. If he made a mistake, the next set of random numbers would be one digit shorter.

At the beginning of the experiment, the student proved his average intelligence and memory by only being able to memorize a sequence of about 7 numbers. This also confirmed George Miller’s earlier theory that an average human can only hold 7 items (+/- 2) in their working memory at a time.

The experiment was repeated, 4 days a week, for almost two years.

20 months later, the student who began with an average memory, just you and me, could now memorize a sequence of numbers 80 digits long. Imagine 8 people telling you their phone number (including area code) and being able to recite it back perfectly all at once.

How did the student achieve such a dramatic increase in the ability of his short-term memory?

The answer to how the student's learning retention rates improved so significantly can be found by analyzing the concept of chunking.

What is chunking?

Chunking is the act of breaking a component into smaller “chunks” of related information. This very sentence you are reading is composed of individual letters that have been “chunked” together to form words and a sentence.

Every skill is composed of chunks that aggregate to form the greater whole.

For example, if you want to learn how to swing a golf club, you need to learn several different things: how to grip the club, how to position your feet, the proper stance, how to bend your elbow in the backswing, how to follow through, where to focus your eyes during the swing, how to retrieve your golf ball from the woods, etc.

It would be impossible to learn everything at once since our working memory can only hold about seven items of information at a time. So, decompressing the skill into bite-sized chunks and mastering them one at a time until the act becomes unconscious is an effective way of learning.

How does chunking work?

«There are three straightforward sides to chunking processes—the search for chunks, the noticing and memorizing of those chunks, and the use of the chunks we’ve already built up.

The main purpose of consciousness is to search for and discover these structured chunks of information within working memory, so that they can then be used efficiently and automatically, with minimal further input from consciousness.

»  — Daniel Bor, The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning

In addition to reducing the cognitive load, chunking also provides meaning and context to the information, making it easier to remember.

How was the student in the experiment able to memorize 80 random numbers?

It turns out the student was a track runner. Instead of seeing a random strings of numbers, the student converted them to track times, with 8357 becoming 8 minutes and 35.7 seconds and so forth. After several months, he discovered a new strategy that further increased his ability to recall the numbers. As explained in The Ravenous Brain:

“…he was using his memory of well-known number sequences in athletics to prop up his working memory.

This strategy worked very well, and he rapidly more than doubled his working memory capacity to nearly 20 digits.

The next breakthrough some months later occurred when he realized he could combine each running time into a superstructure of 3 or 4 running times—and then group these superstructures together again.”

The student was combining 3 or 4 running times into a larger chunk.

While he never held more than 7 items in his working memory at once, by chunking the numbers into larger groups, he was able to expand his ability to recall the numbers.

Chunking allows us to “hack” the limits of our working memory by taking complex data, decompressing it, and then putting it back together in a way that is easier to understand.


If you’ve ever wondered why phone and social security numbers include dashes, it’s because the dashes make the numbers easier to remember (for example, is it easier to memorize 6125559510 or 612-555-9510?). By separating the numbers into arbitrary groups, they are easier to recall.


«Spotting patterns is about finding redundancy in the information. You can compress the information into a different, smaller, and more useful form by spotting parts that repeat in some way or other, and, ideally, capturing the repetitions in a rule. If we can successfully turn any group of data into a pattern or rule, then near-magical results ensue.

First, we no longer need to remember that mountain of data—we simply need to recall one simple law. But the benefits don’t just stretch to memory. We’re also, crucially, able to predict all future instances of this data, and so control our environment more efficiently.

The rule may even capture something about the mechanism of the data, allowing us to understand it in a more fundamental way.»

— Daniel Bor, The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning

It was once thought that master chess players had photographic memories that allowed them to easily recall strategies and improvise.

The Dutch psychologist Adriaan Dingeman de Groot was skeptical of this theory so he conducted his own experiments with chess players.

He discovered that what separates chess masters from novices isn’t photographic memory, but the knowledge and memorization of different patterns.


Organizing involves dividing a group into multiple categories meaning. For example, when learning a new language, one might choose to learn nouns before moving on to verbs, adjectives, and all of the different tenses.

1. Understand where the learner is coming from

Using chunking often involves understanding what the learner knows so you can determine how far to decompress the skill. If you break a skill into too small of chunks, much of the learning will be repetitive.

If you don't break a skill into small enough chunks, the learner will be needlessly confused and frustrated.

The extent to which you should decompress a chunk of information or skill is a balancing act that requires an assessment of the learner's knowledge, one of the principles of instructional design, so you don't repeat what they already know, but build on it.

2. Build each new chunk upon existing knowledge

Building upon what the learner already knows creates a far more efficient learning experience. By connecting new information to information the learner has already mastered, it shrinks the emotional learning barrier and shows the context of the new information. When you understand the context of information, it’s much easier to see how it is important as well as relates to the whole.

When we design and deliver blended learning solutions for clients, we often recommend doing eLearning before classroom training. This is an effective way to bring learners who may be at different levels to a common baseline of knowledge.

It’s helpful to think of learning a new skill much putting together a puzzle. You have a model of what your goal looks , but the only way to get there is by connecting one piece at a time. Sometimes you might be starting with a half-completed puzzle.

3. Focus on one thing at a time

New information needs to be learned slowly and in the context it will be used. When you speed through a course, you may get a good feeling from checking it off a list, but you won’t receive the lasting change of improved performance.

Focus the learning experience on one chunk at a time. If you are creating an eLearning course, this means only showing one main idea, or chunk, on each slide. Learning slowly so you can perform quickly seems strange, yet it’s exactly how many world-class performers learn.

Daniel Coyle, in his book The Talent Code, explains how experts approach chunking:

First, the participants look at the task as a whole— as one big chunk, the megacircuit. Second, they divide it into its smallest possible chunks. Third, they play with time, slowing the action down, then speeding it up, to learn its inner architecture.

4. Make time for practice

To really master a “chunk” of information, you need to shift from passive consumption of information over to active practice.

The student in the experiment mentioned earlier was only able to develop an improved memory because of practice and repetition.

Only through active practice and repetition can information shift from working memory to the unconscious, allowing the learner to advance to higher level thinking.


How Chunking Helps Content Processing

How Chunking Pieces of Information Can Improve Memory
Definition: In general usage, a ‘chunk’ means a piece or part of something larger. In the field of cognitive psychology, a chunk is an organizational unit in memory.

Chunks can have varying levels of activation — meaning they can be easier or more difficult to recall.

When information enters memory, it can be recoded so that related concepts are grouped together into one such chunk. This process is called chunking, and is often used as a memorization technique.

For example, a chunked phone number (+1-919-555-2743) is easier to remember (and scan) than a long string of unchunked digits (19195552743).

UX-Definition: In the field of user-experience design, ‘chunking’ usually refers to breaking up content into small, distinct units of information (or ‘chunks’), as opposed to presenting an undifferentiated mess of atomic information items.

Presenting content in chunks makes scanning easier for users and can improve their ability to comprehend and remember it. In practice, chunking is about creating meaningful, visually distinct content units that make sense in the context of the larger whole.

Chunking Text Content

Users appreciate chunked text content. It helps avoid walls of text, which can appear intimidating or time-consuming. Chunking enables easy skimming — users’ preferred method of reading online.

Some of the most commonly used methods of chunking text content are:

  • Short paragraphs, with white space to separate them
  • Short text lines of text (around 50–75 characters)
  • Clear visual hierarchies with related items grouped together
  • Distinct groupings in strings of letters or numbers such as passwords, license keys, credit-card or account numbers, phone numbers, and dates (for example, 14487324534 vs 1 (448) 732 4534)

Chunked strings should use the most conventional format for each data type to minimize user slips. For example, credit card numbers are usually presented in 4 chunks of 4 digits each (e.g., 4111 1111 1111 1111 instead of 4111111111111111). Be aware that the standard format for some strings will vary by country.


(01) 55 1234 5678




United States

Sample chunking formats for telephone numbers in three countries.

Although formatting improves scannability, it does make typing more difficult. Users should not have to type in formatting characters; instead, forms should use autoformattting — input fields should automatically chunk your users’ input. This contact form for a real-estate website appropriately chunks the agency’s phone number at the top. The phone-number input is chunked automatically as the user types a string of digits. (Note, however, that we recommend against displaying the field labels within the input boxes.)

Simply chunking your text isn’t enough — you also need to support scanning by making it easy to quickly identify the main points of the chunks. You can do this by including:

  • Headings and subheadings that clearly contrast with the rest of the text (bolder, larger, etc.)
  • Highlighted keywords (bold, italic, etc.)
  • Bulleted or numbered lists
  • A short summary paragraph for longer sections of text, such as articles This wall of text on the homepage of a real-estate search engine has long lines of text, no highlighting, and no subheadings. One user saw this unchunked wall of text and said, “There’s a lot of writing down here. I’m not interested in this. It makes it look messy.” The three words she used to describe this page were: “Busy,” “wordy,” and “unwelcoming.” BBC uses short paragraphs, lots of white space, subheadings, and a short summary to chunk this article. Each topic subheading also has a subtle horizontal rule and a related photograph to help further delineate between sections. One user took a few seconds to look over the page and said, “I feel that this is very nicely split up. I’m positive that it’s an easy read. It said what were the five [topics covered in the article], and then split them up.” She then proceeded to actually read the entire article — which perhaps says more about the success of their chunking than her comment.

Chunking Multimedia Content

The key to effectively chunking multimedia content (text as well as images, graphics, videos, buttons, and other elements) is to keep related things close together and aligned (in accordance with the Law of Proximity in Gestalt psychology). Using background colors, horizontal rules, and white space can help users visually distinguish between what’s related and what isn’t.

MailChimp’s minimalist design relies on subtle methods of indicating chunks. The paragraphs and subheadings are clearly related by their proximity. Their shared width creates invisible alignment (the subheading and paragraph text both sit in a 500px-wide HTML container). At a glance, it’s harder to distinguish which chunk of text describes the screenshot in the middle. When looking more carefully you may notice that the image is closer to the top paragraph.

Other types of content (such as videos or graphics) can also be chunked. Just remember that the main idea of chunking is to divide information into clearly distinct groups of related content.

For example, you can chunk video content into individually accessible chapters or topics, to allow users to easily navigate inside the video.

Or you can group related tools in a crowded application toolbar to help users remember where to find them. An interactive video transcript chunks a long video into individual, navigable segments. Users can scan the text and jump to different points in the video. This transcript misses an opportunity, however—subheadings and highlighted text would help call out the main ideas of each chunk and better support navigation.

The Mythical Number Seven

You’ve probably heard of the ‘magical number seven,’ made famous by cognitive psychologist George Miller. In 1956, Miller found that most people can remember about 7 chunks of information in their short-term memory. What Miller found interesting, however, was not the number 7 itself.

Instead, he was fascinated by the fact that the size of the chunks did not seem to matter — people could remember 7 individual letters, or 28 letters if they were grouped into 7 four-letter words. (In the former case, each unrelated letter counts as a chunk, whereas in the latter case, each word is a chunk.


In the field of user experience, Miller’s magical number seven is often misunderstood to mean that humans can only process seven chunks at any given time. As a consequence, confused designers will sometimes misuse this finding to justify unnecessary design limitations.

For example, a designer may refuse to add more than seven options in a global navigation bar for fear of violating the magical number seven.

However, the point of menus is reliance on recognition rather than recall: users don’t need to keep all of the menu items in their short-term memory, because all the available options are continuously displayed on the screen.

So there are no usability gains to be made by limiting the number of menu items to seven. Menus can still be easy to use with more than seven choices, as long as the options are structured in a meaningful way.

The main takeaway from Miller’s research for UX professionals should be this: Human short-term memory is limited, so if you want your users to retain more, pack information into meaningful chunks.

Don’t ask your users to hold more than a few pieces of information in their short-term memory at once. And don’t get hung up on the number seven — Miller himself titled his paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.

” Other researchers have suggested that the right number could be anywhere from three to six.

Whatever the average capacity of short-term memory may be, the specific capacity for individual humans will vary (it's one of the many causes for the huge variability in user performance). You could be one of the “plus-one” or “plus-two” people, especially if you’re a developer who makes a living from keeping lots of information in memory at once.

(No, it's not that programming computers makes your brain grow until it strains against your skull. Rather, it's only people born with high-capacity brains who are attracted to a career that requires them to retain a lot of items in memory.

) In contrast, many of your customers could easily be “minus-one” or “minus-two” people, which means that they will have great difficulty remembering things that you might find easy. The short-term–memory limits will additionally be impacted by users’ context: where they are and what else is happening around them while they use your interface.

This point is discussed further in our UX Basic Training course and is one of the key reasons you can’t judge ease of use purely on the basis on whether you personally feel a design is easy to use. This e-commerce site uses a subtle background color and negative space to help users visually distinguish between each chunk (each laptop), but displays 21 options on a single page. This decision works fine, because users will probably browse or search on this page, and they won’t need to remember each individual laptop.


Chunking is critical for presenting content that users can comprehend and remember easily. Use chunking for text and multimedia content a to help users understand underlying relationships and information hierarchy.

(Learn more about the relationship between cognition and UX design in our full-day course The Human Mind and Usability.)


George A. Miller, 1956. The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information. Psychological Review 63 (2): 81–97.


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