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By Chunking Information


I know, you've heard from parents, teachers, and those pesky ever-prepared nerdy kids that cramming is only for losers.

It's true that cramming is not a good idea for the most part. It's especially not a good idea to try to get through high school or college by cramming at the last minute every time you take a test.

But let's be real. No matter how much we try to avoid interruptions, there will be times when unexpected events take over and distract us from our normal routines. A baseball injury, a family visitor, a sick pet--lots of things can pull you away from study time unexpectedly.

One way to cram information and make it stick is the "chunking" method.


Chunking is a concept that first emerged in the 1950s when a Harvard psychologist named George Miller published his study on short term memory. It was called "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two."

Miller suggested that humans can successfully retain 5 to 9 items in short term memory banks. To illustrate this, you can try memorizing this grocery list:

  • Eggs
  • Flour
  • Milk
  • Bacon
  • Baking powder
  • Butter
  • Syrup
  • Cereal
  • Blueberries

There are nine items in this list, so many people will have difficulty remembering all of them. However, when we find a way to chunk those items into categories, we can find it much easier to remember them.

Think of these items as three different breakfast lists:

  • Eggs and bacon for day one.
  • Pancakes for day two, requiring flour, baking powder, and milk. We'll also need syrup and butter!
  • Cereal for day three: cereal, milk, blueberries (it doesn't hurt anything to repeat milk).

Try it now! Chances are, you can remember every item. Why? Our brains are "tricked" into thinking we're only remembering three things instead of nine.

Use Chunking to Cram for a Test

When you think of all the information you have to study when you're cramming, you can easily become overwhelmed. However, you can use the concept of chunking to reduce the information you're "cramming" into your short-term memory.

How does this work? Basically, you will reduce the information into categories. Once you can boil down all the information to five to nine big categories, you should be okay for a test.

It takes some time, but it really works!

1. Gather all your class notes and texts in one place.

2. Identify important terms. Go back through your text and class notes and identify all the important words or phrases. There may be dozens of important terms.

3. Write a short definition for each term.

4. Identify five to nine important concepts. Using note cards (make your own if necessary), write down the chapter headings, lecture themes, or chapter titles. These are the main ideas or concepts you'll need to understand. Use a separate note card for each concept.

5. Write a short paragraph to define or discuss each of your major concepts, including several of your terms for each paragraph (good practice for the short essay question).

6. Go back and forth, reading and testing yourself on the individual terms and the long definitions until you are pretty comfortable.

7. Test yourself with with fresh, blank note cards. Re-write the main ideas and try reproducing your definitions without looking at your previous cards. Each time you include one of the terms, highlight it or underline it. This is a visual that will reinforce information.

8. Repeat step 7 until you can incorporate all your terms into one of your concept paragraphs.

By using this method, you are chunking all of the important terms into major concepts.

Tip: When cramming for an exam, don't drink so much caffeine it keeps you awake all night. It's okay to study late as long as you are certain to get six to eight hours of sleep. If you don't get any sleep at all you won't remember anything.

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