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Taking it Further: How To Chunk Ideas In A Well Written Essay

by Harry Witchel 5th May 2020

In this, Part 2 of how to teach your students to write a clear and organized essay, Harry Witchel looks at chunking in the context of a 2000 word essay. Read Part 1 here

This post takes chunking to the next level, and explains how students can use it to organize a longer assignment. This is especially important in biology, medicine and the allied health sciences, where there is a tradition of dividing up information in a way that makes it easier for the reader to find what they are looking for: these are the headings Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion (IMRaD).

Once your students have mastered chunking a paragraph, then they are ready for the big jump to chunking an essay. This is where chunking becomes really important. Chunking is when you organize ideas into bite-size chunks where little ideas fit inside bigger ideas. When you are first thinking about what to include in an essay (during the idea generation or mind mapping phase), you may have 15 to 20 different ideas. Not all ideas are equally important, and so you need to organize the ideas into bigger and littler chunks. For the reader's benefit, chunking must start with between two to seven big chunk ideas because psychologically that is what readers find approachable. You should explain to your students that the best ideas to be biggest chunks should be based on their own sense of what is important. These are the ideas that are critical for their argument.

When students are writing essays, they invariably will have a word count or guidance on the length. As a teacher, as soon as your students are confident with chunking, you should introduce the method of breaking apart the word count based upon how important each chunk is. So if they have a 2000 word assignment on 'What is metabolism AND give some examples of metabolic poisons', you would show them that right away they can break up the essay arbitrarily like this:
  • Introduction - 200 words
  • What is metabolism - 800 words
  • Examples of metabolic poisons - 800 words
  • Conclusions - 200 words
At this point you can also show students how to outline their content by putting each idea on a separate line. To explain how chunking works you need to show how to indent smaller chunks under the bigger chunks they belong to. For the students who find line-by-line outlining restrictive, you can show them how to draw mind maps; remember to explain that each time they draw a new arrow, it is going from a big chunk to a littler chunk.

Exercise 2:

10 minutes of student time plus time for feedback
Write an outline or plan showing how you would chunk your ideas for a 2000-word essay
Possible topics:
  • 'Explain how different forms of transportation contribute to greenhouse gases and CO2 in the environment'
    Among the examples, consider: Cars, trucks, rail, boats, airplanes, horse
    To break apart the ideas into chunks, consider: By land, sea, air, or by speed
  • 'Explain the activities of the muscles of the arm that contribute to generating the forces for lifting a glass of water in order to take a drink'
    Ask the students to consider how to break apart the essay into large chunks:
    Early vs late phase
    Muscles that control upper arm vs forearm vs hand
  • Describe how insulin controls the level of blood sugar and explain how diabetes mellitus results from loss of insulin regulation'
    Remind students how you have to split apart the word count for 'And' essays


Organize Your Thinking!

Selling 'organization' to your students can start with chunking. This is a conceptually straightforward approach. Your students can understand that chunking is extremely valuable for keeping big projects organized and preventing them from spiralling out of control. From a teaching perspective, chunking - and most other aspects of large scale organization - is much easier to teach with tiny projects OR 'as if' projects that are never completed. The most useful advice I can give is that it is essential to teach that word count should be apportioned between the major chunks; the advanced students will be ready to learn that the word count for each major chunk can be divided between the smaller chunks inside of it. Once students understand that planning involves apportioning limited resources, they are ready to manage larger projects.
Featured image: Photo by jeonsango. Available on Pixabay via the Pixabay License.