Harry Witchel discusses chunking as a way to help students organise their ideas in order to produce a clear and coherent piece of written work.
What is chunking and why do we do it?Why is it so difficult for students to learn how to write an essay that is organized and clear? I have been teaching university-level biomedical and life sciences students this process for many years, and a key issue is that organized writing starts before the actual writing begins. Organized writing requires organized thinking, and a surprising number of students do not know what organized thinking is.
Chunking - organizing ideas into bite-size chunks where little ideas fit inside bigger ideas - is an easily understandable way to communicate to students how to organize their thinking. In daily life organized thinking is an intuitive process, but when writing, chunking ideas explicitly, with an outline or mind map, is an essential part of the planning and organization process. The key to selling planning and organization to students is by stressing that it is extremely useful when you have a longer writing task with lots to do. This is doubly true in an assignment where there is both research and writing because these are often done separately, which makes it all too easy to lose track of what you are trying to write about when you are reading about new things.
Chunking ideas makes written communication clearer for both the writer and the reader. Chunking is what creates a logical progression of thoughts. This makes it easier for the reader to understand, because the reader knows what to expect, and where each idea fits in. In the biomedical sciences, the traditional headings of Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion (IMRaD) are examples of how important it is for the reader to be able to find what they are looking for in a text. Other headings may be more appropriate for other types of writing, but my point is that communicating the broad structure of ideas is as important as having the ideas in the first place. For the same reason of logical progression, chunking also helps the writer. Chunking helps the author to decide what to include and, more importantly, what to leave out.
Like most elements of communication, chunking is not a right-or-wrong process. It is subjective, and at some level intuitive. Chunking is a process that works hand in glove with idea generation; that is when you should teach it, along with mind mapping and creative strategies. When teaching writing, it’s easier to explain chunking a small set of ideas (like a paragraph) before chunking an entire essay. I use the BEER model to explain chunking in paragraphs.
How to chunk ideas in a paragraph: the BEER Model
If your students do not have the hang of it, you can ask them to do an exercise. Exercises on organizing thoughts should start simple. The exercise should entail no research, and it should be based on knowledge they already have. The process is intuitive, so you should ask them to write something they can approach intuitively. Before they begin you should also explain that there are no right or wrong answers, but some answers are better linked together than others.
15 minutes of student time plus time for feedback
Exercise 1: Write a paragraph
Write a paragraph (on any open-ended topic) with a line between each sentence and label each sentence as:
- "What is the perfect breakfast?": include "pizza for breakfast" and "breakfast all day"
- "Are viruses alive?": include "replication" and "parasitic/dependent existence"