Towards Expertise: The Role Chunking in Developing Productive Fluency in Drawing (Semester 1 Summary)



In a world where there is more and more to know, we place
a high value on learning. The challenge of getting
information into our heads and keeping it there has spurred
many studies, including one that has proven to be very
influential within the past fifty years. George A. Miller’s
research on the limits of short-term memory, published in
his 1956 paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or
Minus Two” has been followed by a large number of
information theory studies by researchers exploring the
idea of chunks of memory in the context of disciplines as
varied as chess and Chinese calligraphy.

A “chunk” might be defined as a single unit of information
taken into and held for processing in a person’s short-term
memory. This chunk may be made up of letters, numbers,
sounds, or any other type of information the mind is
capable of absorbing. As Simon explains in “How Big is a

“…The capacity of short-term memory, measured in
chunks, is independent of the material of which those
chunks are manufactured—five chunks worth of words,
five chunks of digits, five chunks of colors, five chunks of
shapes, five chunks of poetry or prose.” (Simon, 483)
Short-term memory is a way-station, “the place where
information is manipulated, where inferences are made, and
where problems are solved…a work bench where
information recognized in the sensory registers and
information retrieved from long-term memory may be
processed and put to work.” (Hayes, 120) The point of
Miller’s paper is that there is a limit to the number of
chunks short-term memory can hold at one time, and that
this number is somewhere around seven. While some
scholars, like Fernand Gobet, suggest that the number may
be even lower, it is generally agreed that a limit exists, and
that the critical factor affecting knowledge is not so much
the number of chunks held as the amount of information a
person can pack into each chunk. However, here there is a
problem. In order for short-term memory to form and
categorize a chunk of information, the set of information
itself must have some meaning or pattern. For instance,
memorizing a group of letters like “A E I N L R T G” may
prove a difficult task, until one is presented with the letters
in a different order: “T R I A N G L E”—or better yet, with
a picture of a triangle itself. Both sets of information have
intrinsic connections to information already established in
the memorizer’s permanent knowledge, or long-term

So the success of absorbing new information seems to
depend on how well that information can be linked to
something the person already knows. (Hayes, 122) And sets
of chunks can be grouped into even larger chunks as long
as encompassing larger meanings can be found for them.

Chunks and Chess

In the 1960s, Adriaan De Groot conducted a series of
studies looking at the difference in play between chess
master players and novices. What he discovered, and what
subsequent researchers, like Chase and Simon, also
observed, was that, contrary to popular belief, master
players didn’t examine more potential moves or think more
moves ahead than the novices—they simply made better
moves. He also observed that they had better memory of
chess positions than the novices.

What he concluded, and what Chase and Simon’s 1971
study confirmed, was that this difference was not due to
better memory, but rather to the masters’ superior
knowledge of chess. In trials, the masters were able to
quickly and accurately reproduce board positions that they
had glanced at for only a few seconds. This was because
they already had a huge repertoire of chess patterns stored
in memory, and were recognizing patterns and
combinations of patterns rather than memorizing them. As
Chase and Simon describe it,

“What was once accomplished by slow, conscious
deductive reasoning is now arrived at by fast, unconscious
perceptual processing. It is no mistake of language for the
chess master to say that he “sees” the right move.” (Chase
& Simon, 2)

They go on to identify the patterns in the master’s memory
as complex chunks. While the novice might see a board as
containing twenty or more small chunks of information, a
master might recognize it as a combination of complex
chunks—for instance, a ““fianchettoed bishop in the castled
kingside” together with a “blockaded king’s-Indian-style
pawn chain”” (Ross, 69) Two giant steps against twenty
small steps puts the master way ahead in the game.

The speed, facility, and high-quality result of master play
shows up in other disciplines as well. Virtuoso musicians
use their own type of chunks, gliding through runs of notes
that novices would play on a note-by-note basis. Oral poets
think in terms of verses, rather than individual words. Does
this analogy carry into the visual arts as well? To answer
this question, I observed a freshman drawing class for three
months in their study under two Carnegie Mellon
professors who employed a highly structured, chunking-
oriented system of teaching. The class included students
with a wide range of drawing skill, from high to low or no
previous drawing instruction at all. The goal of the course,
running over two semesters, was to help the students gain a
level of aptitude that would allow them to draw with
confidence before a client—to perform quickly, easily,
producing an image of good quality. This falls short of
mastery, which according to Simon is rarely attainable in
less than ten years of intense practice. However, it
describes a level of ability, which I am calling “productive

What is Productive Fluency?

‘Productive fluency’ is a term based on D. N. Perkins’ idea
of ‘product fluency’, which he defines as a state when “a
quality product emerges quickly, with little revision.” In
The Mind’s Best Work, he emphasizes that statistics reveal
no relationship between mastery and product fluency.
(Perkins, 167-8) This is mainly due to his observation that
experts hold themselves to higher standards than those of
non-experts, and therefore spend more time and labor on
their work to achieve a higher-quality result. He also
describes a state called ‘process fluency’, in which the
making process itself is fluent—“never baffled or blocked.”
(Perkins, 166) Putting this together with the idea of product
fluency, and adjusting the name to avoid confusion with the
literal idea of product design, one comes up with
‘productive fluency’—a state in which a high-quality result
emerges quickly and easily.

There is a need for this term. While observing the freshman
drawing class, and the performance of the professors and
the teaching assistant (himself a product of last year’s
freshman class), I saw that it was the purpose of the class to
make the students fluent in their drawing.

‘Productive fluency’ is not expertise, and probably is no
more related to expertise than is Perkins’ ‘product fluency’.
However, by its very nature, I posit it as a feature of certain
levels of expert performance. Because the expert does not
and cannot devote his conscious attention to the whole task
at every level of complexity, some parts of the task must be
dispatched in a quick, quiet and efficient manner. For
example, the concert violinist performing an involved
cadenza is not focusing on how to hold her bow; at that
moment, it is an unconscious part of her process. Nor does
the chess master examine the game pawn by pawn. (Chase
& Simon, 24)

So where does productive fluency show up in drawing? To
understand this, one has to first understand where and how
drawing skill gets “chunked”—how the information that
the professors/experts have in long-term memory gets
divided up and delivered to the students/novices, and how
the students/novices absorb it.

Implicit to Explicit

In the case of Freshman Drawing, the experts were Mark
Mentzer (MM) and Mark Baskinger (MB), both professors
with Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design. With
considerable experience in both technical and fine art
drawing, they had worked out a system of teaching that
began with very basic skills, and built upon them through
assignments of increasing complexity. According to MB,
“when [the students] come in the door, we assume they
don’t know anything.” In some cases, this was literally true.
A few students had little formal training; others had come
from engineering or business backgrounds, with no
drawing experience at all. Still others were already showing
signs of productive fluency, drawing at high levels of

Early on, MM emphasized the driving role that thinking
plays in drawing, and quoted Michelangelo: “You don’t
draw with your hand—you draw with your mind.” Much of
the early part of the semester was spent encouraging the
students to engage in dialogue with themselves, the
professors, and each other, in order to make drawing a
more thoughtful and deliberate activity.

From the start, the professors were explicit about their plan
and its purpose. They told the students that the idea was to
rouse them from a state of “unconscious incompetence”
(where they were drawing badly, but didn’t know it), and
bring them to a state of “conscious incompetence” (where
they were drawing badly, and knew it.) From this
uncomfortable state of self-awareness, they could then
work their way into “conscious competence” (drawing
well, but with conscious effort), and from there, eventually
pass into “unconscious competence” (drawing well without
having to concentrate on it.) It is at this stage that
productive fluency shows itself.

Figure 1: Shows how the expert (professor) and novice
(student) move out of their respective “unconscious”
zones to meet and exchange information in the
“conscious” zone.

One of the first things the professors did was to “level the
playing field,” so all the students had the same tools,
materials, and no physical excuses or advantages over the
others. Students were told to put away erasers and forget
about mistakes. They were instructed to buy signature-
bound sketchbooks, to avoid the temptation of tearing out
pages. MM and MB wanted to see the complete progress of
their learning, flaws and all.

The first lesson consisted of drawing boxes, hot dogs, and
light bulbs from memory. The result was, for the most part,
a room full of uneven lines and slightly skewed squares.
There were a number of problems with line quality,
proportion, and perspective. After a brief critique, the class
was down to drawing simple squares, and the professors
had brought the lesson back to basics, teaching how to
make proper, smooth, deliberate lines across the page.
As the semester progressed, the professors led the class
along a highly structured course of learning and practice. It
began with cubic forms (lines, squares and cubes), moved
onto cylindrical forms (curves, circles, ellipses and
cylinders), and then onto “curvy” organic forms, followed
by a combination of the three. Six hours a week were given
to the class, with students expected to spend at least that
much more time in practice outside of class. The exercises
were critical: each element was intended to be a building -

block for the next, and from this set of forms, the students
were expected to draw everything. As MB said, “We want
them to have the ability to draw anything.”
Criteria for good drawing were repeatedly posted and
discussed in class, and the list grew longer as assignments
progressed in difficulty: to Line quality, Composition,
Structure, Respect for borders, and Proportion were added
Perspective, Multiple viewpoints, and Flow.
One of the challenges of this course is that it involves
drawing things that don’t exist yet. As prospective
Industrial Design and Communication Design students, the
freshmen need to give shape to ideas. Learning a visual
vocabulary for this purpose provides them with the means
to “tell stories” about products to future coworkers and
clients. It also gives them basic forms, which they can
quickly combine on paper to sketch cameras, cars, people,
or anything else without being confused by surface detail.

Figure 2: Freshman drawing begins with simple forms,
which are combined into more complex forms as the
student progresses from “flat to fat” forms.
By setting clear goals and using a dialectic teaching style,
the professors made sure that solid standards were met,
while also encouraging students to be proactive in figuring
out many of the answers for themselves.

Muscle Memory: the Physical Part of Drawing

Over the semester, I learned that there were hidden skills
involved in drawing. Perception and visualization play out
in the brain. Evaluation is often a group activity. But “hand
skills”, are physical. How are they broken up, taught and
learned? And how are they chunked—if they are?

When Cheng, McFadzean and Copland conducted their
2001 study on drawing and chunking, they read pauses, or
“latencies” as indicators of where chunks began and ended.
(Cheng, 2). They also noted that, as learning turned novices
into experts, the length of these pauses decreased, and it
became more difficult to find the separation between
chunks. If this is the case, one wonders whether merging of
subchunks into larger chunks happens gradually.

That it happens is something that MB seemed to expect
from students as the semester went on. “Don’t think about
it. It’s a circle. It’s primitive… It just happens… Two-inch
square, four-inch square… [You] should be able to do that
without rotating the paper…it should be really natural.”
“This is just building muscle memory…going back and
forth [between shapes] is to build that sort of fluency.”
Muscle memory describes the point where an action
becomes so ingrained that it can be done without conscious
thought. The mechanics of walking or tying a shoe belong
to muscle memory. With drawing and other disciplines, it
can also require breaking old habits. Among the freshmen,
the tendency to use “chicken-scratch”—lines composed of
small back-and-forth movements—was strong with some
students. In these cases, they understood and accepted the
idea that single strong lines were better, but were still
unable to make their hand follow their brains without
conscious effort. By mid-semester, though, “chicken-
scratch” was becoming rarer.

The point where muscle memory takes over in drawing is
when cubes “just fall out of your hand.” (MB) This suggests
treatment of the cube as one unit, or—perhaps—a chunk.
There are many physical movements needed to build up to
this cubic chunk, though, starting with a basic line. Even
drawing a straight line involves several component skills,
(or subchunks.) There is a certain way to hold the pencil
(toward the end, not the tip), a correct posture, a correct
pressure and speed across the page, planning the placement
of the line, and visualizing the endpoint. Each of these is a
piece of learning to be absorbed into the brain, and passed
on to the body. With enough practice, the new muscle
lesson becomes a habit, and passes into unconscious
competence. This is where productive fluency emerges, and
the point where something “clicks”.

When Something Clicks

What does it mean when something “clicks”? MB describes
it as the “ah-hah!” moment, when “they can’t draw cubes,
they can’t draw cubes, and all of a sudden, the cubes don’t
look so bad.” In the case of this and previous freshman
drawing classes, this “ah-hah” moment often came when
the student was engaged in a larger, more complex task,
like a 3-D typographic project, in which cubes were needed
merely as building blocks. In looking over the student’s
sketches, the professor would suddenly notice that the
cubes were looking much better—that the cube lesson had
finally “clicked” while the student was focused on
something else. “Then all it takes is saying, ‘You know,
that cube looks good.’” “Oh, it is?” But MB adds that the
student needs someone else to tell them that they did it.

Sometimes, though, the “click” comes years later. MM told
of a former student who had graduated years before ,
feeling that she had never quite gotten a grasp of drawing.
She visited him ten years later to tell him that she’d finally
“got it”. When asked what caused this sudden epiphany,
she said, “I don’t know. I started to see the forms for what
they were and stopped trying to reproduce them on the
page. It just started clicking for me.”

Learning Evaluation Skills

From the beginning of Freshman Drawing class, the
professors encouraged students to be constantly examining
their own work, and asking classmates and professors for
their opinions. When assignments were done, the students
were told to tack them up at the back of the room, after
which the professors conducted long, detailed critiques,
more and more trying to shift the responsibility for
speaking and evaluating work to the students themselves.
At first this was difficult.

Although none of the drawings were signed, students
seemed reluctant to talk about—and criticize—others’
work. After a few classes, certain “evaluators” began to
emerge in the group. These were not necessarily students
whose drawings were better than anyone else’s—they
seemed instead to be able to talk about what they saw in
conjunction with what they had been told by the professors.
They remembered information from previous lectures, and
would repeat it in the context of new lessons and situations.
They also seemed unbothered by the fact that there were
students in the class whose drawing skill was more
advanced than theirs.

More was happening behind the scenes. The professors told
me that these evaluators were actively trying to improve
their skills. At night in the freshman studio they would stop
by the desks of the “superstars”—the students whose
drawing skill was outstanding—and talk to them, asking for
drawing tips and demonstrations. In exchange, they gave
feedback on the superstars’ work—“and they can talk
forever about it. So there’s almost a bartering system in
there: “OK, you tell me how you did that, and I’ll tell you
what’s wrong with yours.”” (MB)

The development of a critical eye was something that the
professors spent hours trying to cultivate every week. In
critiques, they would ply the class with questions to help
them make comparative judgments (“Which one is better,
this one or this one?”), recognize problems (“What do you
think? Is it good? Is it bad?”), diagnose problems (“What’s
wrong with it?”), and finally, suggest solutions (“So what
should she do with this?”) Here again the ones who seemed
to benefit most from this dialectic instruction were the
students who spoke up in class often.

Are there traces of chunking in learning evaluation skills,
as there are with other drawing skills? If there are, the
chunks probably come in the form of feedback from
individual people, each piece of feedback or advice acting
like a dot on a scatter graph in the student’s mind, perhaps
with some dots carrying more weight than others. Self-
assessment, like hand skills, is gradually developed,
depending on experience and “reflective practice.” (MM)
Eventually, as the student learns about the discipline and
him or herself, he or she develops an internalized standard,
and begins, like the master, to trust that “gut” feeling.


Drawing involves physical as well as mental skills, and
there are several points where chunking plays a part.
Because of this, there are advantages to planning a drawing
class curriculum around the mechanics of chunking, and
taking into account the limits of students’ ability to absorb
information, as well as the opportunities that the
unconscious mind may offer for ushering in productive


Thanks to Professor Mark Mentzer and Associate Professor
Mark Baskinger for their generosity in sharing information
and insights with me, and for allowing me to observe and
participate in their class. Thanks also to the Freshmen of
Design Drawing who shared their thoughts and showed me
their work. And finally, I thank Dr. David Kaufer, whose
guidance and support helped turn this daunting task into an
obsessive interest for me.


1. Chase, William G. and Simon, Herbert A. Perception in
Chess. Department of Psychology, CIP #182, Report
  1. 71-16 (1971)
2. Cheng, Peter C-H, Jeanette McFadzean and Lucy
Copland. Drawing out the Temporal Signature of
Induced Perceptual Chunks. ESRC Centre for Research
in Development, Instruction and Training, Department
of Psychology, University of Nottingham, UK, 2001.
3. Ericsson, K. Anders, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens
Tesch-Romer. The Role of Deliberate Practice in the
Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological
Review, 100, 3 (1993), 363-406.
4. Gobet, Fernand. Chunking Mechanisms in Human Learning.
TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, 5, 6 (2001), 236-243.
5. Gobet, Fernand. Chunking Models of Expertise:
Implications for Education. Applied Cognitive
Psychology 19 (2005), 183-204.
6. Hanks & Belliston. Rapid Viz: A New Method for the
Rapid Visualization of Ideas. Crisp Publications, 1990.
7. Hayes, John Richard. The Complete Problem Solver.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associate, Inc. 1989.
8. Miller, George A. The Magical Number Seven, Plus or
Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for
Processing Information. The Psychological Review, 63
(1956) 81-97.
9. Perkins, David N. The Mind’s Best Work. Harvard
University Press, 1981.
10. Ross, Philip E. The Expert Mind. Scientific American,
August 2006, 64-71
11. Simon, Herbert A. How Big is a Chunk? Science, 83,
(1974) 482-488