Mnemonics

Mnemonics for learning languages

Keyword mnemonic

The one mnemonic strategy that has been investigated quite extensively by researchers is the keyword mnemonic. This has been used successfully in a variety of learning areas, but its chief use has been in the area of learning vocabulary.

The keyword mnemonic is certainly an effective technique, particularly for learning to read in another language, as opposed to writing or talking (where you have to actively remember the words you want, rather than simply recognize them when you see them). But I wouldn't advocate using the keyword mnemonic on 1000 words, or even most of them. I would keep it for the hard words. (Read more on the usefulness of the keyword mnemonic for learning vocabulary. Find out what the keyword method is here)

Linkword

This is essentially the keyword technique, but simplified by fact that someone else has done all the hard work. Dr Michael Gruneberg, a British academic who has done a lot of work in the area of practical mnemonics (a rare concern among academic researchers) formalized the Linkword technique for learning foreign languages, and has produced Linkword books for learning French, German, Spanish, and Italian.

The books aim to quickly teach you a few hundred words of your chosen language (my own count of words taught in the German book was 355), by giving you a linking image to use. Thus, for Raupe (German for caterpillar), you are told to imagine a caterpillar with a rope attached to its middle.

As you would expect (Dr Gruneberg does know his stuff), the books are designed with an eye to fundamental memory principles. Words are grouped according to category; only ten words are given at a time; words are reviewed, etc. Simple grammar points are also included. It's well organized, and I do think it's an excellent way for a beginner to get a quick introduction to the language.

Apart from my general criticisms and warnings about the keyword technique (for which, see my article), my principal caveat is the difficulty in forming the visual images. For example, for Hummer (German for lobster), we are told to imagine a lobster with a sense of humor. Similarly, for Motte (German for moth), we are told to imagine that our personal motto is "I like moths". Personally, I don't find it particularly easy to visualize these "images". Now, I mean no criticism of Dr Gruneberg, the difficulty is experienced by anyone trying to find images to express verbal connections; some words just don't lend themselves to being images. But of course, verbal mnemonics are just as memorable as visual mnemonics, and infinitely more flexible. I assume, although he doesn't say it, that Dr Gruneberg means by "image" something more movie-like, with a sound track.

There are also Linkword courses available, in a wider variety of languages, and for some languages, at more advanced levels (this link is for a British site; here's a U.S. site).

Linkword books available from Amazon

List-learning mnemonics

The various list-learning mnemonics - the method of loci, the pegword method, the link method, the story method - can all be adapted to help you learn lists of words. In general, learning lists is not a particularly useful technique for learning a language, however, there are some circumstances in which it can be helpful.

If you do need to remember a list, my own recommendation is the story mnemonic, unless you are already expert at one of the other techniques. The advantage of the story mnemonic is that it is very simple to master.

Here's an example of its use. I'm brushing up my Latin, and like to run through the various conjugations and declensions in my head before going to sleep (it's wonderfully soothing!). To ensure I cover them all, I've devised the following mnemonics:

I love to advise those who rule that sums are fooey. [1st conjugation: amo, I love; 2nd conjugation: moneo, I advise; 3rd conjugation: rego, I rule; irregular verb to be: sum, I am; fui, I have been]

At the table the daughter awaits the master; the son awaits the god in the field where the boys go to war. The king tells the legion his name is a burden. The citizen lies on his couch in the city. [1st to 3rd declensions, with variants]

Mnemonics for Study

Verbal mnemonics

  • Coding mnemonics are the most effective means of memorizing numbers.
  • Coding mnemonics can also be used to dramatically extend the value of the pegword method.
  • First-letter mnemonics are most effective for learning the order of well-learned information.
  • First-letter mnemonics can be useful for overcoming memory blocks.
  • The story method is an effective means of learning lists.

Coding mnemonic

Coding mnemonics are used for encoding numbers. Because words are much easier for most of us to remember, a system that transforms numbers into letters is one of the best ways for remembering numbers — as seen in the modern innovation of encoding phone numbers into letters (0800-ANSETT).

A coding system is very useful for remembering numbers, but it must be said that few people have sufficient need to memorize long numbers to make the initial cost of learning the code acceptable.

The coding system’s main value in fact is as a source of pegs for the pegword system. By allowing numbers to be encoded as easily remembered words, the number of pegs can be extended from ten into infinity. Lists of such pegwords are available in various memory improvement books.

Clearly of course, mastery of such a system requires a very large investment of time and effort, as well as a facility for image creation. But if you decide that the pegword strategy is for you, you should certainly increase its value by learning a coding system.

Such systems have been suggested for memorizing such information as appointments, and birthdays and anniversaries. There is no evidence that mnemonic strategies are particularly effective for tasks in the planning memory domain and most people find external strategies — diaries, calendars, watch alarms — more dependable and easier to use.  Find out more

First-letter mnemonics

First-letter mnemonics are probably the most widely used mnemonic. This reflects the popularity of specific mnemonics, rather than its wide use as a strategic tool.

There are two types of first-letter mnemonic: acronyms in which the initial letters form a meaningful word — such as FACE for the notes in the spaces of the treble staff — and acrostics in which the initial letters are used as the initial letters of other words to make a meaningful phrase — such as Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit for the notes on the lines of the treble staff.

First letter mnemonics are a very effective means of recalling the order of well-learned items. First letter mnemonics are a cueing strategy — they remind us of what we already know. They are therefore particularly effective as a means to overcome memory blocks — for example, for students whose minds ‘go blank’ in exams.  Find out more

The story method

The story method is another list-learning strategy. It is the verbal equivalent of the link method. Items are chained together by linking them in a story. This method is as effective as the imagery methods for learning lists. Which one will be most effective for you depends on which type of information (words or images) you deal with most easily.  Find out more

References
  • Bower, G.H. & Clark, M.C. 1969. Narrative stories as mediators for serial learning. Psychonomic Science, 14, 181-182.
  • Gruneberg, Michael M. 1992. The practical application of memory aids. In M.M. Gruneberg, & P. Morris (eds). Aspects of memory. Vol.1: The practical aspects. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
  • Morris, P.E. 1978. Sense and nonsense in traditional mnemonics. In M.M. Gruneberg, P.E. Morris & R.N. Sykes (eds.) Practical aspects of memory. London: Academic Press.
  • Morris, P.E. 1979. Strategies for learning and recall. In M.M. Gruneberg & P. Morris (eds.) Applied problems in memory. London: Academic Press.

Visual Vs Verbal Mnemonic Techniques

  • There is no special magic about visual images.
  • Whether verbal or visual mnemonic techniques are better for learning depends partly on the learning material, partly on the nature of the learning task, and partly on the individual.
  • Older adults in general are probably better advised to use verbal mnemonics.
  • There is no particular advantage to using bizarre images.

Most mnemonic strategies use visual images. But as I say in The myth of imagery, while there is no doubt that imagery can be an effective tool, there is nothing particularly special about it. The advantage of imagery is that it provides an easy way of connecting information that is not otherwise readily connected. However, providing verbal links can be equally effective.

One study that compared verbal and visual imagery methods for remembering serial items (lists of words) found that using a verbal strategy resulted in equal performance on both lists of items rated as "high imagery" and "medium imagery". The two visual imagery techniques (method of loci, and pegword) resulted in higher performance than the verbal strategy for the high-imagery list, but poorer performance for the medium-imagery list [5].

A more recent study found that connecting three nouns by imagery was more beneficial for immediate unexpected recall than relating them by sentence, however, after a week, recall was the same for both techniques [3].

It is well-established that people differ in their abilities to visualize, and clearly the usefulness of visual imagery is partly dependent on whether you are a "high-imager" or a "low-imager" (but don't be fooled by these categorical labels - people will vary along a continuum rather than fall into an either-or category).

This talent also seems to change over the course of one's life. It has been suggested that older adults in particular might be better advised to use verbal mnemonics rather than visual image techniques, as they apparently find it difficult to produce and remember visual images ([7]; [1]).

Not entirely independent of these individual differences, there is also a significant difference between the effectiveness of visual images presented to you and those you must generate for yourself.

There is also some evidence that imagery techniques are more effective in particular types of memory tasks compared to others. Herrmann [2] suggested that interactive imagery was the most effective strategy for paired associate learning (linking two items together), but a story mnemonic was most effective for free recall (remembering various items in any order).

On a related subject, a study that looked into the usefulness of bizarre imagery as a mnemonic aid found that bizarre images were remembered better in the immediate term but not the long term, and only if the images were experienced as part of a mixed list (bizarre and non-bizarre items), and the learner could control their pace of learning [4]. A number of studies have failed to find any particular benefit to constructing bizarre images, and indeed, have suggested that bizarre images take longer to construct and may result in poorer performance. Most recently, the bizarreness advantage in mixed lists was eliminated when alternative retrieval strategies were encouraged [6]. These researchers suggested that the advantage of bizarreness depends on your retrieval strategy (whether or not it is based on distinctiveness).

In sum, then, I would say that use of visual imagery is an entirely personal matter, that there is no clear superiority of visual over verbal techniques, and that (as always) it comes down to individual idiosyncracy. Don't feel pressured into using imagery if you're not easy with it. And if you are comfortable with imagery, still restrict your use of the technique to situations where the images come easily - don't spend more time on constructing images than is warranted; be open to using other techniques. There's no magic to visual imagery. Meaningfulness, organization, depth of processing are the crucial elements in learning, not the precise tools you use to get there.

Mnemonics for Study

References
  1. Baltes, P. B., & Kliegl, R. (1992). Further testing of limits of cognitive plasticity: Negative age differences in a mnemonic skill are robust. Developmental Psychology, 28, 121-125.
  2. Herrmann, D.J. 1987. Task appropriateness of mnemonic techniques. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 64, 171-178.
  3. Hishitani, S. 1985. Coding strategies and imagery differences in memory. Japanese Psychological Research,27(3),154-162.
  4. Iaccino, J. F., & Sowa, S. J. 1989. Bizarre imagery in paired-associate learning: An effective mnemonic aid with mixed context, delayed testing and self-paced conditions. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 68, 307-316.
  5. Marston, P.T. & Young, R.K. 1974. Multiple Serial List Learning with Two Mnemonic Techniques.
  6. McDaniel, M.A., DeLosh, E.L. & Merritt, P.S. 2000. Order information and retrieval distinctiveness: Recall of common versus bizarre material. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26(4), 1045-1056.
  7. Poon, L. W., Walsh-Sweeney, L., & Fozard, J. L. (1980). Memory skill training for the elderly: Salient issues on the use of imagery mnemonics. In L. W. Poon, J. L. Fozard, L. S. Cermak, D. Arenberg, & L. W. Thompson, (Eds.), New directions in memory and aging: Proceedings of the George A Talland Memorial Conference (pp. 461-484). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.

List-learning strategies

Guide to Use

  • To be used effectively, you need to be able to create images quickly
  • To be used effectively, all steps need to be properly implemented
  • They help you learn faster, not better
  • They are useful for:
    • learning the right order
    • memorizing retrieval cues
    • anchoring many details

The method of loci or place method

This is the classic mnemonic strategy, dating back to the ancient Greeks, and is (as evident from its continued use over 2500 years) an extremely effective strategy for remembering lists.

First of all, you choose a place you know very very well. Perhaps a familiar route, your house, or a particular room in it. Any place that you know well enough to easily call to mind various ‘landmarks’ (different fixed objects in a room, for example). You must train yourself to go around your landmarks in a particular order. With a route of course, that is easy.

Thus, to remember a shopping list, you simply imagine each item in turn at these landmarks. A loaf of bread sticking out of the letterbox; a giant apple in place of the door; the hall full of beans; a giant banana in the bath, etc.

Because the place method uses cues that are already well-known to you, it is probably the easiest of the imagery mnemonics to master.

Disadvantages

  • difficult to recall a particular item without going through the list in order until you reach the item you want.
  • most effective as a relatively short-term strategy (By using the landmarks again and again, you can only readily recall the last list. Earlier lists are much less easily recalled.)
  • difficult to use if the information is presented too fast

The pegword mnemonic

uses numbers instead of places. These numbers are transformed into visual images by means of the following simple rhyme:

one is a bun
two is a shoe
three is a tree
four is a door
five is a hive
six is sticks
seven is heaven
eight is a gate
nine is a line
ten is a hen

The rhyme must be learned by rote until it is over-learned. Accordingly, there is a higher ‘cost’ to the pegword method than to the place method, where cues already over-learned are used.

Disadvantages

  • most effective as a relatively short-term strategy (By using the landmarks again and again, you can only readily recall the last list. Earlier lists are much less easily recalled.)
  • difficult to use if the information is presented to you too fast
  • difficult to use effectively without extensive training.

Find out more about the pegword mnemonic

The link method

like the others, uses visual images to link items together. However, instead of linking items to a well-learned structure, items are linked to each other. For example, to remember our shopping list of bread, apples, beans, bananas, you would form an image of the bread interacting with apples in some way, then another image of apples and beans, then another image bringing beans and bananas together.

The story method

is the verbal equivalent of the link method. Items are chained together by linking them in a story. For example, A VEGETABLE can be a useful INSTRUMENT for a COLLEGE student. A carrot can be a NAIL for your FENCE or BASIN. But a MERCHANT of the QUEEN would SCALE that fence and feed the carrot to a GOAT.

Disadvantages of Link and Story Methods

  • difficult to recall a particular item without going through the list in order until you reach the item you want.
  • difficult to use if the information is presented too fast.
  • difficult to use effectively without extensive training.

Mnemonics for Study

References
  • Belleza, F.S. 1983. Mnemonic-device instruction with adults. In Pressley, M. & Levin, J.R. (eds.) Cognitive strategy research: Psychological foundations. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Bower, G.H. & Reitman, J.S. 1972. Mnemonic elaboration in multilist learning. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 478-485.
  • Morris, P.E. 1979. Strategies for learning and recall. In M.M. Gruneberg & P. Morris (eds.) Applied problems in memory. London: Academic Press.

The Art of Memory

Frances Yates described the memory strategy valued by the ancient Greeks and Romans as the "Art of Memory" in her widely quoted and seminal book The Art of Memory. Today we know it as the method of loci. But the Art of Memory, as those of the ancient world and those of the medieval world practiced it, is far richer than is implied by that title.

It is known to us from three Roman sources – Cicero, an anonymous work Ad C. Herennium libri IV, and Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria. The strategy itself, although developed by many in later centuries, has always been attributed to Simonides, a Greek of the 5th century B.C. Cicero emphasizes that Simonides is given the credit for the art of memory not simply because he discovered how important order is for memory, but also because of his emphasis on the importance of visualization.

The original concept of Simonides, as encapsulated in the much-quoted and memorable story associated with this discovery, was simple enough. As the story goes (abbreviated version), Simonides was called out of a banqueting hall and during his absence, there was an earthquake and the hall collapsed, killing everyone inside. The destruction was so great the bodies couldn't be identified, but Simonides visualized where everyone was sitting, and so enabled the bodies to be identified.

Order and imagery. The twin staples of mnemonics.

But the truly interesting aspect of this is how this simple idea was developed over the centuries. And the meaning (indeed, multiple meanings) it developed.

According to Mary J. Carruthers in her wonderful work The Book of Memory: A study of memory in medieval culture, medieval European scholasticism was fundamentally memorial. Now this is not particularly surprising - books were handwritten, and obviously far less available than now.

But Carruthers points to something far more interesting - a trained memory was considered moral.

Following the Roman rhetorician Cicero (deeply admired by the medieval scholars), memory was considered to be one of the "virtues", and necessary to develop a moral character. Hence the rote learning so despised in our modern age: schoolchildren learned by heart the wise sayings of great men, so that they could also develop wisdom. Only by making moral arguments part of your character, known so well that the words are engraved in your heart, could you become moral.

I can see their point. Doubtless it is no coincidence that, today, this type of learning tends to occur only in fundamentalist religious education. Nor that its absence in education appears to have gone hand-in-hand with a disavowal of any sort of moral instruction. But the association of morality with memory is a fascinating and, to me at least, unexpected one.

Because of this association with morality, so fundamental to the medieval mind, mnemonic strategies were part of education, part of writing - books (according to Carruthers) were decorated for memorability. She even suggests that Dante's great work, his description of the circles of Hell, was actually a mnemonic device, to help people remember the places and attributes of Hell. This is not as weird as it sounds (well actually it is), because people used such descriptions as "memory places" (loci). The grotesque (to modern eyes) and shocking sculptuary in churches, paintings, drawings seen in the margins of books, all these, Carruthers suggests, were not so much because of some inexplicable twist of the medieval mind, as because they were intent on following the mnemonic principles they had been taught - provoking emotional reactions to enhance memorability.

Indeed, this is one of the (many) ideas I have found particularly intriguing: there is great emphasis from these pre-modern writers about memory, on the need to involve the emotions, to get yourself into a state as it were.

This is a particularly interesting point, because it is largely overlooked in modern memory advice (including my own!). I think the reason it is overlooked is simply because of modern sensibilities. Western culture, especially the scholastic, de-emphasizes emotion. It is therefore fascinating to read Carruthers' accounts of the emotional "states" which some pre-modern scholars seemed to find it necessary to work themselves into, when memorizing. Perhaps most interesting is that these scholars did not make the modern distinction between memory for personal events and information, and memory for "facts" - they understood that, for more effective remembering, all information had to be made into a personal event.

All mnemonic advice stresses the benefits to be gained from forming memories as “scenes” that include personal associations. Hugh of St Victor, for instance, stresses the need to impress the circumstances during which something was memorized as part of the associational web needed to recall it: the sort of day it is, how one feels, the gestures and appearance of one's teacher, the appearance of the manuscript page, and so on.”
(Mary Carruthers: The Book of Memory, p60)

Of course, the emotional component of memory also has an effect through its effect on motivation.

Another thing that struck me was how much ancient and medieval scholars understood about the practical aspects of memory - an understanding which seems to have got lost in the intervening centuries, buried beneath more arcane and complicated mnemonic strategies.

The mystique of these strategies seems to appeal to something in the human mind - the very complexity hints at something special, something magical. I am not decrying mnemonic strategies; they are certainly effective. But the more complex ones do require a great deal of training to be used effectively, and few people really want to put that degree of effort into something that, while potentially useful, is not, for most of us, as useful as all that.

But there are effective memory strategies that don't require so much effort to master, and the pre-modern scholars (at least in early times) understood the basic principles that underlie these:

  • the need to break things up into manageable chunks
  • the need for complete concentration (indeed it was suggested that night time was the best time to engage in memory work, because of the quiet and lack of distraction)
  • the usefulness of reading aloud in a low murmur (if you ever saw the movie Yentl, you might recall the students learning the Talmud doing the same thing).

The need to break things up into manageable chunks is a piece of advice that doesn't seem to be emphasized much in the increasingly complex mnemonic schemes that developed much later, and yet it is probably the single most important principle.

As to exactly what people did to learn information, to make memorable associations, it was recognized that these were matters for the individual, that different methods suited different people (and of course, different materials and different purposes):

"All ancient mnemonic advice [counsels] that any learned technique must be adapted to individual preferences and quirks. One cannot use a “canned” system, nor will every system work equally well for everyone.”
(ibid, p64)

When you're looking for a method of learning that will suit you, emotional affinity is as important as any other factor.

References & further resources

Yates, Frances A. 1966. The Art of Memory (Amazon affiliate link)

Carruthers, Mary. 1990. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature) New York: Cambridge University Press. (Amazon affiliate link)

Carruthers, Mary. 1998. The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Amazon affiliate link)

review: http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n22cameron

reply by Carruthers: http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n38carruthers

A word of warning. Carruthers' books are not really aimed at the lay audience. Carruthers is clearly writing for her peers, those familiar with Latin and Greek, and the classic and medieval cultures.

Parts of this article originally appeared in the February and April 2002 newsletters.

Keyword method

Guide to Use

  • Very effective for learning the meanings of words
  • Not particularly effective for remembering the words themselves
  • Most effective when you are supplied with the keyword, but create your own image
  • Particularly suited for learning:

How the keyword method works

The keyword method has been especially pushed as an effective strategy for learning foreign vocabulary. It is presumably equally valuable for extending your native-language vocabulary and learning technical jargon, and has also been used successfully to teach social studies facts (e.g., the products of a country; capital cities), science facts (e.g., chemical reactions, parts of the skeletal and nervous systems) and the names and faces of people.

There are two stages to the method:

  • link the foreign word with an English word that sounds like some part of the foreign word (e.g., the Spanish carta sounds like the English cart). This (cart) is the keyword.
  • link the keyword with the English meaning of the foreign word by forming an interactive image (e.g., carta means letter, so you could visualize a letter inside a cart).

When not to use the keyword method

If you want to understand what a word means when you come across it the keyword method is probably the best memory strategy. However if your goal is an ability to produce the word, rote repetition is better. In other words, your letter in the cart will help you remember what carta means when you come across it, but it won’t necessarily help you recall the Spanish word for letter.

Similarly, if you learn that Canberra is the capital of Australia by visualizing a can on top of a map of Australia, you should find it easy to answer “What is Canberra the capital of?”, but less easy to answer “What is the capital of Australia?”.

Remembering backwards

Although the keyword component of the word is much more likely to be recalled (the cart part of carta; the can part of Canberra), any word with that component seems equally possible.

To remember that carta means letter you need to:

  • Derive the keyword from the word (cart from carta).
  • Derive the interactive image from the keyword (letter in cart from cart).
  • Derive the meaning from the image (letter, from letter in cart).

Clearly, the more obvious your original encoding, the easier it will be to recreate the process (cart is an obvious keyword for carta; pet is not quite so obvious for pequenos).

However, to remember the Spanish word for letter, you must:

  • Retrieve the interactive image (letter in cart, from letter).
  • Use the image to derive the keyword (cart, from letter in cart).
  • Use the keyword to derive the foreign word (carta from cart).

While carta might seem easily derived from cart, other associations are not likely to be so easy — imagine trying to derive pequenos from pet or peck.

The keyword method is very effective for linking a new fact to a well-learned fact, but is little help in recalling the new fact itself.

Learn faster not better

The main advantage of the keyword mnemonic over other strategies for remembering information of this type, is that you acquire the information faster. But not better. Learning new words in a meaningful context is an equally effective strategy for long-term recall.

Read more:

Retrieval practice & the keyword mnemonic

Using the keyword method to learn vocabulary

Keywords for common Māori words

Mnemonics for Study

References
  • Belleza, F.S. 1983. Mnemonic-device instruction with adults. In Pressley, M. & Levin, J.R. (eds.) Cognitive strategy research: Psychological foundations. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Pressley, M., Levin, J.R., Hall, J.W., Miller, G.E. & Berry, J.K. 1980. The keyword method and foreign word acquisition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 6, 163-173.
  • Wang, A.Y. & Thomas, M.H. 1995. Effect of keywords on long-term retention: help or hindrance? Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 468-475.

The myth of imagery

  • Images are effective to the extent that they link information.
  • Images are not inherently superior to words.
  • Bizarre images are not necessarily recalled better than common images.
  • Imagery is chiefly effective when used with an organizing structure.

Most mnemonic strategies are based on imagery. There is no doubt that imagery can be an effective tool, but there is nothing particularly special about imagery. The advantage of imagery is that it provides an easy way of connecting information that is not otherwise readily connected. However, providing verbal links can be equally effective.

The critical element is that words or images provide a context which links the information. Thus, imagery is only effective when it is an interactive image — one which ties together one bit of information with another.

Visual imagery on its own is of limited value without an organizing structure, such as the method of loci or the pegword method (see list-learning mnemonics).

It is usually emphasized that bizarre images are remembered much better, but there is no evidence for this. In many studies indeed, ordinary images are remembered slightly better. One of the problems is that people tend usually find it harder to create bizarre images. Unless you have a natural talent for thinking up bizarre images, it is probably not worth bothering about.

Further reading:

for a long, scholarly article on mental imagery, you can see the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at:

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mental-imagery/

Mnemonics for Study

References
  • Belleza, F.S. 1983. Mnemonic-device instruction with adults. In Pressley, M. & Levin, J.R. (eds.) Cognitive strategy research: Psychological foundations. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Bower, G.H. 1972. Mental imagery and associative learning. In L.W. Gregg (ed.) Cognition in learning and memory. New York: Wiley.
  • Morris, P.E. 1978. Sense and nonsense in traditional mnemonics. In M.M. Gruneberg, P.E. Morris & R.N. Sykes (eds.) Practical aspects of memory. London: Academic Press.

Introduction to mnemonics

What mnemonics are, and what they are for

Aids to memory such as acronyms, rhymes, linking information by creating visual images or making up a story, are called mnemonics. Mnemonic strategies have been recommended as appropriate for remembering the following types of information:

  • shopping lists
  • vocabulary
  • appointments
  • speeches
  • facts
  • names & faces
  • dates
  • phone numbers
  • ideas
  • jokes
  • dramatic parts
  • poems
  • numbers

Mnemonics are undoubtedly effective for rote memorization, but they do require a lot of work to master.

Mnemonics can also help you learn basic facts and new vocabulary, which you need to acquire when learning a new subject. However, mastering a subject is not simply a matter of knowing a lot. An expert has a well-organized network of memory codes into which new information can be easily integrated. Mnemonic techniques on their own do not help you understand the meaning of facts, and do not therefore help you develop expertise in a subject.

Moreover, although mnemonics are usually the best strategies for memorizing by rote, for most tasks there are easier strategies which are sufficiently effective to be preferable for many people:

  • written or electronic records
  • rote repetition

The value of lists

For many tasks and for most people, a written list is far less effort, far more likely to be used, and far more reliable.

Many people discard the idea of lists because they have found they usually forget to use them. However, research has confirmed what many of us already know from experience — even if you forget to refer to your list, you are much more likely to recall items that you have written down. The act of writing (and perhaps the opportunity to visualize your list) are sufficient to improve your memory.

Imagery in mnemonics

Visual imagery underlies most mnemonic strategies. The best known are the list-learning strategies — the method of loci, the pegword method, and the link method. While these are undoubtedly effective strategies, they perhaps have less value as general strategic tools than the transformational elaborative strategies — the keyword method, and face-name association.

The role of imagery in helping memory is largely misunderstood (see the myth of imagery). Methods that use words rather than images have been shown to be equally effective. Imagery has one major advantage, and that is the ease with which two items can be connected using imagery. Imagery also has one major disadvantage, and that is the difficulty many people have with creating images.

Verbal mnemonic strategies include the use of acronyms, rhymes, and the more complex coding method (for memorizing numbers) and the story method (the verbal equivalent of the linking mnemonic).

When it’s best to use a mnemonic

  • when information only need to be remembered for a short time
  • as a reminder for well-learned information (to help overcome memory blocks; to remind you of the order of information)
  • when written records are impossible, inconvenient, or inappropriate
  • to anchor facts

When it’s best to write something down

  • when you need to remember the information for a long time
  • when reliability and accuracy are important
  • when memory load is to be avoided
  • when information is coming at you too fast
  • when the information is too complex

 

Mnemonics for Study

References
  • Belleza, F.S. 1983. Mnemonic-device instruction with adults. In Pressley, M. & Levin, J.R. (eds.) Cognitive strategy research: Psychological foundations. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Bransford, J.D., Stein, B.S., Vye, N.J., Franks, J.J., Auble, P.M., Mezynski, K.J. & Perfetto, G.A. 1982. Differences in approaches to learning: an overview. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 111, 390-398.
  • Intons-Peterson, M.J. & Newsome, G.L. III. 1992. External memory aids: effects and effectiveness. In D. Herrmann, H. Weingartner, A. Searleman & C. McEvoy (eds.) Memory Improvement: Implications for Memory Theory. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Rhyme & rhythm

As we all know, rhyme and rhythm help make information more memorable. Here's a few ideas that may help you use them more effectively.

Rhythm and rhyme are of course quite separate things, and are processed in different regions of the brain. However, they do share some commonalities in why and how they benefit memory. Rhyme and rhythm impose pattern. For that reason, rhyme and rhythm are particularly valuable when information is not inherently meaningful.

Remember that organization is the key to memory. If information cannot be meaningfully organized, it must be organized by other means.

Imposing a pattern, by using, for example, rhyme and/or rhythm, is one of those means.

Patterns are remembered because they are orderly. An important aspect of order is that it is predictable. When we can anticipate the next part of a sequence or pattern, we encode that information better, probably because our attention has been focused on structurally important points.

There is another aspect to patterns, and to rhyme and rhythm in particular. They help recall by limiting the possible solutions. In the same way that being told the name you want to remember starts with “B” helps your search your memory, so knowing that the next word rhymes with “time” will help your search. Of course, knowing the sound ending of a word helps far more than simply knowing the initial letter, and when this is in the context of a verse, you are usually also constrained by meaning, reducing the possibilities immensely.

Rhythm isn’t quite so helpful, yet it too helps constrain the possibilities by specifying the number of syllables you are searching for.

It is clear from this that for rhyme in particular, it is most effective if the rhyming words are significant words. For example, “In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” is pretty good (not brilliant), because “two” is a significant word, and “blue” is sufficiently strongly associated with the ocean (another significant word, since it suggests why we remember him). On the other hand, this verse for remembering England’s kings and queens is not particularly good:

“Willie, Willie, Harry, Steve,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three,
Edward One, Two, Three, Dick Two,
Henry Four, Five, Six, then who?
Edward Four, Five, Dick the Bad,
Harrys twain and Ned, the lad.
Mary, Lizzie, James the Vain,
Charlie, Charlie, James again.
William and Mary, Anne o'Gloria,
Four Georges, William and Victoria.
Edward Seven, Georgie Five,
Edward, George and Liz (alive)”

The fact that it is in verse, providing rhyme and rhythm as mnemonic aids, is obviously helpful, but its effectiveness is lessened by the fact that the rhyming words are forced, with little significance to them.

Rhythm has another function, one it doesn’t share with rhyme. Rhythm groups information.

Grouping is of course another fundamental means of making something easy to remember. We can only hold a very limited number of bits of information in our mind at one time, so grouping is necessary for this alone. But in addition, grouping information into a meaningful cluster, or at least one where all bits are closely related, is what organization (the key to memory — can I say it too often?) is all about.

Studies indicate that groups of three are most effective. The gap between such groups can be quite tiny, provided it is discernible by the listener. The way we customarily group phone numbers is a reflection of that.

If you can’t group the information entirely in threes, twos are apparently better than fours (i.e., a 7 figure number would be broken into 3-2-2: 982 34 67). Having said that, I would add that I would imagine that meaningfulness might override this preference; if a four-digit number had meaning in itself, say a famous date, I would group it that way rather than breaking it into smaller chunks and losing the meaning.

But let us never forget the importance of individual difference. Baddeley[1] cites the case of a Scottish professor who had amazing memory abilities. One of his feats was to recall the value of pi to the first thousand decimal places — a feat he would not have bothered to perform if it had not been “so easy”! Apparently, he found that simply arranging the digits in rows of 50, with each row grouped in lots of 5 digits, and reciting them in a particular rhythm, made them very easy (for him) to memorize: “rather like learning a Bach fugue”. The psychologist who observed him doing this feat (Ian Hunter, known for his book, “Memory”) said he did the whole thing in 150 seconds, pausing only (for breath) after the first 500. The rhythm and tempo was basically 5 digits per second, with half a second between each group.

There’s also some evidence to suggest those with musical abilities may benefit more from rhythm, and even rhyme (musically trained people tend to have better verbal skills, and, intriguingly, a 1993 study[2] found a positive correlation between pitch discrimination and an understanding of rhyme and alliteration in children).

The “3 Rs” — rhyme, rhythm, and repetition. It’s not a fair analogy, because these differ considerably in their importance, but I couldn’t resist it.

I want to repeat something I’ve said before — because it is absolutely fundamental. Repetition is essential to memory.

There is sometimes a feeling among novice learners that mnemonic strategies “do away” with the need for repetition. They do not. Nothing does. What memory strategies of all kinds do is reduce the need for repetition. Nothing eliminates the need for repetition.

Even experiences that seem to be examples of “one-trial” learning (i.e., the single experience is enough to remember it forever) are probably re-experienced mentally a number of times. Can you think of any single experience you had, or fact you learned, that you experienced/heard/saw only once, and NEVER thought about again for a long time, until something recalled it to mind?

It’s a difficult thing to prove or disprove, of course.

However, for practical purposes, it is enough to note that, yes, if we want to remember something, we must repeat it. If we’re using a mnemonic strategy to help us remember, we must include the mnemonic cue in our remembering. Thus, if you’re trying to remember that the man with a nose like a beak was called Bill Taylor, don’t omit any of your associative links in your remembering until they’re firmly cemented. I say that because if the “answer” (nose like a beak à Bill Taylor) pops up readily, it’s easy to not bother with remembering the linking information (beak = bill; pay the tailor’s bill). However, if you want the information to stick, you want to make sure those associations are all firmly embedded.

Rhyme and rhythm are mnemonic cues of a different sort, but however effectively you might use them (and if you use them wisely they can be very effective), you still can’t avoid the need for repetition.

Always remember the essential rules of repetition:

  • space it out
  • space it at increasing intervals

(see my article on practice for more on this)

Interesting resource:

The Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form:: A wonderful idea for remembering those difficult or rare words, if you’re learning English as a second-language or simply want to expand your vocabulary.

This article first appeared in the Memory Key Newsletter for June 2005

Mnemonics for Study

References
  1. Baddeley, A. 1994. Your memory: A user’s guide. Penguin
  2. Lamb, S. & Gregory, A. 1993. The relationship between music and reading in beginning readers. Educational Psychology, 13, 19-28.

Face-name association

Creating a face-name association

  • Select a distinctive feature of the face (nose).
  • Select a word or phrase that sounds like the name (con rat for Conrad).
  • Create an interactive image linking the distinctive feature with the keyword(s) (a man in a prisoner’s uniform — con — rides a rat that slides down the nose).

To remember the name on seeing the face again, you must:

  • Identify the distinctive feature that you used when encoding (nose).
  • Use that feature to help you retrieve the interactive image (a con riding a rat sliding down a nose).
  • Derive the keyword(s) from the image (con rat).
  • Use the keyword to help you retrieve the name (Conrad).

Drawbacks to the face-name association method

To use the face-name association method in a social situation requires a great deal of practice.

The other drawback to this method is that it requires you to select a distinctive feature. This is not always easy, particularly when you’re distracted and time is short (which is usually the case when you’re being introduced to someone). But finding a distinctive feature is absolutely crucial to the strategy’s effectiveness.

Face-name association only works well to the extent that the selected distinctive feature is an effective cue.

Mnemonics for Study

References

McCarty, D.L. 1980. Investigation of a visual imagery mnemonic device for acquiring face-name associations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 6, 145-155.