How do we know if a student really knows something? The only one real way to know is to ask the student to answer questions about the material (1) for a while after the initial learning (at least 24 hours), (2) without the student has the opportunity to go back and study the material again. If he can answer the questions under these conditions, we can feel confident that he has actually stored the material in long-term memory.
But it’s not always that simple. There are three main stages of learning: coding, consolidation and retrieval. And performance issues can emerge at any of these stages. This means that a student may have actually coded and consolidated the material into long-term memory, but may have trouble accessing (retrieving) the material at the appropriate time.
Problems with retrieval can occur for reasons that make sense to us, such as when the student attempts to retrieve the material in a context other than the one it was taught in (meaning that contextual cues that may have helped are not found ) or due to stress caused by the test situation (test anxiety). Other times, there is no reason that is easily apparent from the failure to remember the information. The student can know that she knows the answer but just doesn’t seem to bring it to mind.
And this is where a good mnemonic is worth the effort put into its creation. If the student had created a mnemonic, all he has to do is remember the mnemonic, and the blockage usually disappears like magic. Mnemonics acts as a “handle”, enabling the student to extract the necessary information from long-term memory and into conscious, working memory so that it can be used.
More complex material needs More complex Mnemonics
Simpler mnemonic strategies such as rhyme, keywords, acronyms and acrostics work quite well, but they are designed to be used with limited amounts of material. Usually, a rhyme or alliterative phrase is tied to a particular fact, and keywords are often used to remember individual difficult or foreign words. Acronyms and acrostics due to their nature usually include more material, but rarely do you find an acronym or acrostic that is more than six or seven letters (in the case of acronyms) or words (in the case of acrostic phrases) long. So the number of items that an acronym or acrostic can bring back to mind is limited.
But there is ways to bind many more than six or seven objects in the same mnemonic. Three of the most popular ways to do this are the storytelling method, the loci method and the pegword method. Not only do these three strategies allow you to tie many elements together into a mnemonic, but they also allow you to memorize this material in a specific order, which is important when the material to which the mnemonic is bound is structured in a specific way.
Three powerful Mnemonic strategies for complex material
Before describing the three strategies, I would like to take a moment to remind you that these mnemonic strategies are designed to be “handles” for retrieving large amounts of information the student has learned. The key is that the student must have already learned all the material to which mnemonics is bound. You, the teacher, should do everything you can to make sure your students have actually coded and consolidated the material before you learn the mnemonic, you want to bind yourself to that material. If you have done so, the mnemonics then act as a powerful collection mechanism. OK, with that warning in mind, let’s look at each of these three powerful strategies.
1. Storytelling (also called Chaining)
With this strategy, you use multiple keywords in a chained way to link material. With this strategy, the material to which mnemonics are linked may be material that is logically linked or not, and it may be material in which order matters – or not. The story chain itself “chain” binds the material together in a particular order, so if the material needs to be remembered in a particular order, you need to create a story chain that reflects that order.
Here are a few examples that show how it works. Let’s start with a non-school example just to show you that this strategy can be used for everything. Let’s say you have a grocery list you want to remember. Sure, you could write it down so you have a hard copy to go by, but what’s the fun in it? Besides, if you are like me, you can easily lose that piece of paper when you get to the store. Let’s say you want to remember to pick eggs, bacon, sugar, olives, spaghetti, spaghetti sauce, paper towels, cashews and soy sauce.
If you want to use storytelling to remember these elements, you create a story using consistent words that you can visualize and string together to make a story. The story will usually be somewhat nonsensical, but that’s okay. People who use strategies like this and the two to follow claim that the wilder and crazier the visualizations, the easier they are to remember, although to my knowledge there have been no scientific studies to prove it.
What would our story sound like? What about this? An egg head (image of the stereotypical college professor) would buy a pig (bacon – visualize a pig) for its sweet (sugar – see the professor’s nerd boyfriend), who has a beautiful olive color (picture of a natural brown olive and / or boyfriend’s skin color on the color) that she claims to maintain by eating spaghetti with spaghetti sauce five times a week, which she constantly gets all over her face, which is why she eats her spaghetti with a full roll of paper towels next to her plate. For dessert, she and Mr. Egg-head always has cashews with soy sauce sprinkled on them.
Sounds crazy, right? And maybe it seems that it would be easier to just remember the elements individually than to remember a complicated story like this. But it is not so. Our minds tend to remember narrative connections between objects and events like the ones you integrate into a story as you create it (even if the story is crazy). Don’t believe me? Test yourself right now. Look away from your computer screen and remember the story and the elements to which each story element is linked. Go ahead and test yourself. I am waiting.
How did you do it? My guess is that you could easily remember all the items on the list. Bravo! And it was with just one read through.
Let’s take another example by using academic content. Let’s say you are an English or speaking teacher in high school and you want your students to easily remember the various rhetorical features involved in Toulmin’s argumentative model (claim, reason, justification, backing, qualification, and rejection) , when you teach them so that they can remember them anytime they need to construct an argument.
What about this? A clam (claim) was dug up by a man digging in the sand and thrown into a bucket of coffee grounds (ground). The sheriff went up with an arrest warrant (murder) for the man’s arrest. The man refused to leave, so the sheriff called for backup (backing up). The officers who responded were highly qualified (qualifying – see a SWAT team), so they were able to throw the man’s butt (counter-motion) into jail (picture of the man sitting on his ass in jail) Easy, not ? And it is actually fun to create such stories. Not only that, once you teach your students in such a narrative chain tied to already learned content and have them practice it a few times (have them tell the story to a partner until they get it), it will be strongly embedded in their memories.
2. The Loci method (also called Memory Palace)
The second strategy, the loci (place) method, is similar to the storytelling method in that it uses sound-like words (or the words of the objects to be remembered even if they are concrete objects) and then creates a narrative combined with visualization. The main difference between the two is that you focus more on spatial detail than on creating characters and events.
That is how it works. Think of a place that is familiar to you that you can visualize in detail. Many people use their house as it is a place they know well because they see it every day. However, you can use a favorite place or place from memory that the house you grew up in. And although most people tend to use interior space for their visualizations, I don’t know why a well-known night out (the beach, which your family goes to every summer for example on holidays) would not work as well. The key is that you need to be able to visualize it in detail.
Then, take every element you need to remember, and if necessary use a uniform word, turn it into an object in your mind. Now, it is mentally placed somewhere in your visualized place. Most people do this in a narrative way, visualizing themselves going through the imagined space and seeing each subject in sequence as they move from room to room.
Let’s say that you are a science teacher and that you just taught your students in the stages of mitosis. Now you teach them the loci method process. Each student’s mental representation of the stages would be different, as would the mental locations they use. But just to demonstrate the process, here’s an example of what a student’s mnemonic might look like:
The student thinks about the first phase, Interphase, and notes that “inter” sounds like “enter”, so he draws the door to his house (entrance) to correspond to Interphase. In the next phase, Prophase, he thinks of a “pro” athlete and draws a trophy like what was given to win the Super Bowl, sitting at the hall table right inside the door. For the third stage, Metaphase, he thinks of “meat” (kind of sounds like and includes the same letters as “meta”), so he visualizes himself by turning the corner into the kitchen and seeing a plate with a large, steaming steak sitting on it. In the fourth phase, Anaphase, he sees a person named Anna standing by the stove (maybe he really knows someone named Anna, which makes it easier as he can imagine that person; if not, he can use a celebrity like Anna Nicole Smith, or just an Anna from his imagination). Eventually, for the final phase, Telophase, he sees a phone sitting on the kitchen table.
This mnemonic strategy works so well because it combines a place you already know well (makes it easier to visualize) with a story-like structure. It is a powerful strategy and can be used to remember several different sets of content as the visualizations of the elements themselves will be different in each case.
3. Pegword systems
The third strategy I would like to cover today is called a pegword system. It involves two stages. First, remember a list of keywords and gestures that correspond to them. These are your passwords and you can use the same list of keywords and gestures to remember different sets of content.
The list I was taught contains twenty topics (there are several such pegword lists of twenty topics out there, and a number of lists of ten topics). A twenty word pegword list allows you to “stick” (remember) up to twenty items. In such a short article, I have no room to explain all the hand gestures that come with each element, some of which are difficult to describe with words, but I would like to name a few to give you an idea of how they work with the other elements of the system.
Here is the list I learned:
1. Sun 2. Eyes
3. Triangle 4. Burners (on a stove)
5. Fingers 6. Pegs
7. 7 up (soda) 8. Octopus
9. Line 10. Hen
11. Cock fence 12. Eggs
13. Black Cat 14. Heart
15. Minutes of fame 16. Driving
17. Magazine 18. Stem
19. Remote (TV remote) 20. 20-20 Vision
Some of these things use rhyme (one-sun, six-sticks, nine-line, ten-hen). For others, there is a logical relationship (two eyes, three sides of a triangle, four burners on a standard hob, etc.). And why number 19 is “remote”, I can’t really say other than that it rhymes with “voice” before that.
Either way, you first learn this list of numbers and corresponding keywords along with a hand gesture that adds a kinesthetic element not found in other mnemonic strategies. So, for example, you say, “One is sun” as you take your index fingers on each hand, start together in front of your face and move them outward and down an arc to each side, outlining the shape of the sun on the horizon at sunrise or sunset. Then you move on to the next one and say “Two eyes” while pointing with the cursor and middle finger of one hand towards your two eyes and then quickly move them away from you. Etc. It only takes a few minutes of repetition (working with a partner who can ask you helps) to learn the entire pegword list. It’s step one.
Step two involves taking some content that you will be able to remember and combine this material with your pegwords. Let’s say you just studied the first ten amendments to the Constitution (Bill of Rights). To cement the learning in place using the pegword system, take item number 1 on your pegword list (one = sun plus its hand gesture) and combine it with the first topic to remember (the first amendment). As the First Amendment speaks of freedom of speech, you may be able to visualize the sun (your pegword) on the horizon with a face on it and your mouth wide open and speaking loudly. You create this visualization and repeat it for yourself (“One is Speech”) a few times each time you see the image you created and make the gesture. The second amendment is the right to hold and carry weapons, so you would take your second pegword (eyes) and combine it with, say, a rifle in some weird way. Maybe you create an image of a man with giant bug eyes constantly looking to the right and left, looking for trouble while holding a big rifle. You create this image and practice it a few times while doing your hand gesture. Then you move on to item number three, etc.
This may seem like a lot of work, but once you get used to the process, it really doesn’t take long at all to create a set of visualizations that work like magic to help you remember long lists of information or concepts in a particular order. Oh, by the way, some of you are wondering about the value of the hand gestures. I can tell you from experience that once you have bound a set of content using the pegword system and it’s time to remember the information, the value of hand gestures comes if you get stuck. Let’s say you’re stuck trying to remember your image for item number seven on your list. The number seven hand gesture is to turn up a soda to take a big drink (7 Up is pegword). As soon as you make the gesture, I promise that the visualization will spring back into your mind, and along with that comes the material you’ve bound for number seven. It is truly amazing!
Now, of course, the pegword system is a little more involved than the others. It only takes me about thirty minutes to teach a workshop, but it is much harder to fully explain in words. If you are interested in learning more about this technique, I recommend Googling “pegword systems” and you will find plenty of resources to help you.
If you haven’t tried any of these mnemonic strategies, I hope you try one or more of them. They are both fun and really powerful.