Mnemonic Techniques and Specific Memory Tricks to improve memory, memorization

Mnemonic techniques are more specific memory aids. Many are based on the general memory strategies that were presented earlier. Although it can be easiest to remember those things that you understand well, sometimes you must rely on rote memory. The following techniques can be used to facilitate such memorization.

1. ACRONYMS. You form acronyms by using each first letter from a group of words to form a new word. This is particularly useful when remembering words in a specified order. Acronyms are very common in ordinary language and in many fields. Some examples of common acronyms include NBA (National Basketball Associations), SCUBA (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus), BTUs (British Thermal Units), and LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). What other common acronyms can you think of? The memory techniques in this section, for example, can be rearranged to form the acronym "SCRAM" (Sentences/acrostics, Chunking, Rhymes & songs, Acronyms, and Method of loci).

Let us suppose that you have to memorize the names of four kinds of fossils for your geology class: 1) actual remains, 2) Petrified, 3) Imprint, and 4) Molds or casts. Take the first letter of each item you are trying to remember: APIM. Then, arrange the letters so that the acronym resembles a word you are familiar with: PAIM or IMAP.

Although acronyms can be very useful memory aids, they do have some disadvantages. First, they are useful for rote memory, but do not aid comprehension. Be sure to differentiate between comprehension and memory, keeping in mind that understanding is often the best way to remember. Some people assume that if they can remember something, that they must "know" it; but memorization does not necessarily imply understanding. A second problem with acronyms is that they can be difficult to form; not all lists of words will lend themselves equally well to this technique. Finally, acronyms, like everything else, can be forgotten if not committed to memory.

2. SENTENCES/ACROSTICS. Like acronyms, you use the first letter of each word you are trying to remember. Instead of making a new word, though, you use the letters to make a sentence. Here are some examples:

  • My Dear Aunt Sally (mathematical order of operations: Multiply and Divide before you Add and Subtract)
  • Kings Phil Came Over for the Genes Special (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Genus, Species)

Can you think of other examples? Like acronyms, acrostics can be very simple to remember and are particularly helpful when you need to remember a list in a specific order. One advantage over acronyms is that they are less limiting. If your words don't form easy-to-remember acronyms, using acrostics may be preferable. On the other hand, they can take more thought to create and require remembering a whole new sentence rather than just one word (as is the case with acronyms). Otherwise, they present the same problem as acronyms in that they aid memorization but not comprehension.

EXERCISE: PRACTICE USING ACROSTICS

1. Try making up a sentence (acrostic) to remember the five mnemonic techniques discussed in this section.

2. Now come up with acrostics for several of the main sections of a chapter from one or your textbooks.

3. RHYMES & SONGS. Rhythm, repetition, melody, and rhyme can all aid memory. Are you familiar with Homer's Odyssey? If you are familiar with the book, then you know that it is quite long. That is why it is so remarkable to realize that this, along with many ancient Greek stories, was told by storytellers who would rely solely on their memories. The use of rhyme, rhythm, and repetition helped the storytellers remember them.

You can use the same techniques to better remember information from courses. For example, even the simple addition of familiar rhythm and melody can help. Do you remember learning the alphabet? Many children learn the letters of the alphabet to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." In fact, a student demonstrated how she memorized the quadratic formula (notorious among algebra students for being long and difficult to remember) by singing it to a familiar tune!

Using these techniques can be fun, particularly for people who like to create. Rhymes and songs draw on your auditory memory and may be particularly useful for those who can learn tunes, songs, or poems easily. Like the other techniques in this section, however, they emphasize rote memory, not understanding. Also, when devising rhymes and songs, don't spend too much time creating them. Use these techniques judiciously and don't let them interfere with your studying.

4. METHOD OF LOCI. This technique was used by ancient orators to remember speeches, and it combines the use of organization, visual memory, and association. Before using the technique, you must identify a common path that you walk. This can be the walk from your dorm to class, a walk around your house, whatever is familiar. What is essential is that you have a vivid visual memory of the path and objects along it. Once you have determined your path, imagine yourself walking along it, and identify specific landmarks that you will pass. For example, the first landmark on your walk to campus could be your dorm room, next may be the front of the residence hall, next a familiar statue you pass, etc. The number of landmarks you choose will depend on the number of things you want to remember.

Once you have determined your path and visualized the landmarks, you are ready to use the path to remember your material. This is done by mentally associating each piece of information that you need to remember with one of these landmarks. For example, if you are trying to remember a list of mnemonics, you might remember the first--acronyms--by picturing SCUBA gear in your dorm room (SCUBA is an acronym).

You do not have to limit this to a path. You can use the same type of technique with just about any visual image that you can divide into specific sections. The most important thing is that you use something with which you are very familiar.

EXERCISE: METHOD OF LOCI

1. If someone reads a list of unrelated words to you, just once, how many do you think you could remember? Give it a try. Have someone read a list of 10 words to you at a slow but steady pace (about 1 word per second). Rather than using any of the memory techniques presented here, simply try to concentrate on the words and remember them. How many words did you remember?

2. Now take a few minutes to identify a path or object that you can use in the method of loci. Familiarize yourself with each of sections of your path or object. Mentally go through each of the loci (locations) and visualize them as best you can. Remember, it is important to be able to visualize and recall each location readily. Once you have done this, have your friend read you a different list of words. This time, try to create visual images of the words associated with one of the locations. This may not come easy at first, but with practice you should be able to create these visual images more readily. If you find that you are having difficulty coming up with the images quickly, practice on some more lists until you have improved. Chances are, when you become familiar with using this technique, you will be able to remember many more words (maybe all 10 items).

3. Practice the technique to sharpen your skills.

5. CHUNKING. This is a technique generally used when remembering numbers, although the idea can be used for remembering other things as well. It is based on the idea that short-term memory is limited in the number of things that can be contained. A common rule is that a person can remember 7 (plus or minus 2) "items" in short-term memory. In other words, people can remember between 5 and 9 things at one time. You may notice that local telephone numbers have 7 digits. This is convenient because it is the average amount of numbers that a person can keep in his or her mind at one time.

When you use "chunking" to remember, you decrease the number of items you are holding in memory by increasing the size of each item. In remembering the number string 64831996, you could try to remember each number individually, or you could try thinking about the string as 64 83 19 96 (creating "chunks" of numbers). This breaks the group into a smaller number of "chunks." Instead of remembering 8 individual numbers, you are remembering four larger numbers. This is particularly helpful when you form "chunks" that are meaningful or familiar to you (in this case, the last four numbers in the series are "1996," which can easily be remembered as one chunk of information).

6. PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT (or closer to it anyway): Okay, it may not be a mnemonic, but repeating is still a great memory aid. Remember the children's game "I'm going on a picnic and I'm bringing...." As each new object is added, the old objects are repeated. People can often remember a large number of objects this way. When remembering a list of things, you might try a similar concept. Once you are able to remember 5 items on your list without looking, add a 6th, repeat the whole list from the start, add a 7th, and so on. It can be quite intimidating to see long lists, passages, or equations that you are expected to commit to memory. Break up the information into small bits that you can learn, one step at a time, and you may be surprised at how easy it can be. You might even utilize grouping techniques, like those discussed earlier, to form meaningful groups that you can learn one at a time.

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