How do we know if a student really knows something? The only real way to know is to ask the student to answer questions about the material (1) some time after the initial learning (at least 24 hours), (2) without the student having the opportunity to go back and re-study the material. 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: encoding, consolidation, and retrieval. And performance problems can crop up at any of these stages. This means that a student may actually have encoded 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 due to reasons that make sense to us, such as when the student attempts to retrieve the material in a context far different from that in which it was learned (meaning that contextual cues that may have helped are nonexistent) or due to stress caused by the testing situation (test anxiety). Other times, there’s no reason that is readily apparent for the failure to recall the information. The student may know that she knows the answer, but just can’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 recall the mnemonic, and the blockage usually disappears like magic. The mnemonic acts as a “handle” by which the student can pull the needed information out of long-term memory and into conscious, working memory so it can be used.
More Complex Material Needs More Complex Mnemonics
Simpler mnemonic strategies such as rhymes, 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 one particular fact, and keywords are most often used to remember individual difficult or foreign words. Acronyms and acrostics, due to their nature, usually encompass more material, but rarely will you find an acronym or acrostic that’s more than six or seven letters (in the case of acronyms) or words (in the case of acrostic sentences) long. So, the number of items an acronym or acrostic can bring back to mind is limited.
But there are ways to tie together many more than six or seven items into the same mnemonic. Three of the most popular ways to do so are the storytelling method, the loci method, and the pegword method. Not only do these three strategies allow you to tie together many items into one mnemonic, but they also allow you to remember that material in a particular order, which is important when the material to which the mnemonic is tied is structured in a certain way.
Three Powerful Mnemonic Strategies for Complex Material
Before I describe the three strategies, I’d like to take a moment to remind you that these mnemonic strategies are designed to be “handles” to retrieve large amounts of information the student has learned. The key is that the student must have already learned all the material to which the mnemonic is tied. You, the teacher, must do everything in your power to make sure that your students have actually encoded and consolidated the material before you teach the mnemonic you want to tie to that material. If you’ve done that, the mnemonic then acts as a powerful retrieval mechanism. OK, with that caveat 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 fashion to link together material. With this strategy, the material to which the mnemonic is attached can be material that is logically linked or not, and it can be material in which the order matters–or not. The storytelling “chain” itself will tie together the material 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 couple of examples to show how it works. Let’s start with a non-school example just to show you that this strategy can be used for anything. Let’s say you have a grocery list you want to remember. Sure, you could write it down so that you have a hard copy to go by, but what’s the fun in that? Besides, if you’re like me, you can easily lose that piece of paper by the time you get to the store. Anyway, let’s say you want to remember to pick up eggs, bacon, sugar, olives, spaghetti, spaghetti sauce, paper towels, cashews, and soy sauce.
To use storytelling to remember these items, you create a story using sound-alike words that you can visualize and string together to make a story. The story is usually going to be somewhat nonsensical, but that’s alright. People who use strategies such as this and the two to follow claim that the wilder and crazier the visualizations are, the easier they are to remember, though there hasn’t to my knowledge been any scientific studies to prove that.
What would our story sound like? How about this? An egg-head (picture the stereotypical college professor) wanted to buy a pig (bacon–visualize a pig) for his sweetie (sugar–picture the professor’s nerdy girlfriend), who has a beautiful olive complexion (picture a natural brown olive and/or the girlfriend’s complexion of that color) that she claims to maintain by eating spaghetti with spaghetti sauce five times a week, which she is constantly getting 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 have cashews with soy sauce sprinkled on them.
Sounds crazy, right? And perhaps it seems to you like it would be easier to just remember the items individually than to remember some complicated story such as this. But it’s not so. Our minds are predisposed to remember narrative links between items and events such as those you embed in a story when you create it (even if the story is crazy). Don’t believe me? Test yourself right now. Look away from your computer screen and recall the story and the items to which each element of the story are linked. Go ahead and test yourself. I’ll wait.
How did you do? My guess is that you were easily able to recall every item in the list. Bravo! And that was with just one read-through.
Now, let’s do one more example, using academic content. Let’s say that you are a high school English or speech teacher and you want your students to easily recall the different rhetorical moves involved in Toulmin’s Argument Model (claim, grounds, warrant, backing, qualifier, and rebuttal) after you teach them, so they can recall them anytime they need to construct an argument.
How about this? A clam (claim) was dug up by a man digging in the sand and was thrown into a bucket of coffee grounds (grounds). The Sheriff walked up with a warrant (warrant) for the man’s arrest. The man refused to go, so the Sheriff called for back up (backing). The officers who responded were highly qualified (qualifier–picture a S.W.A.T. team), so they were able to throw the man’s butt (rebuttal) in jail (picture the man sitting on his butt in jail). Easy, right? And it’s actually fun to create such stories. Not only that, once you teach your students such a storytelling 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-alike words (or the words for the items to be remembered themselves 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 details than on creating characters and events.
Here’s how it works. Think of a place that is well-known to you that you can visualize in great detail. Many people use their house, as it’s a location they know well because they see it every day. However, you could use a favorite place or a place from memory, like the house you grew up in. And while most people tend to use interior spaces for their visualizations, I don’t know why a well-known outside venue (the beach your family goes to every summer for vacation, for example) wouldn’t work just as well. The key is that you need to be able to visualize it in detail.
Next, take each item you need to remember and, using a sound-alike word if necessary, turn that item into an object in your mind. Now, mentally place that item somewhere in your visualized location. Most people do this in a narrative fashion, visualizing themselves walking through the imagined space and seeing each item in order as they move from room to room.
For example, let’s say you’re a science teacher and you’ve just taught the stages of mitosis to your students. Now, you teach them the loci method process. Each student’s mental representations of the stages would be different, as will be the mental locations they use. But, just to demonstrate the process, here is an example of what one student’s mnemonic might look like:
The student thinks of the first stage, Interphase, and notices that “inter” sounds like “enter,” so he pictures the door to his house (the entrance) to correspond to Interphase. For the next stage, Prophase, he thinks of a “pro” athlete and pictures a trophy such as the one given for winning the Super Bowl, sitting on the hall table just 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 turning the corner into the kitchen and seeing a plate with a big, steaming steak sitting on it. For the fourth stage, Anaphase, he pictures someone named Anna standing by the stove (maybe he really knows someone named Anna, which makes it easier, as he can picture that person; if not, he can use a celebrity such as Anna Nicole Smith, or just make up an Anna from his imagination). Finally, for the last stage, Telophase, he pictures a telephone sitting on the kitchen table.
This mnemonic strategy works so well because it combines a place you already know well (making it easier to visualize) with a storylike structure. It’s a powerful strategy and can be used to remember multiple different sets of content, as the visualizations of the items 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, you memorize a list of keywords and hand motions that correspond to them. These are your pegwords, and you can use the same list of keywords and hand motions to memorize various sets of content.
The list I was taught includes twenty items (there are several such twenty-item pegword lists out there, and a number of ten-item lists as well). A twenty word pegword list allows you to “peg” (memorize) up to twenty items. In such a short article, I don’t have space to explain all of the hand motions that go with each item, some of which are difficult to describe in words, but I’ll mention a couple to give you an idea of how they work along 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. Sticks
7. 7 Up (soda) 8. Octopus
9. Line 10. Hen
11. Picket Fence 12. Eggs
13. Black Cat 14. Heart
15. Minutes of Fame 16. Driving
17. Magazine 18. Vote
19. Remote (TV remote control) 20. 20-20 Vision
For some of these items, rhymes are used (one-sun, six-sticks, nine-line, ten-hen). For others, there is a logical relationship (two eyes, three sides on a triangle, four burners on a standard cooktop, etc.). And why number 19 is “remote,” I can’t really say, other than that it rhymes with “vote” before it.
Anyway, you learn this list of numbers and corresponding keywords first, along with a hand motion, which adds a kinesthetic element not found in other mnemonic strategies. So, for example, you say, “One is sun” while taking the pointer fingers of each hand, starting out together in front of your face, and move them outward and down in 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, saying, “Two eyes” while pointing with your pointer and middle finger on one hand at your two eyes, then moving them rapidly away from you. And so on. It only takes a few minutes of repetition (working with a partner who can quiz you helps) to learn the whole pegword list. That’s step one.
Step two involves taking some content you want to be able to recall and combining this material with your pegwords. Let’s say you have just studied the first ten amendments to the constitution (the Bill of Rights). To cement the learning in place using the pegword system, you take item number one on your pegword list (one = sun, plus its hand motion) and combine it with the first item to be memorized (the first amendment). Since the first amendment talks about freedom of speech, you might visualize the sun (your pegword) on the horizon with a face on it, and its mouth wide open, talking loudly. You create this visualization and repeat it to yourself (“One is speech”) a couple of times, each time seeing the image you’ve created and making the hand motion. The second amendment is the right to keep and bear arms, so you would take your second pegword (eyes) and combine it with, say, a rifle in some strange way. Perhaps you create a visual of a man with giant, bug eyes looking constantly right and left, scanning for trouble, while holding an oversized rifle. You create this image and rehearse it a few times while doing your hand motion. You then 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 recall long lists of information or concepts in a specific order. Oh, by the way, some of you may be wondering about the value of the hand motions. I can tell you from experience that, once you have pegged a set of content using the pegword system and it comes time to recall the information, the value of the hand motions comes if you get stuck. Let’s say you get stuck trying to recall your image for item number seven on your list. The hand motion for number seven is turning up a soda can to take a big drink (7 Up is the pegword). As soon as you do the hand motion, I promise that the visualization will pop back into your mind, and along with it will come the material you pegged to number seven. It truly is amazing!
Now, obviously, the pegword system is a bit more involved than the others. It only takes me about thirty minutes to teach it in a workshop, but it’s a lot harder to explain fully in words. If you are interested in learning more about this technique, I recommend Googling “pegword systems,” and you will find lots of resources to help you.
If you haven’t tried any of these mnemonic strategies, I hope you give one or more of them a try. They are both fun and truly powerful.