Mnemonics: making the forgettable memorable

ElephantWater.png

Remember like an elephant

I’ve always loved mnemonics. One of the first ones I learned was for the points of the compass, clockwise: Naughty Elephants Squirt Water. Why does it work so well to help young children remember? I think it’s because it’s simple, not overloading, but rather chunking four pieces of information into one unit of meaning, a meaningful sentence, which is also a vivid, memorable mental image; it is also sequential, with the order of letters and words reflecting the order of compass points, helping us remember the difference between East and West, which are often and easily confused by children.

 

A demo

I saw my colleague Jess Lund teaching a lesson on psychology recently. She shared a demonstration on memory. Try this simplified version of it. There are three buckets of words to remember. Take 60 seconds to try to revise each one, ready to reproduce them within 60 seconds:

Bucket 1: tree market happiness box window apple love road book hat

Bucket 2: fox hen burger steak love conflict bed pillow computer phone

Bucket 3: arrow ball crow dice effort fall gate hero injustice jumper

Which buckets were easier to remember? Once we see the pattern of bucket 2, pairs, or the pattern of bucket 3, alphabetical order, these give us ways to recall remembered information: cues. The reasons that bucket 2 is easier than bucket 1 is because of organisation, and that bucket 3 tends to be easiest is because of unique cues (first letters sequenced in alphabetical order).

What we can learn from this demo is that if we want our pupils to remember what they’re learning, it might be advantageous if we can organise subject material and give them distinctive cues for recall.

 

Acrostic Mnemonics

Some of my favourite type of mnemonics are acrostic mnemonics. Naughty Elephants Squirt Water is just one example. Here are 20 or more others that are useful for learning subjects, some of which I still remember being taught in school to this day, for remembering tricky subject knowledge:

1. Living Organisms

Mrs Gren: move, respire, sense, grow, reproduce, excrete and require nutrition.

2. Trigonometry

SohCahToa: sine opposite hypotenuse; cosine adjacent hypotenuse; tan opposite adjacent

3. Mathematical order of operations

BIDMAS: brackets indices division multiplication addition subtraction

4. Long Division in Mathematics

Does Macdonalds sell burgers? Divide, multiply, subtract, bring down (via Philip Roddy)

5. Seven continents

Always Eat An Apple, Says Aunt Nora: Asia Europe Africa Australasia South America Antarctica North America

6. Order of Planets

My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets: Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto

7. Colours of a Rainbow

Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain: Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet

8. Scientific Classification

King Phillip Can Order Five Good Soups: Kingdom Phylla Class Order Family Genus Species

9. Five Kinds of Vertebrates

FARM B: Fish, Amphibians, Reptiles, Mammals, Birds

10. Scientific Conversion

Oil Rig: oxidation is losing electrons, reduction is gaining electrons

11. Natural Selection in Biology

VC Baspog: variation, competition, best adapted survive, pass on genes (via Damian Benney)

12. Coordinating Conjunctions in Grammar

Fanboys: for and nor but or yet so

13. Order of Greek Philosophers

Spa: Socrates Plato Aristotle

14. Five Pillars of Islam

French People Can’t Forget Paris: Fasting Prayer Charity Faith Pilgrimage

15. Five Prophets

I just love every day: Isaiah Jeremiah Lamentations Ezekiel Daniel

16. First Five Old Testament Books

God’s Eternal Love Never Dies: Genesis Exodus Leviticus Numbers Deuteronomy

17. Musical Notation

Every Girl Born Deserves Freedom: EGBDF keys

18. French past tense verbs conjugated with etre not avoir

Dr Mrs Vandertramp:

devenir, revenir

monter, rester, sortir,

venir, aller, naitre, descendre, entrer, rentrer, tomber, retourner, arriver, mourir, partir

19. Tricky Spellings

Beautiful: big elephants are under trees in forests until light

Rhythm: rhythm helps your two hips move

Mnemonics: Mnemonics Now Erase Mankind’s Oldest Nemesis, Insufficient Cerebral Storage!

20. Psychology: Four Lobes of the Brain

Freud Tells Parents Off: Frontal, Temporal, Parietal, Occipital. (via Kate Barry)

21. Medicine: Twelve Cranial Nerves

On Old Olympus’ Towering Tops, A Finn And German Viewed Some Hops: optic, olfactory, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, auditory, glossopharyngeal, vagus, spinal accessory, and hypoglossal nerves.

22. Historical Dates: Rhyme Mnemonics

There are also rhyme mnemonics for historical dates, such as:

In 1492, Columbus sailed the oceans blue.

 

What can we learn from these 20+ mnemonics? How exactly do they help us remember? They are simple; they chunk down complex, overloading or forgettable knowledge and they make it memorable, cheating the limitations of our working memories; they give us a way of self-checking that we have remembered all the content, and in the right order.

In almost every area of human knowledge, mnemonics are useful – from mathematics, science, geography, music, religion, history, literature, philosophy and languages, including complex processes like trigonometry, to spelling, grammar, and medicine, as the examples above show – because they work with the human cognitive architecture that we all have in common.

 

So, if we want to make our own mnemonics, useful our own subjects, here are some ways we could start.

4PrinciplesAcrosticMnemonic.png

Example of Making a New Mnemonic: Seven Deadly Sins

Here is an example of a mnemonic we have created in our English department. We were trying to come up with ways for our pupils to remember what all the 7 deadly sins from Medieval England were. The number is just beyond the limits of working memory, so both children and teachers were finding it hard to remember all seven reliably. I came up with the faintly ludicrous mnemonic GP WEASL (Gluttony Pride Wrath Envy Avarice Sloth Lust): imagine an eccentric Austrian doctor, perhaps! My colleague Sarah went one better and came up with a more easily memorable image:

Wasp Leg: Wrath Avarice Sloth Pride; Lust Envy Gluttony.

We really liked it because it’s a vivid image, chunked into one meaningful phrase. It has helped both teachers and pupils to recall what the 7 deadly sins are, which is useful when reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the morality plays like Everyman and much subsequent English literature.

 

Another simple one we came up with in Science was a way to remember the answer to the question: why wasn’t Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection accepted after the 1859 publication of ‘On The Origin Of Species’?

GEM: God (19th century Victorians believed in divine, biblical creation); Evidence (there was insufficient evidence through fossils); Mechanism (genetics as a science didn’t yet exist).

 

I’m an English teacher, and so from here on I’m going to stick to English examples. But you could apply this process for making mnemonics to any subject.

 

Spelling Mnemonics

In English, two of the areas that mnemonics hold most potential in are spellings and quotations. Spellings in English are often irregular and tricky to remember.

How to remember that responsible (unlike accountable) ends with –ible not –able? Words like appear, necessary, tomorrow, repetition and successful have tricky, forgettable combinations. I still have to write rhyme slowly in case I misspell it and confuse it with rhythm! Here are 10 mnemonics that help kids remember how to spell 10 frequently misspelled words:

 

  1. fascinating: science is fascinating
  2. repetition: repeated letters are ETI in r-Ep-ETITI-on.
  3. suspense: suspense has 3 ‘s’ letters, like the dot dot dot of a cliffhanger . . .
  4. responsible: I am responsIble for my fate.
  5. rhyme: rhyme helps your mate educate.
  6. appear: Peter Pan appears, then disappears.
  7. necessary: it’s necessary for a shirt to have 1 collar, 2 sleeves: 1 c, then 2 s’s
  8. tomorrow: will we go with Tom or Row tomorrow?
  9. successful: Cheryl Cole and Steven Spielberg are both successful.
  10. embarrassing: It’s embarrassing when we blush ruby red and feel like an ass.

 

What these mnemonics have in common is encoding a memorable way to remember the trickiest part of difficult spellings. Building up a bank of spelling mnemonics and teaching them explicitly is something we are embarking on at Michaela.

 

Quotation Mnemonics

We also want to prepare our pupils for GCSE literature exams and English essays where the questions are unseen before the assessment. They need to know many quotations off by heart in order to succeed. Mnemonics are a great way of remembering trigger words for quotations. For instance, we want pupils (and teachers!) to remember these quotations from Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, starting with the main character.

  1. “Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires.”
  2. “He’s here in double trust; first, as I am his kinsman and his subject, strong both against the deed.”
  3. “Vaulting ambition only overleaps itself.”
  4. “Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?”
  5. “Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell that summons you to heaven or to hell.”
  6. “A voice cried ‘sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep!’”
  7. “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”
  8. “I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go over.”
  9. “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow
  10. “I bear a charmed life, which will not yield to one of woman born.”

An approach we’ve found successful is to choose a striking ‘trigger word’ that can be remembered in order of the plot of the play. For instance:

  1. Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires.”
  2. “He’s here in double trust; first, as I am his kinsman and his subject, strong both against the deed.”
  3. “Vaulting ambition only overleaps itself.”
  4. “Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?”
  5. Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell that summons you to heaven or to hell.”
  6. “A voice cried ‘sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep!’”
  7. “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”
  8. “I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go over.”
  9. “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow
  10. “I bear a charmed life, which will not yield to one of woman born.”

10 Trigger Cues for Macbeth Quotations

Stars, trust, ambition, dagger, hear, sleep, neptune, blood, candle, charmed.

Ten words are easier to remember than ten quotations! It is then easy to set practice tasks such as: write out the 10 trigger words for your Macbeth quotations from memory, and pupils write: stars, trust, ambition, dagger, hear, sleep, neptune, blood, candle, charmed. We could go one step further and link them into a vivid phrase: “Stars trust ambitious daggers, hearing sleepy nightmares of bloody candle charms.” Ten quotations into one chunk in long-term memory. Practice exercises to recall the quotations using the mnemonic is then what is required for pupils to remember them during the essay. Some wrote ‘s t a d h s n b c c’ in the margin of their essays to aid recall under time pressure, mid-flow!

We plan to use these mnemonics for GCSE English Literature across the 3 texts (a Shakespeare play, a 19th century novel and a modern text), so that our pupils have the strongest foundation for answering any essay question that could come up.

In our curriculum, our pupils now have this shared memory bank across subjects that they can draw on, which helps them to remember the mnemonics we are collectively learning.

Mnemonics are fantastically useful and versatile in teaching. Given what we know about how memory works, through encoding, storage and retrieval, and the interaction between limited working memory and almost unlimited long-term memory, the main limit to making mnemonics useful is our own imagination as teachers.

 

***

For those who are interested, there is a sound foundation of over 60 years of scientific research into mnemonics:

Miller, 1956: Limits on our capacity for processing information

“Recoding is an extremely powerful weapon for increasing the amount of information that we can deal with. In one form or another we use recoding constantly in our daily behaviour.”

Bellezza, 1996: Mnemonic Methods to Enhance Storage and Retrieval

“The study of mnemonic devices can make important contributions to the study of human memory and learning. Teachers must learn how to activate appropriate information in the memories of their students by using specially designed mnemonics to develop useful knowledge structures. Current research provides reasons to be optimistic.” 

Levin, 2004: Mnemonics boost recall

“In all experiments, mnemonic keyword students (whether individual, paired, or small group) outperformed their counterparts.”

Worthen, 2010: Mnemonology: Mnemonics for the 21st century

Encoding Processes are Fundamental to Mnemonic Success

“Research has established that the joint operation of organisation and elaboration, herein referred to as distinctive processing, enhances memory retention beyond the operation of either alone.”

Ornstein at al, 2010: Teachers’ Mnemonic Instruction and Children’s Memory Skills

In longitudinal classroom research, researchers found that although memory demands in school are high, explicit instruction in specific strategies for remembering is low. Students taught by high mnemonic teachers outperformed those taught by low mnemonic teachers over one year and two year periods.

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About Joe Kirby

English teacher, education blogger
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9 Responses to Mnemonics: making the forgettable memorable

  1. Brian says:

    I can go with mneumonics when there are a few of them and very useful they can be for remembering lists of items.

    If one learns facts in context I find there is very little need for them.

    When one starts to need to make mneumonics to remember the neverending list of mneumonics I believe one is remembering to much out of context.

    My preference is simple repetition combined with context.

  2. mhorley says:

    There are some great examples here and mnemonics are undoubtedly useful to aid memorization. I would say they work when the thing that needs to be recalled is a simple list. If it is a list of instructions that need to applied in some way, there can be significant scope for error in how that is done. The Maths examples here can lead to such problems. BIDMAS in particular should be avoided as it isn’t actually correct (you don’t always do Addition before Subtraction). See Nix the Tricks for some great examples of ways to teach for depth of understanding vs. surface level application of methods.

    • Yes there are subtle problems with bidmas and subtraction, however it does a good job for students who aren’t ready for those subtlest. I actually group and say the main thing is that DM as a pair is before AS.
      We could easily have had the word BIMDAS or BIMDSA but they didn’t sound as good.
      I have respected your dialect by not giving my examples in the BODMAS dialect

  3. An easier way of remembering tomorrow has only one m is linking it to today. Nobody every thinks today has 2 d’s- neither does tomorrow have 2 m’s

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  5. IanH says:

    Some useful ideas, thank you. I’ve used mnemonics throughout time in the classroom, but apart from having kids generate them at times (which is why I now use Rude Men Invented Very Useful X-ray Glasses for the EM spectrum in order, Radio Micro Infra-red Visible Ultra-violet X-ray Gamma) I’ve not spent time on the mechanisms.

    I’d have to disagree with a previous comment; I find it very useful for students to use mnemonics as mental checklists for processes. If nothing else, it gives them a ‘hook’ while they become familiar with it. A useful parallel is perhaps the large selection of nonsense rhymes and phrases used for knots (I’m a climber and Scouter). They start off speaking aloud, perhaps with a rhythm, then mouthing it, then finally internally. But it’s interesting that when distracted or nervous even experienced knotters return to the way they learnt it.

    A few I’ve used:

    Ways to revise: MORSE = Mnemonics, Organise (finding links), Rehearse, Simplify/Summarisse (key facts), Extend (use in new context).

    Equations: 4Cs = Cause (independent variable) in these Conditions (control variables) leads to a Consequence (dependent variable) which fists in a wider Context (real world implications)

    Scientific thinking: PRODMEE = Predict, give Reason, Observe, Describe in words, Measure in numbers, Explain the link, Extend to other examples

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