First of all, what is a mnemonic? Simply put, a mnemonic is a device that aids in memory retention. The word “mnemonic” is derived from the Ancient Greek word mnemonikos, meaning “of, or related to, memory” and is related to Mnemosyne, the name of the goddess of memory in Greek mythology.
More than likely, you have used a number of mnemonics in your life, whether as a student when you were in school, or in your career as a teacher, or even in your everyday life outside of the classroom. If you’ve ever had to learn to read music, you probably learned “Every Good Boy Does Fine” for the lines of the treble clef, or “FACE” for the spaces of the treble clef. When you were in elementary school, you may have learned “HOMES” as a way to remember the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior) or “Never Eat Slimy Worms” as a way to remember the cardinal directions on a map (North, East, South, and West, moving clockwise around the compass).
When you were in high school, you may have used more elaborate mnemonics such as “King Philip Came Over For Good Soup” to recall the taxonomic categories in biology (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species) or “SOHCAHTOA” as a way to remember how to compute the sine, cosine, and tangent of an angle (Sine = Opposite side over Hypotenuse; Cosine = Adjacent side over Hypotenuse; Tangent = Opposite side over Adjacent side).
Even simple phrases such as “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey” and physical manipulations such as using your knuckles to figure out how many days a month has are mnemonics. There are probably many others that you use all of the time, both inside the classroom and out, and many of them have probably become so automatic that you hardly notice using them. What this tells us is that mnemonics work! But before we get into some specific mnemonic strategies you could use in your classroom, let’s take a minute to talk about why they work so well.
Building a Bridge to Great Memory
Each stage of memory is important: rich encoding is crucial because it builds a strong initial memory trace and begins the process of adding new information to an existing mental map; consolidation strengthens the initial memory trace and its connections; and retrieval allows us to continue to solidify the information in our memory over time.
Mnemonics work so well as a memory tool because they impact both the initial encoding of the new learning and the retrieval of that learning, in effect building a bridge between these two stages. First, when we learn new material and learn (or create) a mnemonic that maps onto that new material, we are making the initial encoding richer than it would have been without the mnemonic.
Then, when we attempt to recall the material, the first thing that comes to mind may very well be the mnemonic. The mnemonic then serves as a “handle” by which to retrieve the rest of the material from memory. And the more we retrieve the material, the more solidified the pathway to that material becomes, making it easier to recall each time.
Four Mnemonic Strategies You Can Use to Learn Just About Anything
Today I want to share with you some of the simpler types of mnemonics. The first two types are acoustic (auditory) strategies. The last two types are letter or word strategies.
1. Poetic Devices (rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, etc.)
This type of mnemonic works because it is easier for the human brain to remember semantic content when embedded in language that is poetic as opposed to prosaic. There’s not room to go into all the whys and wherefores of this interesting fact here, but many studies have shown this to be true (you can check out my discussion of this in the book I co-authored with Rich Allen, The Rock ‘N’ Roll Classroom, if you want a summary of the research).
Obviously, it makes sense for any teacher to use this penchant of the human brain for remembering poetic language to create mnemonics in which they embed important information. The phrase “righty tighty, lefty loosey” that I mentioned earlier is an easy example. The first two words rhyme, and the last two have a strong alliteration with the “l” sounds. Another example from life outside the classroom would be “leaves of three, let it be” to warn people not to touch a vine-like plant with three leaves if they don’t want to get poison ivy. An oldie from our elementary school days would be “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” as a way of remembering this important historical date.
There aren’t as many examples of this type of mnemonic circulating out there as there are of the word and sentence mnemonics we’ll look at in a moment, but with a little effort, you can often come up with short little rhymes or rhythmic sayings that match up with content you teach.
Another sound-based strategy is the keyword type of mnemonic. Keywords are often used for remembering difficult vocabulary or vocabulary for foreign language classes. The idea is to come up with a word you (or your students) already know that sounds like the difficult or foreign word you (or your students) are trying to remember. It also helps to pair the sound-alike word with a visual that combines both the meaning of the word to be learned and the word you already know.
Now, that description probably just confused you as much as it helped you, so let me give you a few examples. Let’s say you are trying to remember the scientific term for frogs, which is “ranidae,” but you’re struggling to get it to stick. “Ranidae” sounds a lot like the easier word “rain,” so you might use “rain” as a keyword for “ranidae.” You then visualize a frog (or many frogs) hopping around in the rain. This “sounds like” word plus a visual is a powerful way to remember a difficult word.
Here’s another example. Suppose you’re trying to remember the Italian word “capre” (goat). “Capre” sounds a little like “cop,” so cop becomes your keyword for “capre.” To cement the connection, imagine a goat dressed in a police uniform. Easy, right?
An acronym is a word made up of letters, each of which stands for something else. From the examples given at the beginning of this article, “FACE,” “HOMES,” and “SOHCAHTOA” are all examples of acronyms.
Here are a few more well-known acronyms: “ROY G BIV” helps us remember the colors of the rainbow in order (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet); “FANBOYS” teaches us the coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so); and “RICE” helps us remember how to treat a sprain (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation).
4. Acrostic Sentences
With acrostic sentences, you memorize a sentence in which the first letter of each word represents some content you need to remember. There are many great examples of acrostic sentences used for remembering content. Here are just a few:
- For the planets in order: “My Very Excited Mother Just Served Us Nine Pickles” (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto).
- For the order of operations in math: “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” (parentheses, exponents, multiply, divide, add, subtract).
- For the simple machines: “I like playing soccer with William” (inclined plane, lever, pulley, screw, wedge, and wheel and axle).
- For the bones of the wrist: “Some lovers try positions that they can’t handle” (scaphoid, lunate, triquetral, pisiform, trapezium, trapezoid, capitate, hamate). Obviously, you need to be careful to whom you teach that one.
Finally, some word-based mnemonics mix both acronyms and acrostics. One example is “LEO the lion says GER,” which helps us to remember what happens during the processes of oxidation and reduction (LEO = Losing Electrons is Oxidation; GER = Gaining Electrons is Reduction).
Conclusion–and a Couple of Caveats
Some teachers shy away from using mnemonics because they believe that it’s just a “trick,” and therefore that it will only help students in the short term–say, to score well on a test. But this is simply not true, and you know this from your own experience. I bet that some of the mnemonics I’ve mentioned in this article (ROY G BIV; Every Good Boy Does Fine; In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue) are ones you learned decades ago, and yet you still remember them today–and more importantly, you still remember the content to which they are tied, which was the whole point of the mnemonic in the first place.
Other teachers shy away from using mnemonics because it takes a little extra work to come up with them. You have to look at the content you teach and decide which content is both (1) so crucial that you want your students to learn and remember it for their whole lives, and (2) that lends itself to being turned into a mnemonic. Then, once you’ve identified which content fits these criteria, you have to create the actual mnemonic. So, yes, there is a bit of mental toil involved.
But there’s another approach. If your students are old enough (I would say third or fourth grade and up), you can teach them the uses of mnemonics and how to create them themselves, then turn them loose on the important content to come up with their own mnemonics. In fact, some research has shown that, if the students come up with the mnemonics instead of you, they will have an easier time committing them to memory.
But be careful (here’s the first caveat). While it’s probably true that your students will better remember mnemonics they come up with themselves, there is a trade-off–and that trade-off is time. It takes time to teach students about the uses of mnemonics and how they work, and students are usually going to take a lot longer to come up with a good mnemonic than you will. You have to decide if taking the extra class time is worth the payoff.
And there’s one more caveat–and this is the big one. Always remember that you still have to teach the content for comprehension first! A mnemonic is not a short-cut to learning the content in depth. For example, if you are a high school science teacher, you have to teach the taxonomic classification system for true understanding before you teach your students “King Philip Came Over For Good Soup.” Once they have learned the purpose for the system and what the distinctions are between the different levels, “King Philip” can help them more easily recall the information anytime it’s needed.
Alright, so there you have it: a simple tool (a whole set of tools, actually, or maybe the proper metaphor is a Swiss Army knife) that you can use to solidify the crucial content you teach in your students’ minds and help them recall it whenever they wish. If you’ve never used mnemonics very much in your teaching, you’re missing out on a very powerful (and fun) approach. Please give it a try; I think you’ll be impressed with the results.