Strategies 1: Mnemonics
Version Date: February 22, 2012
Overview: In this learning strategy, we discuss the mnemonic
strategies of chunking, combining, using graphics, and making stories
for memory enhancement.
Mnemonics. Pronounce it knee
MON icks. Mnemonics is the use of anything that helps you
remember, named after a Greek word meaning memory and the Greek goddess
Mnemosyne. To show you that memorizing can be fun, let's look at a
dramatic example of the power of mnemonics.
Let's say you want to learn the alphabet--backwards. Here it is. You
memorize it. That migiht appear to be a bit daunting, but that's
because you're probably looking at the entire string and wondering how
you can learn the whole thing all at once. But if you apply a couple of
learning strategies, you can learn the alphabet backwards in only five
Mnemonic strategy #1: Chunking. Instead of looking at the backwards
alphabet as one huge 26-character string, divide it into chunks that
can be handled. It's like cutting your steak (or tofu) into smaller
bites--bite sized chunks.
Mnemonic strategy #2: Combining. Twenty-six chunks is too many to
handle in working memory, so we need to combine some of the letters
into bigger chunks. In this case, we'll use four to six letters for a
chunk. A good example of a combined chunk is the area code in a phone
number. We tend to remember phone numbers in three chunks--area code,
prefix, and final four. Area codes are easy because so many phone
numbers that we call have one of the handful of same area codes.
Mnemonic strategy #3: Graphics. One key to memorization is that
whenever possible, use graphics to aid
your learning. Pictures are processed by the brain quickly and they can
to attach your short-term memory (which is trying to learn the alphabet
backwards) to a schema (or previously existing mental model or idea) in
your long-term memory. In simple terms, this means that pictures help
Mnemonic strategy #4: Stories. Create a story or sentence around what
you want to remember and the material will come back to you as you
remember the story or sentence. More about stories at the end of this article.
Okay, let's put all these strategies together and learn the alphabet
In looking over the backwards letters, we can see a chunk at the end
that suggests an image and part of a story. Starting at the back end,
FEDCBA has fed in it, so CBA
(Sheba or perhaps Ciba the cat?) might get fed. Here's our picture and our chunk:
Notice that you have already learned six of the letters of the alphabet
backwards in a highly memorable way, in less that half a minute. We've
chunked and combined six letters out of 26, created a visual hook with
the graphic, and made a story. Yes, "Fed Ciba (the cat)" is a story,
But moving back a bit more, what about MLKJIHG? Doesn't that
remind you of a milk jug? And isn't that appropriate for our hungry
cat? So we add seven more letters in a single chunk (or memory unit),
and add the
two pieces together:
Got it so far? Two chunks, two graphics, and a partial story--a milk
jug fed Sheba--reminds us of the last 13 letters
of the backward alphabet. That's half! So we have two powerful
devices running at the same time: pictures and a story. An illustrated
Next we chunk out another short string of letters, RQPON, which sounds
like "our coupon" that we might have used to buy the milk jug to feed
Sheba. Now we have:
Now we have to get a bit more creative because the remaining letters
don't necessarily suggest any objects. So, we're going to chunk them
into two final elements. First is an exclamation of surprise, ZYXW
(pronounced Zooksoo, or if you think it's better, Zykesoo), represented
graphically by an exclamation point.
Then a friend with an ununsual name, Vuts (pronounced Voots), which
sounds a bit like an electrical short, so we use a lightning bolt to
The memory story, then, is, Zooksoo,
Voots, our coupon got a milk jug that fed Sheba.
What have we learned (as the teacher always asks before answering the
question himself or herself)?
- Well, we've learned the alphabet backwards in five minutes.
- And we have learned that memorizing is easier if you combine a
story with simple graphics. (Research shows that simple graphics are
better for learning concepts that complex graphics or even photos,
unless there is essential detail in the photos,)
have discovered that the way to learn something is to chunk it
out instead of tackling it piecemeal. Notice that with the backwards
alphabet, you are learning five elements of information, not 26 itty
bitty ones or one enormous one. Chunking is an important principle when
you are going to study for a test, creating learning materials, or just
trying to remember some facts.
- We've learned what mnemonics is (and now you've also learned that
mnemonics takes a singular
verb. It's just an odd word).
- I hope we've learned that memorizing can actually be fun if you
take up the challenge of creating some mnemonic devices.
Create a Story: Another Example
Let's look at another case. If you ask someone, "Which month follows
February?" you're likely to get a look that implies, "Is this a trick
question?" If you get a reply, it will obviously be, "March, of
then you will say, "No, I meant which month follows February in
alphabetical order?" Or better, first ask someone to say the months,
and then after he or she rattles them off, say, "No, please say them in
alphabetical order." The person might try, but it will be a struggle.
The quick recital and the struggle elegantly demonstrate the difference
between fluency in long-term memory (where the calendar order months
are stored) and the grinding work of making working memory sort things
out in real time. This dynamic difference also shows the importance of
learning things in the order or sequence they will need to be used, to
make recall much easier at the time of need.
But to return to our example. Alphabetical order for the months is
August, December, February, January, July, June, March, May, November,
October, September. Trying to remember this as a huge acronym,
AADFJJJMMNOS, though only half as long as the alphabet, looks too hard.
So, once again, we create a story. In this case, no graphics because
the memory string is fairly short. The
story I created is this: "April's report card was mixed, but she had
three Jajul jewels from Marmayno's." This reminds me that April is the
month in alphabetical order. A mixed report card tells me that April
got an A, a D, and and F (which reminds me of August, December, and
February). Her three jewels are the three J months, January (comes
first because it's also first on the regular calendar) July and June
(reverse of calendar order is something I remember), and then the the
department store, MarMayno's is March, May, November, October, and
Creating a story out of anything you want to remember is a powerful
strategy. We all remember stories much better than facts, philosophical
discussions, or a string of details. Stories have linear
continuity--they start somewere, go somewhere, and end somewhere,
thereby forming an organizing structure that connects one element to
another. And they usually have some semblance of a plot--which may or
may not include a conflict. But the plot creates interest and interest
is the glue of memory.
Here, now, is a very practical application of mnemonics. Did you know
that "password" and "123456" are the two most common passwords used?
Not very hard to guess, are they? But why do people do that? Simply
because every site
wants a password (changed regularly!) and who can remember all those
complicated ones? Mnemonics to the rescue! If you want a difficult
password that you can remember easily but that others
won't be able to guess, just make it a mnemonic. Find a sentence,
proverb, Biblical verse, or other saying you like and use the first
letters of it for your password. Examples:
For more information, see All About Passwords. [coming soon]
- My best friend is Tom from Arizona. Password: MbfiTfA
- When two professors meet you have three opinions. Password:
- Ephesians 3:20 is a verse I love: E320iavIl.
- My cat Pete and my dog Fido don't get along: McPamdFdga.
Learning Strategy 2: Paraphrasing
2011 by Robert Harris | How
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About the author:
Harris is a writer
and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the
and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com