Mnemonics are memory devices that help learners recall larger pieces of information, especially in the form of lists like characteristics, steps, stages, parts, phases, etc. We knew back in 1967 from a study by Gerald R. Miller that mnemonics increased recall. He found that students who regularly used mnemonic devices increased test scores up to 77%!
Many types of mnemonics exist and which type works best is limited only by the imagination of each individual learner. The 9 basic types of mnemonics presented in this handout include Music, Name, Expression/Word, Model, Ode/Rhyme, Note Organization, Image, Connection, and Spelling Mnemonics.
How many lyrics to songs do you remember? How did you come to remember them? The same method you used to recall song lyrics also can work just as well in academics. Music can used to help students recall important details to main ideas and many learners have made songs out of information when a list of items must be learned. Advertising on radio and TV uses music to help potential customers remember their products when shopping. With sufficient repetition of commercials, advertisers have discovered that when shoppers see their product in the stores that often the shopper will start reciting a oft repeated phrases from the commercial or start singing the lyrics to the promotion melody. The results has been increased sales of the product.
You can make a song or jingle using any type of music you choose for any list of items. Music Mnemonics work best with long lists. For example, some children learn the ABC's by singing the "ABC" song. Other children learn all the states in alphabetical order using the "50 Nifty United States" song.
In a Name Mnemonic, the 1st letter of each word in a list of items is used to make a name of a person or thing. Sometimes, the items can be rearranged to form a more recollectable name mnemonic. Examples:
ROY G. BIV = colors of the spectrum (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet.)
Pvt. Tim Hall = Essential amino acids (Phenylanine, Valine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Isolucine, Histidine, Arginine, Leucine, Lysine.
This is by far the most popularly used mnemonic. To make an Expression or Word mnemonic, the first letter of each item in a list is arranged to form a phrase or word. Examples:
For physical laws dealing with gasses, try these:
Charles' Law: For a constant volume, pressure is directly proportional to temperature.
The simple way to remember Chuck is if the tank's too hot, you're blown into muck.
Henry's Law: The solubility of a gas increases with pressure.
To remember good old Hank, remember the bubbles in the shaken Coke you drank.
Boyles' Law: At constant temperature, pressure is inversely proportional to volume.
Boyle's law is best of all because it presses gasses awfully small.
In English, the 7 coordinating conjunctions are For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So = FANBOYS.
The order of operations for math is Parentheses, Exponents, Multiply, Divide, Add, and Subtract = Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.
The categories in the classification of life are Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, Variety = Kings Play Cards On Fairly Good Soft Velvet.
For those who have to remember the order of color coding on electronic resistors: Black, Blue, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Brown, Violet, Gray, White, Silver, Gold.
Bad Boys Rile Our Young Girls,But Violet Gives Welts (to) Silly Guys
Bad Beer Rots Our Young Guts But Vodka Goes Well (in) Silver Goblets.
Almost every anatomy class has to remember the eight small bones in the wrist: Navicular, Lunate, Triquetrum, Pisiform, Multongular (Greater), Multongular (Lesser), Capitate, Hamate.
Never Lick Tilly's Popsicle, Mother Might Come Home.
Create an Expression Mnemonic for remembering the order of the planets from the sun outward: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.
In a Model Mnemonic, some type of representation is constructed to help with understanding and recalling important information.
Examples include a circular sequence model, a pyramid model of stages, a pie chart, and a 5-box sequence. Models should be used in addition to words and lists because they make recall at test time much easier. With a large model such as the Krebs Cycle, it is easier to learn and remember if it is divided into quarters and learned one quarter at a time; hence, the cross hairs.
An Ode or Rhyme Mnemonic puts information in the form of a poem. Examples include:
A commonly used Rhyme Mnemonic for the number of days in each month is:
30 days hath September, April, June, and November.
All the rest have 31
Except February my dear son.
It has 28 and that is fine
But in Leap Year it has 29.
You'd probably prefer your doctor to know the difference between cyanate and cyanide: Cyanate "I ate" and Cyanide "I died." Cyanide is a little fatal.
Remember this one? In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
How is your spelling?
I before e except after c
or when sounding like a
in neighbor and weigh
Here is an easy way to remember the nerves: olfactory, optic, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, acoustic, glassopharyngeal, vagus, spinal accessory and hypoglossal.
On Old Olympus' Towering Tops, AFinn And German Viewed Some Hops
The way textbook and lecture notes are organized can inhibit learning and recall or promote it. In the sense that the organization of notes can promote recall, it is a memory device. Three examples of organizing note formats that promote recall are as follows:
Notecards are an easy way to organize main ideas and relevant details to be recalled. If main ideas are formatted into possible test questions, notecards can give learners practice in seeing questions and recalling answers as they must do on exams.
Outlines clearly separate main ideas from details. This helps organize the information in the mind making it easier to remember.
I. PIAGET'S THEORY
A. Four Stages
3. Concrete Operations
4. Formal Operations
B. Definition of each stage
1. Sensorimotor means ........ etc.
The Cornell System is another way to use a Note Organization Mnemonic to promote recall. A vertical line is drawn 3 inches from the left margin of notebook paper. Main ideas or questions from them are placed to the left of the line and details or answers placed to the right.
The topic used here is from How To Study In College (3rd edition) by Walter Pauk, pages 292 300.
The information in an Image Mnemonic is constructed in the form of a picture that promotes recall of information when you need it. The sillier the Image Mnemonic is, the easier it is to recall the related information. These images may be mental or sketched into text and lecture notes. Don't worry about your artistic ability. As long as you know what your sketch means, Image Mnemonics will help you learn and remember. Examples:
You can use an Image Mnemonic to remember BAT (the depressant drugs mentioned above - Barbiturates, Alcohol, and Tranquilizers). Visualize or sketch in your notes a limp, depressed bat that took Barbiturates, Alcohol, and Tranquilizers.
Picture meeting someone new at a party named John Horsley. Use an Image Mnemonic to help you remember his name. Visualize a horse sitting on a john: not pretty but effective in recall. No example provided on this one.
What is a numismatist? Visualize a new mist rolling onto a beach from the ocean and beach is made of coins. Silly? Of course, but sillyography makes it is easier to remember that a numismatist is a coin collector.
How about using a bad joke to help you remember? Picture two numismatists having a drink for "old dime's sake." Corny? Yes, but cornography often makes things easier to remember.
In this type of mnemonic, the information to be remembered is connected to something already known. Examples include:
Remembering the direction of longitude and latitude is easier to do when you realize that lines on a globe that run North and South are long and that coincides with LONGitude. Another Connection Mnemonic points out that there is an N in LONGitude and an N in North. Latitude lines must run east to west, then because there is no N in latitude.
Another Connection Mnemonic is related to sound. The 1st part of the word latitude sounds like flat and flat runs horizontal or East and West.
Here is an example of a spelling mnemonic: A principal at a school is your pal, and a principle you believe or follow is a rule.
Another commonly used Spelling Mnemonic is combined with an Ode/Rhyme Mnemonic.
I before e except after c
or when sounding like a
in neighbor and weigh
A third example deals with the problems some learners have remembering that there is an "a" in the middle of separate and not an "e." A Spelling Mnemonic combined with an Image Mnemonic may be used to spell the word sep rate using an exaggerated "a."
To spell Mississippi, many learners combine a Rhythm Mnemonic with a Spelling mnemonic: M-iss-iss-ipp-i.
Here are some more examples of spelling mnemonics:
Geography: George Edwards's Old Grandma Rode APig Home Yesterday.
Arithmetic: ARat In The House May Eat The Ice Cream.
Saskatchewan: Ask At Chew An with an S in front of it.
Take the 1st letter of eachtype of mnemonic listed above and print them below on the line to help you remember the 9 types.
Wanna' Practice? You become better at that which you practice. If you practice not making mnemonics
Get some classmates or friends together and practice making mnemonics using the lists provided below. Nine times out of 10 everyone gets a side ache from laughing so hard before the exercise below is finished.
Using the items below, devise a mnemonic for remembering each piece of information. Use any of the 9 types of mnemonics as a guide or combine any of the types. Try making a mnemonic without changing the order and then a few where you reorganize the items to fit your mnemonic.
You are only limited by the restrictions that you place on your own creativity.
Questions or comments? Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More about the author
I love poetry. Actually the truth is – as I often tell my pupils – I love some poetry. Whenever a pupil says “I hate poetry”, I usually tell them it’s like saying “I hate music” – a sweeping statement that doesn’t really express the truth: The Cure genuinely send shivers down my neck, whereas Nickelback make me do a little bit of sick in my mouth. Likewise, Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’ stirs me, but I never really felt the remotest of interest in Tony Harrison’s ‘v.’
On paper, ‘v.’ should say more to me than ‘Prufrock’. Harrison’s poem is written in and of a time contemporary to my growing up and the class-laden references are entirely familiar to me, whereas Eliot writes of manners and allusions that I have had to work at to understand. In terms of accessibility, the directness of ‘v.’ should trump the ambiguity of ‘Prufrock’, yet for some reason the subtle, arcane and foreign emotions expressed in the latter have a far greater pull for me.
If poetry was written as a formula, I’m sure I’d be more drawn to the formula of ‘v.’ than that of ‘Prufrock’. But poetry isn’t like that. Ultimately, it’s irreducible, perhaps because it is itself a reduction (of language).
As teachers, we often try to reduce complex ideas to formulas. One way that we do this is to create acronyms as mnemonics. It’s entirely well meaning, and I’m sure there are examples of memorable and effective acronyms. But often they are clumsy attempts to reduce the irreducible.
It always surprises me to see the same comments year after year on the AQA examiner’s reports for the poetry exam. They argue that there’s an over-reliance on these acronyms, suggesting that they are holding pupils back. Despite this problem being noted by the exam board every year, here it is highlighted again (and again) in the most recent reports:
And it isn’t just in poetry that these acronyms hinder pupils. The examiners’ reports for the English Language GCSE also suggest that language analysis seems to suffer because of a reliance on acronyms too.
That is not to say that acronyms can’t be useful. When I did closed book exams during my degree, I’d memorise quotes that might be helpful. And to help do this, I’d initially commit to memory the first letter of each quote. This meant that I might have 12-15 letters to remember, so I would arrange them so that they would produce a pseudoword: a nonsense word that followed spelling patterns of English words, despite it having no meaning. The reason for this is that I could commit it to memory as one, pronounceable word, rather than a series of letters – what we know as chunking.
This was perfectly serviceable for what I needed. The acronyms themselves were usually gibberish because I’d have to be pretty lucky if what I needed to remember could actually spell out real English words. Apropos of this, it means that I’m usually pretty sceptical about the utility of an acronym if it happens to conveniently spell out a word. I’m even more suspicious if that word happens to link to the topic.
Something like this, for instance, fills me with worry.
This mnemonic is suggested for pupils to use in analysing a poem. It’s awfully convenient that it spells out the word POETIC, isn’t it? Okay, let’s look at why it might cause problems…
Purpose – This is clarified by “the meaning of the poem?” Wait, do you want me to think about the purpose or the meaning? Those are different things, and it probably isn’t helpful to conflate them. Now, I can work with ‘meaning’ – that’s what we do when we read poetry: interpret meaning. But I’m not sure it’s always our place to decipher the purpose of a poem. Why did Sylvia Plath write ‘Cut’? We can read biographical information into the poem, but not sure we should be discerning purpose.
Organisation – Okay, this is useful. What we might call ‘structure’ and ‘form’.
Emotive Tone – Again, this might be useful. But I would suggest that this isn’t isolated from Organisation and Techniques. It is important that pupils see how tone is created through these things.
Techniques – Okay. But I would suggest that Languageis what we should look for, and if there are specific techniques in that language we might discuss them. Feature-spotting is a common mistake made in analysing poetry.
Individual words – Ah – this is the Language I was talking about. But why is it ‘Individual words’? It goes on to specify ‘words and phrases’, so ‘individual’ is a misnomer.
Contrast – Right… isn’t this to do with language? At best it’s a technique, if we follow this mnemonic? Why does it needs its own category? If only there was some sort of justification… wait – “there will always be a contrast in a well-written poem”. Hmm. That’s a bit of a sweeping value judgement, isn’t it?
Whilst there are arguably some useful directions for pupils in this acronym, they are often clouded by distant synonyms which obfuscate the real meanings – Purpose actually means ‘meaning’, which is a different thing entirely, and Individual words isn’t just asking for individual words, it’s asking for phrases. And if it isn’t clouding meaning, it’s deviating from the utility of the mnemonic by adding in things that don’t need to be there – Contrast is an unnecessary focus. By needlessly yawing off course like this, we are asking pupils to store redundant information in their memories.
Here’s another example of an acronym that might actually make things harder for pupils. This is for close reading of a text.
Yet again fortune has given us the letters to spell a word linked to the topic! But if you look at the words that CLOSE helps us remember, you’ll notice that they aren’t actually content words – they aren’t the actual things we want pupils to remember. Check, Look, Observe, Study and Examine do not only arguably operate as function words in the sentences they are in, they are also almost synonyms of each other (making it even more difficult to discern them from one another). What we would want pupils to remember in each of these sections would be unknown words, ideas and details, book and text features, sentence structures and author’s message or theme. How CLOSE helps us remember those is really a leap of faith.
I absolutely understand the intentions behind using these – they are utterly well meaning. We desperately want to break down information for our pupils, and acronyms seem a good way of doing this. However, in breaking it down this way we often make common mistakes.
If we must use mnemonics like this, perhaps it is best to first ask the following question:
- Am I trying to reduce the irreducible? For example, can this topic really be studied effectively using a formulaic approach? Or better still, should it be studied this way?
And if we then decide to use an acronym as a memory aide, it is important that every word represented in that acronym counts. Avoid deferring to a synonym because its initial fits the acronym more neatly – synonyms carry with them different meanings and so confuse what is needed. And then we should make sure that we don’t add extra information just so that we have letters that neatly spell out a word. This is unnecessarily deviating from the purpose of the acronym. Why would we want someone to remember something they don’t need to?
We need pupils to remember stuff. But perhaps we should be a bit more precise when using acronyms. In the battle to get pupils to remember, we have created these absolute curses of retention and organisation: needlessly yawing mnemonics.
Now if only there was a way I could remember that last statement…