Learning Mnemonics

Y’know those phrases that just seem to be ingrained in your memory from middle school? Like: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally ROY G. BIV Or, thirty days hath September, April, June, and November. Sound familiar? These are different kinds of mnemonics -- shortcuts that we can use to help us remember stuff, like the order of operations, or the colors of a rainbow. Turns out, there are lots of strategies to remember information when you need it most. Take the mnemonic, My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos. The first letter of each word stands for a planet in our solar system, from Mercury to Neptune. Now, when you first think about it, mnemonics like this don’t seem like a very helpful memory trick, because you have to remember twice as much -- like, a weird sentence plus all of the names of the planets. But that’s actually why they work. A simple way to think about memory is that we store information -- kinda like sticking a file in a filing cabinet, or those shelves of orbs in Inside Out -- until we recall, or remember, it later. And researchers studying how people learn suggest that recalling information can be easier when it’s connected to other information you already know. So you can imagine this model of memory like a web of files, where the ones with more connections are less likely to be lost, and easier to recall. One influential theory, which was published in The British Journal of Educational Psychology in 1976, put learning in terms of different levels of processing. Basically, they suggest learning can fall on a spectrum of surface-level processing -- which is more like rapid-fire memorization -- to deeper processing -- or, linking new information to an information network, which leads to better recall. And with mnemonics, you’re making more of these connections. Sometimes it’s between random bits of information -- like setting the periodic table to the tune of a song you know. But there are a lot of memory hacks that psychologists have proposed over the years, and tested in research experiments. Not all of them will work for everyone in every learning situation -- there are just way too many variables in real life -- but they can be helpful. If you’re learning new words, you can try using the Keyword Method -- a term that was coined in the mid-1970s by researchers from Stanford University, and studied frequently in the next couple decades. This mnemonic can help people learn words in new languages, by connecting how a new word /sounds/ to a keyword in English, for example. Then, the English keyword is linked to a strong /visual image/ that helps you recall what the new word means. So like in Spanish, say you’re trying to learn the word “perro,” which means dog. You might pick the keyword pear, and imagine a dog holding a pear in its mouth to connect the two. The Keyword Method could also help with more complicated vocab in English -- like, when you think of the word “melancholy,” you can picture a sad melon to remember the meaning. But what if you’re more of a spatial, visual learner? Then, you can use a technique known as the Method of Loci [low-sigh], which was first described by ancient Greek and Roman texts, and studied by psychologists from the 1960s until now. This strategy allows you to create a kind of “mind palace,” where you mentally walk through rooms in a building or some other familiar spaces -- the loci. Along the way, you can visualize things like symbols that represent key points in a speech you’re gonna give, or meeting the U.S. presidents in order. So when it comes to school, trying to memorize one fact at a time might not be the best study strategy. Instead, it might help to connect that new information to other things you learned, or even make some kind of story out of it. And finally there’s chunking, a theory first proposed by a Harvard psychologist in 1956 that’s still studied today. It’s basically when you learn a whole bunch of information and /organize/ it into chunks that make sense: Like, instead of trying to memorize a sequence of 8 separate numbers you can break it into two chunks that sound like years. So it feels like you have fewer individual things to remember, and it’s easier to store and recall more information. And with more and more exposure to the information you’re trying to learn, like when you’re studying, the larger the chunks of connected information can become. There’s no replacement for paying attention in class, taking good notes, and spending time studying when it comes to learning. But if you’re having a little trouble remembering stuff, you might be able to use some mnemonics. Because, sometimes, we need all the help we can get!

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