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Mnemonic Strategies and Techniques

Components of Mnemonic Techniques, Varieties and Uses of Mnemonic Techniques, Educational Applications of Mnemonic Techniques

Mnemonic ("nee-moh-nick") techniques, also referred to as mnemonic strategies, mnemonic devices, or simply mnemonics, are systematic procedures designed to improve one's memory. The word mnemonic derives from the Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, and means "memory enhancing." The most comprehensive treatise on the historical development of mnemonic techniques may be found in Robert Alan Hrees's 1986 doctoral dissertation, in which it is noted that in preliterate cultures "history is preserved orally and the poets, like Homer, tell that history in their rich poetry, 'recited by heart.' [The ancient] Greeks prefaced such performances with a call to Mnemosyne, requesting her aid for a flowing and accurate recitation" (p. 1).

Since the mid-1970s, mnemonic techniques have been the subject of extensive research attention by psychological scientists. This attention has been directed at both analyzing the presumed components of mnemonic techniques and evaluating their effectiveness in numerous applied and academic contexts. As will be seen, mnemonic techniques come in different varieties and combinations. Moreover, the "accurate recitation" goal of the ancient Greeks notwithstanding, mnemonic techniques have been shown to serve a wide range of memory-related functions.

Components of Mnemonic Techniques

Mnemonic techniques work because they provide meaningful connections between informational items that are typically novel or unfamiliar and, therefore, are difficult to remember. Suppose, for example, that an eleventh-grade student has just encountered the word philatelist for the first time and wants to remember the textbook definition that accompanies it ("a person who collects stamps"). Applying Joel Levin's (1983) "three R's" of associative mnemonic techniques–recoding, relating, and retrieving–the student would first engage in recoding the unfamiliar word philatelist into a familiar proxy, or "keyword"–a salient part of the unfamiliar word's sound or spelling that, ideally, is picturable. Thus, for philatelist, a reasonable keyword might be Philistine (represented by, say, the Biblical giant, Goliath), Philadelphia, pilot, plate, or flat. For present purposes, Philistine will be used.

The second "R" component of the mnemonic process involves relating the keyword to the to-be-remembered definition in the context of some integrated scene or episode. Here, for example, the student might imagine Goliath, the Philistine, being smitten by an object from little David's sling. In this constructed scene, however, the object is not a stone, but rather a colorful postage stamp that has been left ("collected"?) on Goliath's forehead.

Thus, with the unfamiliar word effectively recoded and related, the third "R" represents the systematic path that has been constructed for retrieving the definition from memory when the unfamiliar word is re-encountered. Here, when the student attempts to remember the meaning of the word philatelist, the keyword Philistine should come to mind, which in turn should re-evoke the picture of Goliath with the colorful postage stamp collected on his forehead, which in turn should elicit the "person who collects stamps" definition.

Comments on the mnemonic process. Four related comments are in order. First, authors of many popular books in which mnemonic techniques are promoted assert that the focal information in the integrated scene (i.e., the keyword related to the associated information) needs to be greatly exaggerated or be in some way "bizarre." Yet, scientific research on mnemonic techniques has indicated that such an assertion is without empirical foundation. Rather than exaggeration or bizarreness, what seem to be critical for mnemonic techniques to work are:(1) the effort and attention devoted by the learner to the task at hand, namely the selection/use of an effective keyword; and (2) the formation of a vivid (clear) image of the integrated keyword-information scene. Thus, for the philatelist example, a bizarre or exaggerated postage stamp is not a necessity, but selecting an effective keyword cue (one that resembles a salient part of philatelist, such as Philistine) and creating a vivid image of Goliath with a postage stamp on his forehead are likely to be.

Second, and also based on considerable scientific research, mnemonic techniques work whether their two principal ingredients (recoded keywords and relating scenes) are produced either by or for a learner. For individuals with adequate cognitive skills (e.g., older students and adults) and with to-be-learned information that is relatively straightforward to identify, recode, and relate, creating one's own keywords and integrated scenes can be expected to yield memory benefits. On the other hand, for less cognitively capable individuals (e.g., young children or handicapped learners) and with less straightforward to-be-learned information, providing already-constructed keywords and integrated scenes is typically more effective.

Third, such keywords and scenes can be represented either pictorially (in the form of actual illustrations or visual images) or verbally (in the form of sentences or phrases, such as "Somehow, the forehead of Goliath the Philistine had collected a colorful postage stamp on it."). Fourth and finally, through the introduction of conventional concrete symbols, mnemonic techniques are easily adapted to associating "abstract" (not easily pictured) items. For example, "justice" can be pictorially represented by the scales of justice, "democracy" by a voting booth, "technology" by an electronic computer, "wealth" by a stack of dollar bills, and so on.

Varieties and Uses of Mnemonic Techniques

The keyword method (which goes under many other names by writers of popular memory-improvement books) is designed to strengthen associations between two or more items. Such items frequently consist of one or more pieces of information that a learner has not previously integrated as a unit (e.g., the definitions of unfamiliar words, the contributions of various famous people, the natural habitats of unfamiliar animals, the capitals of the fifty U.S. states). In each of these cases, less familiar, less meaningful terms (vocabulary words and the names of famous people, animals, or capitals/states) are recoded into something more familiar and picturable (i.e., keywords) and then related to the to-be-associated information (for vocabulary words, to their definitions; for famous people, to their associated contributions; for animals, to their associated habitats; for state and capital names, to each other). It should be noted that the state-capital example is actually a dual-keyword variation of the original keyword method, in that both of the to-beassociated items are recoded as picturable keywords (e.g., Kansas as cans and its capital, Topeka, as a top) and then related to one another in an integrated scene (e.g., a spinning top knocking over a bunch of tin cans).

Verbal-pictorial associations. In each of the examples in the previous paragraph, the initial form of the two pieces of information to be associated is verbal in nature (i.e., verbal terms and associated verbal information). A variation of the keyword method, for which an item that is pictorial in nature (e.g., a person's face, an animal's appearance, an artist's painting) is to be associated with verbal information (e.g., an unfamiliar name), is known as the face-name mnemonic technique. With this method, the "keyworded" unfamiliar name is related to a prominent feature of the physical or pictorial representation. For example, when being introduced to a new person with the unfamiliar surname Lectka, one could recode the name as the more familiar word lecture. Carefully examining the appearance of the person, one might notice the mouth as a prominent characteristic. Then, focusing on that mouth, one could imagine the person delivering a highly technical lecture. When subsequently encountering the person (either at the same gathering or in the future), and with one's attention drawn to the prominent mouth, it is hoped that the lecture emanating from it would come to mind, which in turn would be helpful in retrieving the surname Lectka.

Ordered associations. In contrast to the function of the keyword method and its variations (namely, associating unfamiliar, or arbitrary, paired items), the major function of the earliest mnemonic techniques–as applied by Mnemosyne's protégés–was to remember a list or group of numerically or chronologically ordered information (i.e., to associate each item of a list with a specific number, or to remember the items in a specific order). Chief among such mnemonic techniques was the method of loci, through which ordered items in a list (including the order of topics or points to be covered in a lengthy oration) were associated with a familiar sequence of objects, such as specific landmarks along a well-traveled route–or as has been developed in recent research investigations, familiar holidays to symbolize the numerically coded calendar months.

Two other common mnemonic techniques for remembering ordered information are the first-letter mnemonic and the link method (also known as the chain or story method). With the first-letter mnemonic, the first letter of each to-be-remembered list item is successively linked, either as an acronym (e.g., HOMES to represent the five Great Lakes: H uron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior) or as a constructed phrase or sentence consisting of words beginning with those letters, to cue the list items themselves. For example, to remember the increasing distances of the first five planets from the sun (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter) using the first-letter mnemonic, one could focus on the letter sequence MVEMJ and construct a little "story" such as: "Murray's Very Elderly other Jumped." (Murray was intentionally selected here to resemble Mercury in order to help distinguish it from another planet starting with the same letter, Mars.) With the link method, an association is connected between each successive item in a to-be-remembered list through a sequentially constructed "house that Jack built"–type story or imagined episode. Associated links (e.g., between successive planet names) can be similarly constructed through the introduction of rhyme and meter.

Two mnemonic techniques that are suitable for remembering either ordered or numerically identified information are the pegword method and the digit-symbol method (also known as the digit-consonant method). With the simpler-to-master pegword method, the numbers from 1 to 10 (or 1 to 20) are recoded as familiar rhyming pegwords (for example, 1 = bun, 2 = shoe, 3 = tree, 4 = door, 5 = hive, etc.). Then, each numbered item in a list is related to the pegword in an integrated scene. For example, if the fifth item in a 20-item list had something to do with sailboats, then one could construct a scene in which bees from a hive (for 5) were swarming all over the skipper of a sailboat. To later remember the fifth item of the list, one systematically retrieves sailboat from the hive pegword for 5. To reconstruct the complete list or to order the items in the list, one would need to retrieve the information associated with each of the 20 ordered pegwords.

With the more-complex-to-master digit-symbol method, each digit from 1 through 9 (plus 0) is first recoded as a previously established consonant sound (for example, in one standard system, 1 becomes a t or d sound, 2 an n sound, 3 an m sound, 4 an r sound, 5 an l sound,…, 0 an s or z sound). Either single recoded letters (for up to 10 items) or combined recoded letters (for more than 10 items) are additionally recoded as words that include just those consonant sounds (vowels and silent consonants are ignored in this system). For example, the number 5, recoded as an l sound, would additionally be recoded as the words lie, lye, oil, aisle, and so on. In contrast, the number 15, recoded as a or d sound plusan l sound, would additionally be recoded as the words tail, tile, doll, dial, deli, and so on. Returning to the sailboat example: If sailboat were the fifth item in a list, it would be associated with a recoded 5, such as oil, and then related to sailboat as, say, an imagined scene in which the skipper is oiling the sailboat's steering mechanism. On the other hand, if sailboat were the fifteenth item in a list, it would be associated with a recoded 15, such as tile, and relatedto sailboat as, say, an imagined scene in which the skipper is covering the main deck of his sailboat with tile. The digit-symbol method is also commonly applied to remembering numbers per se, as, for example, telephone numbers, zip codes, and institution-assigned security numbers. For example, to remember a bank-assigned ATM machine personal identification number of 5131, one could apply the digit-symbol method as follows: l (5) + d (1) + m (3)+ d (1) = old maid. When approaching the ATM machine, one would simply think of the process as starting to play the card game called Old Maid.

Educational Applications of Mnemonic Techniques

Joel R. Levin, in his contribution to the 1996 book The Enlightened Educator: Research Adventures in the Schools, documented numerous successful educational applications of mnemonic techniques, based on both individual and combined adaptations. Such mnemonic adaptations, several of which have been alluded to throughout this discussion, have been shown to improve students' memory for such educational content as: the meanings of unfamiliar vocabulary words (including foreign-language vocabulary); mathematics facts, concepts, and operations; the states and their capitals; the U.S. presidents; artists and their paintings; people and dates associated with various inventions; and scientific facts, relationships, and processes. In addition, mnemonic techniques have helped students organize and remember both narrative and expository information presented in text passages, with benefits observed on both tests of simple factual recall and those requiring higher-order thinking (e.g., essay production, inferential thinking, and problem solving). From an educational standpoint, mnemonic techniques may not be ideally suited for all students in all instructional contexts. Such techniques nonetheless provide widespread versatility in their potential for enabling students to grasp basic information efficiently and confidently, thereby freeing them to move on to more cognitively demanding tasks. Continuing mnemonic research is helping teachers and students realize the limits of that educational potential.


ATKINSON, RICHARD C. 1975. "Mnemotechnics in Second-Language Learning." American Psychologist 30:821–828.

HIGBEE, KENNETH L. 1993. Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve It, 3rd edition. New York: Prentice Hall.

HREES, ROBERT A. 1986. "An Edited History of Mnemonics from Antiquity to 1985: Establishing a Foundation for Mnemonic-Based Pedagogy with Particular Emphasis on Mathematics." Ph.D. diss., Indiana University.

HWANG, YOOYEUN; RENANDYA, WILLY A.; LEVIN, JOEL R.; LEVIN, MARY E.; GLASMAN, LYNETTED.; and CARNEY, RUSSELL N. 1999. "A Pictorial Mnemonic Numeric System for Improving Students' Factual Memory." Journal of Mental Imagery 23:45–69.

LEVIN, JOEL R. 1982. "Pictures as Prose-Learning Devices." In Discourse Processing, ed. August Flammer and Walter Kintsch. Amsterdam: North-Holland.

LEVIN, JOEL R. 1983. "Pictorial Strategies for School Learning: Practical Illustrations." In Cognitive Strategy Research: Educational Applications, ed. Michael Pressley and Joel R. Levin. New York: Springer-Verlag.

LEVIN, JOEL R. 1996. "Stalking the Wild Mnemos: Research That's Easy to Remember." The Enlightened Educator: Research Adventures in the Schools, ed. Gary G. Brannigan. New York: McGraw-Hill.

MCCARTY, DAVID L. 1980. "Investigation of a Visual Imagery Mnemonic Device for Acquiring Face-Name Associations." Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory 6:145–155.


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