Helping Your Students Memorize Information


Mnemonic devices are memory aids. If you want to help your students learn, you may want to share some mnemonics tips with them. You probably don’t have a lot of time to teach mnemonics to your students, and some of your students may already know some good techniques. If you want to be sure students memorize something, ask the class if anyone has a tip, a trick if you will, that they use. If you sense that your class is all over this memorization thing, that’s great. But if you think by sharing a tip or two you might see better grades on the next test, go for it!

When I “Googled” the word mnemonics, I got 893,000 hits. There is just too much information out there. Where do you start if you want to create a bag of mnemonic tricks? Well, start with the basics. Mnemonics can be acronyms, rhymes, memory pegs, visualization techniques and more. Even if you never heard the term before, I bet you have used plenty of them. I am going to briefly discuss some of my favorite mnemonic techniques. If you want to learn more about these or other techniques, my advice is to search the Web and check out the first two or three hits. Include the subject you are teaching, anatomy for example. Maybe you teach chemistry. You could try the following search terms: periodic table and mnemonics and memory pegs as search terms. I have included a copy of the chart so you can get the idea. I can’t guarantee the following site will be available when you try, but here is this link a click and try.

Some of My Favorite Mnemonic Techniques

Technique #1: Acronyms

This shouldn’t take much explanation. I think we have all used these. What does Roy G. Biv bring to mind? The colors of the rainbow you say? That’s correct: red, organge, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

Technique 2: Memory Pegs

Memory Pegs are a popular mnemonic device. The most common one I know associates words with numbers. Here’s how you set up your own memory pegs. Start with the number “one” and ask yourself what word rhyming with one pops into your head first. Run? Gun? Fun? Ton? Sun? Son? Only two things matter. It must rhyme with the “one,” and it must be something that you will remember. I believe that the first word to pop into your head is usually the best one to choose. However, as will be common apparent, the more visual the word the better. So, for words that rhyme with one, ton may not be the best choice. I suppose that I could picture a large, cartoon-like weight with “1 TON” written on the side. It might work. For me, since I like to jog, and since run came to mind first, that’s the peg word I am going to use. I could argue that gun presents a more visually stimulating picture, but that’s a bit too politically incorrect for me to use.

Got the idea? Here is a list of memory pegs I put together: 1 = run, 2 = shoe, 3 = bee, 4 = door, 5 = dive, 6 = sticks, 7 = heaven, 8 = gate, 9 = dine and 10 = hen. So, how do you use these? Simple! Let’s say you are teaching a health course, and you expect your students to remember four things they should do to protect themselves and others from the flu, those being cover your mouth when you cough, wash your hands regularly, stay away from sick people, and stay home if you feel sick. Okay, here is how I would use my memory pegs. I would associate run with covering my mouth while coughing. The more outlandish the mental picture the better. I picture myself running around the mouth of a volcano, one coughing up smoke. May not work for you, but it works for me. Next I picture myself sticking my shoes in the sink to wash them. In my mental picture, they are still on my feet. I will remember to stay away from sick people by visualizing a bee flying at me and coughing. Who doesn’t want to stay away from bees, particularly one with the flu? My final mental picture is of the door to the building where I work. I see my secretary standing in from of it forbidding me to enter. “Go home,” she is yelling at me.

Technique #3: Visualization

I have used something I call the Virtual Walk to remember items to pick up at the store. I take an imaginary drive from the street, into my garage, and then exit my car and walk into the house. Along the way, I take note of the basketball hoop, the garage door, my table saw that is directly in front of my car when it is properly parked, the door handle, the spot on the garage floor where I will first step, the button I push to close the door, and the door to the closet where I hang my coat.

How does this work? Let’s say I wanted to memorize the proper way to set the table, maybe to impress my mother-in-law if she asks me to lend a hand on Thanksgiving. I picture the salad fork, along with bowl of salad, teetering on the rim of the basket. Then I see a t-bone steak, stuck to the garage door with a large fork. Next I see a huge dinner plate sitting on my table saw in two pieces. I must have cut it in half. As I grab the handle to open the car door, I scream in pain. You guessed it. The knife was there and I stuck myself. As I get out of the car, I accidently kick over a cup of coffee sitting on the floor can almost hear the tea spoon clatter out of the cup onto the concrete. Finally, as go to close the garage door, I realize the control button is a mess. I think it is covered with split pea soup, and that is something you would normally eat with the last item, a soup spoon.

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.

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