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Study Skills Science: Investigating Memory Mnemonics

A learning labor from Science Buddies


Total Recall?: How well can you remember a list of words? Learn how some language tricks can help boost your memory.
George Retseck

Key concepts
Memory
Learning
Brain
Psychology

Introduction
Have you ever needed to remember a long list of words, such as state capitals or items on a shopping list? Even if a list can be full of interesting facts, it can still be hard to remember. But there are some memory techniques that can help a person to better recall a list. In this science activity you'll try out a technique called mnemonics—a memory boosting strategy. You'll investigate whether using mnemonics can help you and your friends or family members remember lists of words.

Background
Sometimes it can be difficult to remember long lists of words, which is where memory techniques can help. Any memory trick that can help somebody remember information is called a mnemonic. Mnemonics can use systems of rhymes, acronyms, diagrams or other techniques to aid a person in recollecting names, dates, facts, figures and more. An example of a mnemonic is the rhyme, "i before e except after c, or when sounding 'a' as in 'neighbor' or 'weigh.'" This mnemonic was designed to help a person remember the order of the letters "i" and "e" in different words. As was mentioned, mnemonics can also use acronyms, which are words where each letter of the word stands for something. For example, a mnemonic for remembering the names of the Great Lakes uses the acronym HOMES, where each letter stands for one of the lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior. People also use mnemonics by mentally turning a list of words into a memorable sentence or a mental image that incorporates all of the words.

Materials
• At least six volunteers, in addition to the person who will be running the activity
• Quiet room for testing
• At least eight scraps or sheets of paper
• Pencil
• Stopwatch or timer

Preparation
• Develop a list of words that is at least seven words long. Your list is only limited by your own imagination—you can come up with one by taking inspiration from the world around you, such as making the list correspond to a grocery list or thinking of a group of objects or items.
• Make a corresponding mnemonic for the list of words. When trying to come up with a mnemonic, you can look at the examples given in the Background section, above. For example, you could come up with an acronym that uses the first letter of each word on the list. Alternatively, if you make a list of words that are descriptive, you could think of a funny sentence or image that incorporates all of those words. How well do you think your mnemonic will work?
• On one sheet of paper, write the list of words, but do not include the mnemonic. On a second sheet of paper, write the list of words and include the mnemonic (if it is something that can be easily written down).

Procedure
• In a quiet room, hand one of the sheets of paper (with the list of words) to a group of at least three volunteers. Hand the other sheet of paper (with the list of words and its mnemonic) to a different group of at least three volunteers. To the group that received the list along with the mnemonic, tell or show them how the mnemonic works. (If you are concerned that the other group might hear/see the mnemonic, put the groups in two different rooms or test them at different times.) Make sure that the group that didn't receive the mnemonic does not try to make up one to help them memorize the list.
• Give both groups five minutes to study the lists. How confident do both groups seem about knowing the words at the end of the five minutes?
• After five minutes have elapsed, take away the lists and have the groups do something else for 45 minutes. They can watch TV, talk, listen to music or perform some other activity.
• After 45 minutes have elapsed, test each member of each group separately. Have each person go back into the quiet room and either recite the words they read on their list or write them on a blank piece of paper. If you want, you can time how long it takes each person to recall the words. How many words can each person recollect correctly? How long does it take each person to recall their list?
Does it seem like the people who were given a mnemonic could more quickly remember more of the words on their lists with greater accuracy? Overall, does it look like the mnemonic helped people remember their lists of words?
Extra: Try increasing the wait time from 45 minutes to one hour, five hours, one day and/or longer. How long does the mnemonic help a person remember their word list?
Extra: There are many different types of techniques that people use as mnemonics to memorize something. For some examples, see the Background section, above. Try this activity again, but this time use a different type of mnemonic, such as an acronym, a funny sentence that uses all of the words on a list and/or words that rhyme. Do some types of mnemonics seem to be more effective for memorizing a list of words than others?
Extra: Instead of testing two random groups of volunteers, try testing four groups of volunteers—two who are relatively young and two who are relatively old (with half of the younger people and half of the older people each receiving the plain lists and the other halves getting the lists with the mnemonic device). Does using the mnemonic technique help older people recall their lists better than it does for younger people?

Observations and results
Did the people who were given a mnemonic (along with their lists of words) more effectively recall the words than the people who weren't given a mnemonic?

Overall, in this activity you should have seen that people who were given a mnemonic generally recalled their lists of words better than the people who weren't given one. Specifically, the people who received a mnemonic should have remembered more of the words on their lists, and with greater accuracy (making fewer mistakes in recalling what the exact words were) than people who didn't receive a mnemonic (and didn't make up one on their own). The people with mnemonics should have also recalled their entire lists of words more quickly. With the small sample size of volunteers used in this activity, however, the results may not have been as pronounced as they would be in a much larger study. Additionally, some mnemonic techniques can be more effective than others (and certain types work better for some people than others), so that could also affect the outcome of this activity.

More to explore
Nine types of Mnemonics for Better Memory, from Dennis Congos, University of Central Florida
Mnemonics—Memory Techniques, from Meg Keeley, Bucks County Community College
How Many Words Can You Remember?, from About.com Psychology
Memory Mnemonics, from Science Buddies

This activity brought to you in partnership with Science Buddies

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