Mnemonic Strategies: Overview

Mnemonic strategies are special mental tricks that were developed thousands of years ago as memory aids that ties to-be-remembered information to something familiar (Yates, 1966).

Mnemonic strategies have potential to make past information more memorable and easily retrievable. The word mnemonic is an adjective Opens in new window derived from the Greek words mnemon and mnastbia, meaning, respectively, “mindful” and “to remember” (Webster’s, 1980).

Mnemonics can take several forms. We can use acronyms, for example, such as HOMES to remember the names of the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior) and phrases Opens in new window, such as “Every good boy does fine,” to remember the names of the notes in the treble clef (E, G, B, D, and F). When learners think of the mnemonic, they link it to the information it represents, which aids the recall of information.

Mnemonics are very helpful to remember vocabulary, names, rules, lists, and other kinds of factual knowledge. The following table provides some additional examples.

1. Link method Opens in new window (interactive imagery)Visually linking items in a list into a series of overlapping images in a chain (may be used as an alternative to the peg-word mnemonic Opens in new window)A student visualizes homework stuck in a notebook, which is bound to his/her textbook, pencil, and pen with a rubber band to remember to take the (italicized) items to class
2. Method of Loci Opens in new windowAssociating a list of items with a sequence of fixed physical locations in familiar environments, such as the chair, sofa, lamp, end table, and footstool, in a living roomStudent wanting to remember the first five elements of the periodic table visualizes hydrogen at the chair, helium at the sofa, lithium at the lamp, etc
3. First letter method Opens in new windowCreating a word out of the first letters of the items to be remembered A student creates the word Wajmma to remember the first six presidents in order: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Adams
4. Pegword System Opens in new window (hook) strategyMemorizing a series of “pegs”—such as “one is bun” and “two is shoe”—on which to-be-remembered information is hungA person wanting to get pickles and carrots at the grocery store visualizes a pickle in a bun and a carrot stuck in a shoe
5. Keyword method Opens in new windowAssigning imagery and rhyming words to remember unfamiliar words A learner remembers that trigo, which rhymes with tree, is the Spanish word for wheat by visualizing a sheaf of wheat sticking out of a tree

Mnemonics link knowledge to be learned to familiar information, and they have been proven effective in a variety of content areas with learners ranging from children to older adults. Through the use of mnemonic techniques some spectacular results in recall performance have been obtained (Bellezza, 1981).

Bower and Clark (1969), for example, found 93 percent recall in a mnemonic group, compared to 13 percent in a control group. Ericsson, Chase and Faloon (1980), worked with a college student of average intelligence and memory ability whose memory span after 230 hours of practice increased from 7 to 79 digits. His performance on memory tests of digits equaled that of memory experts with life-long training. The authors concluded that, with an appropriate mnemonic system, retrieval method and practice there is seemingly no limit to memory skills.

Mnemonics are relatively easy to use and have lots of practical applications—in fact, virtually all how-to memory books rely entirely on these techniques. Professional memorizers, including those who compete in national and international memory contests (the memory “Olympics”), all use versions of these techniques (Foer, 2011).