The Truth About Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics In Learning

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Share the knowledge!
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Would you like to be able to memorize a whole book? What about those boring declination tables?

Silly question. Who wouldn’t?

One way or the other, you have heard of amazing memory feats of mnemonists – memorizing decks of cards or thousands of digits. And all this seemingly effortlessly.

Mnemonics definitely have power to stimulate imagination. And they definitely stimulated mine.

This dream, dream of being able to memorize anything I want, triggered the chain of events which made me embark on a bumpy journey/

Destination? To discover the true effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics and master my memory.

My First Experience With Mnemonics

 

I still remember the first time when I had to practically use mnemonics.

I failed one of my exams and I had to retake it. The problem was that I didn’t know when.
I was convinced that the day would be announced very soon.

The days went by and I didn’t even touch the course book. Somehow the notion of the retake blissfully slipped my mind.

One day I was sitting in the corridor, listening to the music and reading a book

Suddenly I heard a muffled voice, “aren’t you preparing for the exam?”.
“What exam?, I looked up just to see the grinning face of my good friend.

“It’s starting in 2 hours”, he replied. Somehow his grin turned into an evil smirk.

“That’s it”, I thought to myself.

“I will fail this exam and I will fail my studies. I will end up homeless and will have to fight sewer spiders for the food.”

After the first surge of panic passed, I started coming up with possible solutions.
I decided that my best chance is to use mnemonics.

I didn’t have much experience in using them. Sure, I had read two books up to that point but had almost no experience to back up the theory.

Desperate times call for drastic measures. I rolled up my sleeves and started learning.

A bit over 3 h later, I left the professor’s office.
I passed. I don’t know how, but I passed.

Thus my obsession with mnemonics was born.

My imagination was running wild. Where are the boundaries?

Is it possible for each one of us to become genius if we just learn to utilize mnemonic strategies?

I needed many years to learn the bitter truth.

No. Mnemonics will not make you a genius and allow you to effortlessly absorb tons of information.

“So are they useful at all?”, you might ask.
And what can they be used for?

I will get back to this in a moment.

What Are Mnemonics

 

Before we move on, it’s good to quickly explain what mnemonics are.

In short, mnemonics are devices to aid our overburdened memory.

They are used to facilitate effective encoding by associating new information with the knowledge which is already stored in your long-term memory (Johnson & Weber, 2006 as cited in Gibson, 2009).

Probably the most common mnemonic device is so-called keyword method coined by Atkinson (1975). It is used to make meaningful auditory and imagery links to remember a word.

For example, if you want to remember that “to buy” in Spanish is “comprar”, you might create a vivid picture of a man who compares prices of products before the purchase.

Not that complicated, right?

Let’s see now what science has to say about mnemonics.

What Science Thinks About Mnemonics

 

Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

 

There is a large body of research about mnemonics.

However, probably the most interesting study up-to-date was led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky and released in April 2013 by the Association for Psychological Science.

In a comprehensive report, the group of authors closely examined 10 learning tactics and rated them from high to low utility based on the evidence they’ve gathered.

If you are expecting mnemonics to be among the most useful strategies, don’t hold your breath.
They didn’t even come close to the top of the list.

According to the authors, some commonly used techniques, such as underlining, rereading material, and using mnemonic devices, were found to be of surprisingly low utility.

Of surprisingly low utility?!

If you look at memory feats performed by mnemonics, you might reach a conclusion that scientists must be taking crazy pills.

For example, here is a video of  Dr Yip Swee Chooi.

 

 

What’s so special about him?

He learnt 1774-page Chinese-English dictionary by heart (in case you wonder – it took him almost 6 months to do it).

Another great example is  Simon Reinhard who memorized a deck of cards in 20.438 seconds.

 

 

Clearly people with untrained memory would not be able to even come close to these results.

Still, the report says clearly – mnemonics might not be the best use of your time.

Of course, I must be perfectly honest with you.
There are a lot of studies who show that using mnemonics might be very beneficial for (among others):

What’s even more important, some studies showed memory improvement with students with disabilities, as described by Fulk (1994) and Bulgren et al. (1994).

And these are just a few of them and they all state clearly – mnemonics are statistically more effective.

Effective than what?! And why didn’t I include these studies here then?

Problems With Studies On Effectiveness Of Mnemonics

 

Having read dozens of studies on mnemonics, I can divide flaws of these studies into following categories:

a) Statistical sample is not representative

 

Do you know how to recognize bad, bullshit science at the first glance? Look at the sample.

To generalize, any number below 100 participants means that researchers just threw your tax money into the gutter.

b) Control groups suck

 

Do you know what is the usual control group against mnemonics-using students?
Rote learning students.

Ugh, it’s like watching some bizarre boxing match.

“Ladies and gentleman, let’s gather around to enjoy this very duel – a retarded shrimp vs. quite an ordinary shrimp”.

c) Laboratory settings

 

99,9% of these studies are conducted in laboratory settings.

And there is quite a yawning gap between research in areas of everyday memory (i.e. field research) and lab-controlled research.

The Hawthorne effect is one of the things which comes to mind.

A type of reactivity in which individuals modify or improve an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed

It’s very hard to generalize such results to other settings

What’s more, so-called low ecological validity comes into play.

The laboratory is clearly an artificial situation.  People are directed by an ‘experimenter’ in a psychological experiment. They are removed from their usual social settings and asked to memorize different sets of data.

This is a very unusual experience which raises the question – how do this novel experience and settings really affect their behavior and memory?

Still, lab research is better than no research at all.

d) Time horizon

 

Most studies are conducted over relatively short period of time. It’s rarely spread over more than 3-4 weeks. As you will soon read, this is why most studies prove effectiveness of mnemonics.

e) Nature of the tasks

 

How would you feel about memorizing and recalling a list of unconnected words or digits? Seriously, be honest. How would you rate your willingness on the scale from “nope” to “never”?

The detachment of such tasks from everyday life, and their general lack of usefulness, have led some researchers to question whether their findings can be generalized to real life.

 

Am I saying that mnemonics are useless then?
Not at all. They can be insanely useful.

But you must understand what they are and what they aren’t.
I quoted the excerpt from John Dunlosky’s report for two reasons:

  • 1) It tested different learning strategies against one another.
  • 2) More importantly, it tested effects of those strategies in LONG-TERM learning.

And this is what mnemonics are not.

They are not a suitable tool for long-term learning. At least not in the form they are usually presented.

If you are not pressed for time, you can get by without any problems without using mnemonics

They are also not a panacea for all your memory problems.
This is just another tool in your learning arsenal.

If you have ever read anything by any author who promotes / sells anything mnemonics-related you might find it hard too believe.

Don’t worry, I also felt disillusioned. And I had good reasons.

(Results Of) My Experiments With Mnemonics

 

Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

Picture by: Vlad

Since that pivotal moment of my life, my obsession with mnemonics had been growing in strength with each passing day.

There was no stopping me. I was the mnemonics preacher. Everybody HAD to know about how mnemonics are great,

After I won local memory championship, it only got worse.

I experimented with the ardor of meth-addicted junkie.

I created memory palaces holding thousands of words.

I tried to learn entire books by heart just to test effectiveness of mnemonics.

I have memorized tables, law regulations and tested my recall  at various intervals.

Effect was always the same.

Great recall rate at the beginning of my experiments. These early results were always accompanied by the feeling of overwhelming joy.

But it never lasted long.

My recall rate was still good after up to 2-4 weeks after creating mnemonic images and reviewing them. Although, I could notice some deterioration of my memories.

Inevitable drop in recall rate always came after more than 4 weeks.

And this is exactly why most scientific studies seemingly prove effectiveness of mnemonics.
They test them in labs in short periods of time.

Once again, I would like to stress that mnemonics can be immensely useful.

Useful both for recalling random information as well as helping you achieve high levels of expert performance. Just not for long-term learning.

Read on and I will show how they can be utilized best.

But first, to have a full picture of what you’re dealing with, take a look at limitations of mnemonics.

Limitations And Disadvantages Of Mnemonics

 

  • Gruneberg (1998) argues that the keyword method in general is inferior to rote learning in the longer-term retention of vocabulary.
  • “Campos and Gonzalez (2003) attribute ineffectiveness of keyword method to participants’ ‘lack of training. They investigated in four experiments the effectiveness of the mnemonic key word method using two groups of adults and adolescents. In all the experiments, the rote method was more effective than the keyword method for both adolescents and adults.”
  • Some people (especially adults) are reluctant to create vivid images and crazy stories.
  • Some people (especially adults) are unable and / or unwilling to resign from using previously learned strategies.
  • Using mnemonic devices in memorizing words is time-consuming (especially at the beginning).
  • Using mnemonics requires more effort (especially at the beginning) than rote-learning.
  • Mnemonics don’t guarantee understanding.
  • Learning with mnemonics lacks context.

 

So if mnemonics are not a great way for long-term learning, what are they good for?

How Mnemonics Affect Your Short-Term Memory

 

Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

 

Short term memory has three key aspects:

  • 1. limited capacity (only about 7+-2 items can be stored at a time, or 3-4 chunks)
  • 2. limited duration (storage is very fragile and information can be lost with distraction or passage of time)
  • 3. encoding (primarily acoustic, even translating visual information into sounds).

 

And here is where the true power of mnemonics lies.

Mnemonic devices allow you to significantly boost all these three aspects of your short-term memory.

It might not seem like a big deal but it has tremendous implications for your (language) learning.

Why?

Because short-term memory is a necessary step toward the next stage of retention – long-term memory.

You can treat short-term memory as a bottleneck of your learning.

After all, if you can’t commit some information, even just for a few seconds, to your memory, how are you supposed to learn?

Some researchers claim that working-memory capacity reflects the efficiency of executive functions.

In other words, the ability to maintain and manipulate information in the face of distractions and other irrelevant information. ( Engle, R. W., September 1999).

 

That’s why the best way to think about mnemonics is to treat them as a relatively long-lived external memory with huge capacity.

 

I will get to the most effective use of mnemonics in a second.

First, I want to demonstrate you something. Let’s take a look at prodigies.

The Short-Term Memory Of Prodigies

 

Studies on the prodigies who reached professional-level performance in their domain (e.g., art, math, music) by the age of 10 show something very interesting.

When Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz and violin virtuoso Jourdan Urbach administered an IQ test to nine prominent child prodigies (…) there were a wide range of IQ scores among the eight prodigies (from 108 to 147), and their cognitive profiles were uneven.

It turned out that the key to understanding their rapid learning in their domain was not their global intellectual functioning.

Most strikingly, every single prodigy in their sample scored off the charts (better than 99 percent of the general population) in working memory — the ability to simultaneously store incoming information while processing other information.

So how can you approach these levels of intellectual functioning?

Key Information Needed to Understand How To use Mnemonics Effectively

 

  • 2) Calling information to mind strengthens it and helps in future retrieval
  • 3) Understanding the difference between procedural and declarative knowledge.

 

According to Cohen and Squire (1980):

Procedural knowledge involves “knowing how” to do things. It includes skills, such as “knowing how” to play the piano, ride a bike; tie your shoes and other motor skills. It does not involve conscious thought (i.e. it’s unconscious – automatic). For example, we brush our teeth with little or no awareness of the skills involved.

Declarative knowledge involves “knowing that”. Knowing names of plants , dates, formulas – it’s all part of your declarative knowledge. Recalling information from declarative memory involves, so called, effortfull recall – i.e. information has to be consciously brought to mind and “declared”.

 

Knowing these things can help us stew perfect learning mix:

  • 1) Gather information 

It doesn’t matter whether you want to learn a language or how to master persuasion strategies. Gather the knowledge needed to achieve your goal.

  • 2) Memorize it with mnemonics

As I have written before, mnemonics can be treated as an extension of your short-term memory. Place as much information as you can on this external “hard-drive”.

  • 3) Start practising right away

Now that you know the theory of how to play piano or how to program, start putting your knowledge into practice.

Try to use as many pieces of information from your memory as you can.

Because every time you bring one of them to your mind, the magic happens. You start creating and strengthening neural networks responsible for the given action.

Repeat this action sufficient number of times and you will automate it. From that moment on, you will be able to perform it subconsciously and with minimal effort.

Let’s see how you can use it in language learning.

Mnemonics In Language Learning

 

Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

Picture by: Shannon Kokoska

 

When I launched my Czech mission, I already had a rough plan of how to achieve my desired level in record time.

This is more less what I did:

  • 1) I got familiar with grammar
  • 2) I memorized basic declinations and conjugations with mnemonics
  • 3) I memorized about 50 basic words with mnemonics
  • 4) I started producing a lot of sentence  by talking to myself and by using the aforementioned words and grammar
  • 5) I “rinsed and repeated” points 2-4. Each time I increased the number of words and grammar constructions

Of course, there was also listening and reading practice. If someone asks me what is the quickest way to learn a language, I show them this plan.

Ok, I also tell them to use ANKI.

Since we have established that mnemonics can be treated as your external memory, take a look at other practical applications of mnemonics!

(Other) Practical Applications Of Mnemonics

 

Mnemonics are useful whenever you need to memorize a lot of information on the fly and remember them for at least a couple of hours.

That’s why, you can use them (among others):

  • during parties and meetings to memorize names and information about other participants
  • during last-minute panic before the exam or company presentation to make sure that the information stays  in your memory!
  • during speeches.
  • to impress your wife and show her that “you don’t need no damn shopping lists” to remember what you should buy
  • to memorize random information which emerges during conversations

And so on. I think you got it!

Conclusion

Mnemonics have to be one of the most misunderstood learning tools of all times.

They are usually sold as the ultimate solution for all kinds of learning problems which is far from the truth.

As you can see, they can be extremely useful but only provided that you exactly understand what they do.

And what they do is “inflate” your short-term memory for some time.

Manage to review the knowledge you acquired with mnemonics by performing some actions specific to that knowledge.and you can rest assured that your progress will know no boundaries.

You will become that “robo-weirdo”.

And this is what I sincerely wish you.

Have you ever used mnemonics? Let me know!

 

10 comments

  • Thank you very much for this interesting post. There is really a lot of food for thought in it!

    Keep up the good work!

  • You’ve just convinced me to look into mnemonics and try to utilize it as I study Spanish. I’m at an intermediate level and, after reading your article on the thousands of words it takes to move from 95% comprehension to 98% comprehension, I’ve started to try to crank out large quantities of new vocabulary. If mnemonics can help me do that, I’ll be putting them to the test.

    • I’m thrilled to hear it. It’s really worth the time, if you remember how to use them correctly! 🙂
      Make sure to let me know about your progress! 🙂

  • Thanks a lot for this article! Lots of interesting information you covered here so I believe it really helps 🙂

  • Warren Kirkpatrick

    What about learning something and bypassing the short term memory and using long term memory? Like, paul scheele course, photoreading? Or zox pro? Or there is Or there is pmemory? Have you looked at these courses?

    • Bypassing the short-term memory in learning seems highly unlikely. So far I haven’t seen any reliable source of information which proves it to be true.
      As for any course which promises you to read xx thousand words per minute – stay away from them. I can’t stress enough how scammy that is.
      And as for pmemory – these are just ordinary memory techniques which you can find in any book, or my website, for a fraction of the price or for free.
      Here is more about pmemory – http://mt.artofmemory.com/forums/phenomenal-memory-good-or-bad-2318.html .

  • While reading your article i remembered my first (use of) mnemonic (phonetical numeral alphabet).

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