Category: education

Mnemonic Devices, Memory, Remembering, Learning – Cognitive Architecture, Application Areas, and Techniques

On January 1, 2009 CNN published [an article on memory]( It is already March 1st, and so now would be a good time to review and expand on that article, in the hopes of improving our own memory.

It may be useful to conceive of [the Art of Memory]( as having four broad __application areas__, a set of __techniques__ (often called __mnemonic devices__), and the underlying __cognitive architecture__ which indicate how and why such techniques work in the first place. Ultimately __mnemonic devices__ promise a significant return on cognitive and temporal investment — spend time learning these techniques and save a lot more time and effort over the application area.

## Background on Mnemonics ##
According to Aristotle, the art of memory was considered a part of rhetoric as much as dialectic in classical antiquity. Apparently, many mnemonic devices such as the __Method of Loci__ and the __Major System__ were taught in schools until at least the 19th century. It appears we have _forgotten_ these memory systems. Now may be a good time to recall them to mind.

## Underlying Cognitive Architecture ##
The underlying cognitive mechanism which are the basis for much of the mnemonic devices include the following elements, among others.

* __[The Von Restorff Effect]( seems to be the basis for many other phenomena. The main point is that things that stand out are more likely to be remembered. This has many implications

* __[The serial order effect]( includes two features: __primacy__ (things first in a list are more likely to be remembered) and __recency__ (things last in a series are more likely to be remembered).

* __[The Picture Superiority Effect]( indicates that according to dual-coding theory, memories can exist as verbal and/or visual, and therefore pictorially represented ideas have the advantage of being coded twice, enhancing memorability. __Use pictures and words when possible__.

* __[The Levels of Processing Effect]( is a complex phenomena. It proposes that depth of processing increases memorability. __Semantic learning__ (meaning) is deeper than phonemic (sound) and orthographic (writing) learning alone.

* In addition, __specificity__ (the same medium of recall and production, such as auditory learning and recollection) increases depth. __Self-reference__ indicates a connection between the object of learning and the subject doing the learning. Self-reference increases depth as well. __Make learning specific in terms of medium, meaning (semantics), and learner self-reference (meaningfulness to the subject)__. _This could be termed the three Ms of Memory: medium, meaning, and meaningfulness._

* __Implicit recollection__ is easier than explicit recollection. Implicit recollection effectively has context and other scaffolding features rather than requiring recollection without any related stimulus. However this effect does not have clear-cut support.

* There is a hierarchy of sensory inputs for recall. __Vision__ and __touch__ are strongest with sound and smell less powerful sensory inputs. __Incorporate vision and touch into sound-based memory inputs and outputs when possible__.

## Mnemonic Devices and Techniques ##
* The __[Mnemonic Link System]( can be considered the basis of the __Loci__, __Major__, and __Dominic__ systems. The main idea is to create connections between two unrelated things, thereby forging a memorable connection.

* __[Peg systems]( are a memorization of visual associations with numbers, such that the numbers can be recalled by recalling the visual associations in a given order.

* __The [Major System]( is a handy and flexible way of encoding numbers in sounds that can be memorized in words, and then decoded later to reproduce the original number. Created around 300 years ago, this is the most flexible system, though as it relies on sound it has a greater cognitive load rather than a straightforward peg system. However, it can be supplemented with software to help generate the most appropriate words to link to the target numbers. See also [this article]( and [this free software]( that can help with numbers-to-words association to help with major system.

* __[The Dominic system]( is a shorter version of the Major system and associates numbers with letters, and pairs of letters with people. Then the idea is to memorize a set of people performing interactions, which can then be reversed back into the original number. (See also [this phonetic mnemonic system](

* __[The Method of Loci]( is ascribed to the classical orator Simonides, who was speaking at a banquet, was called outside, when the roof collapsed. The bodies were so damaged they could not be identified, but he was able to identify the victims of the disaster based on where the people had been sitting. Loci (locations) are a well-known visual space which can be recalled readily to mind. The idea is then to picture objects in these places. The strengths of visual imagery and self-reference are combined to construct a powerful mnemonic.

## Additional Practical Aspects ##
* In the book __Aspects of Memory: The Practical Aspects__, there is an interesting article __”[Memory Aids, known how, knowing when, and knowing when not](”__ introduces and discusses various memory aids (mnemonic devices) and their effectiveness compared with rote learning.

* Another article in the same book, __”[The Facilitation of Memory Performance](”__, discusses various memory and non-memory issues. Memory issues include using __warm up__, __presentation rate__, effective __instructions__, __repetition__, __distributed study trials__, use of __external memory aids__, and __physical presence__ of objects.

* Non-memory issues include __physical__, __emotional__, __motivational__, __environmental__, and __social conditions__. All of these non-memory issues are meant to increase both arousal and selective attention. __Physically__ we are faced with the obvious importance of enough, but not too much, sleep, food, and water. __Environmental issues__ include bathroom facilities, heat and cold, seating or standing, lighting, auditory and visual elements, and other comfort issues. __Emotional state__ regards stress and relaxation training including yoga, meditation, and exercise. __Motivation__ is a complex component best dealt elsewhere. __Social environment__ has to do with interaction with others to reduce shyness and provide positive feedback and support.

## Mnemonic Application Areas ##
* Remembering __Faces and Names__ are particularly important for rather obvious reasons. There are a few related systems, which usually rely on unique visual combinations, related to names, as well as previous memories and experiences, using the notion of self-reference.

* __[A reviewer of “Remember Every Name Every Time”]( appears to provide most of the content of a given book, namely the two methods for remembering, the observational and associational systems.

* There are several resources available as technique variations. The useful __[Nutt’s How to Remember Names and Faces]( is now in the public domain. There is a __( A blog entry on __ThinkSimpleNow__ has __[seven hacks to remember any name]( And an additional site has __[more hints for name memory](

* The __Major__ and __Dominic__ systems are designed for __numbers__, as well as reversing any __peg system__.

* The linkword system is perfect for __learning foreign language vocabulary__. There has been useful research (constrained to case study) which indicates significant difference in using the linkword system. It is important that the linkwords, usually a visual combination based in L1 (first language) be focused on for a specific amount of time. Some studies indicate a 10 second time interval is useful and there is anecdotal evidence for great gains. Unfortunately, if native-speaker-level pronunciation is desired (which it usually is) then the linkwords must be created by bilingual teams who can work out the correct pronunciation. As we know languages have different sound sets, so even there a trained native speaker must conduct the listening and production aspects. For more thoughts on this topic, see [this]( and [this](

* __Textbook and Course Content__ is an obvious application area, though there is a sense that cramming is good enough for the majority of students, who don’t want to commit to memory much of their higher educational experience. There is a useful resource on __[mnemonics for textbook memorization](

* Another site provides some techniques for __Listening__ in the article __[“How to listen for memory](”__.

## Final Note ##
To paraphrase Mark Twain, I didn’t have much time, so I wrote a long article. A shorter one will be forthcoming once I boil this down into a few simple techniques and guidelines.


What does school mean to you?

Here is a story a friend of mine told me that they heard when they were in Africa teaching English as a volunteer. There was an explorer of sorts from the West who got to know and love the people of a village in Africa, during the course of his explorations. Every day the students would walk out of town to go to school. Before the explorer left the village he asked the village elder to go and see the school. The village elder looked embarrassed but took him anyway. The walk was several miles. When they got to where the children were, there was no school. No building. All that was there was was a dirt ground, and the children were doing their lessons with sticks drawing on the dirt, learning to do math and writing. There was no teacher. They shared a teacher with another town far away so the teacher only came once a week. The schoolchildren walked every day to go and practice their lessons until the teacher came back the next week. Since then, the explorer, himself uneducated, has raised money and opened several schools in that part of Africa.

Stay in School
Stay in School

The story was told to me by a 10 year veteran of Detroit middle schools. She left the United States because she has burned out on American schoolchildren, and wants to see if she can regain her motivation to teach again, here in Thailand.

Meaningful Homework Assignments in an Open Content world

No quizzes, no exams

I don’t do quizzes anymore, or exams. Most of the assignments are of the kind “interact with these materials, summarize, analyze, and assess”. There are questions, but also simple reductions and “what is the most important”, “turn that into a set of guidelines”, and basic behavior changes (such as writing better, following protocols, mastery of tools and materials).

Open content world?

But what happens in an open content world? I can assume that very soon, if not now, every assignment deliverable is within reach of every student, without doing the work. As my teaching moves permanently online, this material will become more widely available.

It’s not the deliverables

I never really did care much about most of the deliverables, the actual assignments. They were always a means to an end, namely engaging with the material, having experiences and an opportunity to reflect. And in the best of times, an opportunity to correct or inform me, to engage me and make me think. But these deliverables were always also evidence of that engagement. They were the basis, the content, which I could evaluate and assess. And they also informed upcoming assignments as well as past teaching practices and the assignments themselves–whether they were working and what needed improvement.

Bottom line

If I cannot trust that what they give is evidence of engagement, what will constitute that evidence? In what ways should the assignments be transformed in order to remain authentic evidence as well as the vehicle for engaged experience and feedback?

Initial thoughts

  • They need to be regarding recent phenomena, therefore requiring a modicum of customization of the assignment
  • They need to be interactions among randomly assigned teams, with their communication and conversation the evidential element
  • They should focus on habits, as those cannot be faked
  • They should require personal or unique expressions of the self or social world in which the student is embedded

And that leaves us…

Dear reader, I need your insights. Please share any thoughts you may have…