Memorizing large amounts of information is something that every person has to face at one time or another. From the time that we step into a school building to the time that we graduate, our minds are continually being used to store away information for later use. When we go to recall that information, sometimes a hiccup in memory happens. We’ve all experienced it. It is that dreaded, Oh, no!” moment when an important piece of information just won’t come to us. Luckily, educators and students throughout history have come up with a few methods to help today’s student with memorization.

One of the most popular ways to remember a long string of terms or other such information is to use a mnemonic device. The word “mnemonic” is derived from the name of the Greek goddess of memory, and the device was first used by the Greeks as a memorization aid. A mnemonic can take on several different forms. The most common form is an acronym or first-letter mnemonic. Most biology majors or high school biology students will remember the silly acronyms given to them by teachers. Examples such as “King Philip Couldn’t Order Five Good Sandwiches “ for the classification of organisms or “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” for the order of the planets in our solar system are two common sayings. These memory devices may seem silly or even absurd. However, because the mind tends to remember absurd things, making up your own, silly acronyms to remember information for other subjects is a viable way to improve test performance.

Mnemonics work by creating associations among various pieces of data in a person’s mind. Using our science class acronyms, above, we see that the first letter of each word in the acronym corresponds to the first letter of every word in the list of terms that we are attempting to recall. This principle works off the function of the long-term memory to create schemas (frameworks) into which we can assimilate, organize and categorize incoming information. Long-term memory requires the most encoding of the three levels of memory. This also means that, if an error occurs in the encoding (for example, the student is distracted by a television show or other stimuli) the information may not be available for instant recall. The more associations and connections in the mind that the person can make concerning the data to be learned, the more effectively the information is encoded, and the more easily that information is referenced.

Another interesting mnemonic method that works off the mind’s ability to perceive spatial relationships is the “method of loci.” The method of loci was first used by the ancient Greeks, but was rediscovered by several authors in the 1960s. When using this method, the subject visualizes the layout of a certain building or other structure. Each room or designated area in that layout contains a certain type of information. By grouping specific types of information into imagined “rooms,” a person can “walk through” each room, retrieving the data that is “stored” in that particular area.

Mnemonics vary in complexity, from the simple and widely used acronym method to the complex method of loci. However, each is a useful way to put large amounts of data to memory.

photo by Richard0