This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 06 table of contents.

Memory Improvement

Students must learn and remember complex knowledge to do well in school. How can students use knowledge about memory to help remember their course material? We will start with ancient memory improvement techniques that are still useful in specialized situations. Then we will review some concrete advice, backed up by research, which can help in almost any situation. Finally, we will examine the cases of some exceptional memorists—people whose talent with memory sets them apart from normal—to see what methods they use

Mnemonic Systems

Why are mnemonic systems effective?

Mnemonics (nem-ON-icks) are organizing systems that provide a way of retrieving desired information. If retrieval is the weak link in memory, then encoding schemes designed to promote retrieval are the main solution for improving memory. Mnemonic systems are designed for this purpose. They are encoding systems aimed at improving memory retrieval.

Natural language mediation

As you might recall, natural language mediation is the art of using language (sentences, sayings, little stories) to organize memory and improve retrieval. In the section on Ebbinghaus, we saw that subjects would turn nonsense syllables into words, sometimes made-up words, and weave these words into a sentence. That is a form of natural language mediation.

How did one student use a "first letter mnemonic" in Biology?

If you have to memorize a long list of items in exact order, a handy technique is to create a sentence using the first letter of each word as a retrieval cue. This is called a first-letter mnemonic.

One student used first-letter mnemonics extensively.

As I went through high school, I found it very difficult to remember a long list of items for an exam. I often made up a saying that involved the first letter of each item. This is called a mnemonic system of learning. For mitosis, I remembered I Pick Maters And Taters for the phases of interphase, prophase, metaphase, anaphase, and telophase. For the classifications of animals I learned Kittens and Pigs Climb Over Fences Going South, which stood for kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, group, and species. For my post office box combination I say to myself that Becky Said Hi Then Left. My combination is BC-HI-EF. For the 4 bases of DNA and RNA, I remember The Cat Got Ann, Ann Got Cut Up. The 4 bases of DNA are Thymine, Cytosine, Guanine, Adenine, and the 4 bases of RNA are Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine, and Uracil. This mnemonic system of learning helped me make it through high school and is presently helping me make it through college. [Author's files]

One can also make a sentence in which the number of letters in each word encodes digits. To remember the mathematical term pi to 14 decimal places, simply remember the sentence, "How I want a drink, alcoholic of course, after the eight chapters involving quadric mechanics." Counting the letters in each word yields 3.14159265358979.

There is no special rule for creating mnemonic devices based on natural language mediation, except that the sentence or word must itself be memorable. A mnemonic trick does you no good unless you can remember the trick.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

Don't see what you need? Psych Web has over 1,000 pages, so it may be elsewhere on the site. Do a site-specific Google search using the box below.

Custom Search

Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey