Chunking Information to Memorize the Presidents

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Our brains will only retain information if we "feed it in" in a certain way. Most people cannot remember things if they try to soak in too much at one time. In 1956, a psychologist named George A. Miller came up with the concept that our brains can’t handle memorizing things in chunks bigger than seven to nine items.

This didn’t mean we humans couldn’t remember lists longer than seven items long; it simply meant that in order to remember lists, we should break them down into chunks. Once we’ve memorized items in short lists, our brains are able to put the chunks of lists together for one big long list. In fact, the method of memorizing is called chunking.

For this reason, it is necessary to break down the list of presidents and memorize the names in chunks of up to nine.

01
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The First 8 Presidents

Begin memorizing by remembering this list of the first eight presidents. To remember any group of presidents, you might want to employ a mnemonic device, such as a little silly statement that helps you remember the first letters of each name. For this exercise, we’re going to use a silly story made of silly sentences.

  1. George Washington
  2. John Adams
  3. Thomas Jefferson
  4. James Madison
  5. James Monroe
  6. John Quincy Adams
  7. Andrew Jackson
  8. Martin Van Buren

The letters that represent the last names of these presidents are W, A, J, M, M, A, J, V.

One silly sentence to help you remember this sequence is:

Wilma and John made merry and just vanished.

Keep repeating the list in your head and write it down a few times. Repeat this until you can write the entire list easily by memory.

02
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Memorize the Presidents - Group 2

Have you memorized those eight? Time to move on. Our next presidents are:

9. William Henry Harrison
10. John Tyler
11. James K. Polk
12. Zachary Taylor
13. Millard Fillmore
14. Franklin Pierce
15. James Buchanan

Try memorizing on your own and then, if it is helpful, use another silly sentence as a mnemonic device.

The saga of Wilma and John continues with H, T, P, T, F, P, B:

He told people they’d found perfect bliss.

03
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Memorize the Presidents - Group 3

The next presidents’ names start with L, J, G, H, G, A, C, H. Try this if you're into the silly saga of John and Wilma:

Love just got him good and consumed him.

16. Abraham Lincoln
17. Andrew Johnson
18. Ulysses S. Grant
19. Rutherford B. Hayes
20. James A. Garfield
21. Chester A. Arthur
22. Grover Cleveland
23. Benjamin Harrison

Try to memorize the list first, without using a mnemonic sentence. Then use your sentence to check your memory. Otherwise, you're just going to end up with a fuzzy, scandalous notion about John and Wilma stuck in your head, and that won't do you much good in class!

04
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Memorize the Presidents - Group 4

The next chunk of presidential names begins with C, M, R, T, W, H, C, H, R.

24. Grover Cleveland
25. William McKinley
26. Theodore Roosevelt
27. William Howard Taft
28. Woodrow Wilson
29. Warren G. Harding
30. Calvin Coolidge
31. Herbert Hoover
32. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Crazy man, really. That Wilma had captured him romantically!

05
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Memorize the Presidents - Group 5

The next group of presidents contains seven names and letters: T, E, K, J, N, F, C.

33. Harry S. Truman
34. Dwight D. Eisenhower
35. John F. Kennedy
36. Lyndon Johnson
37. Richard Nixon
38. Gerald Ford
39. James Earl Carter

Today, everyone knows John never found comfort.

06
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Memorize the Presidents - Group 6

Rounding out our American Presidents are R, B, C, B, O.

40. Ronald Wilson Reagan
41. George H. W. Bush
42. William J. Clinton
43. George W. Bush
44. Barack Obama

Really, bliss can be overrated.

To help you glue all the short lists together, remember the number of names in each list by remembering there are six lists.

The number of names in each list are 8, 7, 8, 9, 7, 5. Keep practicing these small "chunks" of information and, like magic, they'll all come together as one list!