Mnemonic Devices for Students

Memory tools and strategies improve information retention

Mnemonic devices help students remember important facts and principles. Dr. Sushma R. and Dr. C. Geetha define these powerful memory tools in their book, Practicing Mnemonics in School Subjects:

"Mnemonics are memory devices that help learners recall larger pieces of information, especially in the form of lists like characteristics, steps, stages, parts, phases, etc."​

Mnemonics commonly use a rhyme, such as "30 days hath September, April, June and November," or an acrostic or phrase where the first letter of each word stands for another word, such as "Practically every old man plays poker regularly," to remember the geologic ages of Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene and Recent. Both techniques effectively aid memory. Other types of mnemonic devices include:

  • Visual systems (creating a visual representation of the information)
  • The mnemonic link system (creating a story based on a list)
  • The count system (associating numbers with a series of items) 
  • The major system (converting numbers into consonant sounds).

Mnemonics work by associating easy-to-remember clues with complex or unfamiliar data. Though mnemonics often seem illogical and arbitrary, it's their nonsensical wording that makes them memorable. Introduce mnemonics to your students when you want them to memorize information rather than understand a concept. For example, memorizing the state capitals versus understanding how to identify adverbs in a sentence.

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Acronym (Name) Mnemonic

Human brain with rainbow colors
PM Images/ The Image Bank/ Getty Images

An acronym mnemonic forms a word from the first letters or groups of letters in a name, list or phrase. Each letter in the acronym acts as a cue.

Examples:

  • ROY G. BIV = helps students remember the order of the colors of the spectrum:
    • Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet
  • HOMES = An easy way to remember the five Great Lakes:
    • Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior
  • OIL RIG = to help chemistry students remember the difference between these two terms:
    • Oxidation It Loses (electrons) Reduction It Gains (electrons)
  • FANBOYS = to help students remember the seven  coordinating conjunctions:
    • For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So
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Expressions or Acrostic Mnemonics

Acrostic Mnemonic: An invented sentence where the first letter of each word is a cue to an idea you need to remember. GETTY images

In an acrostic mnemonic, the first letter of each word in a sentence provides the clue that helps students recall information.

Examples:

Music students remember the notes on the lines of the treble clef (E, G, B, D, F) with the sentence, "Every Good Boy Does Fine."

Biology students use, "King Philip cuts open five green snakes," to remember the order of taxonomy: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.

Budding astronomers might proclaim, "My very earnest mother just served us nine pickles," when reciting the order of the planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto.

Placing Roman numerals gets easier with, "I Value Xylophones Like Cows Dig Milk."

  • I =1
  • V =5
  • X =10
  • L= 50
  • C=100
  • D=500
  • M=1000
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Rhyme Mnemonics

Rhyme Mnemonic: rhymes are one of the simplest ways to boost memory. The end of each line ends in a similar sound, creating a singsong pattern that is easier to remember. GETTY Images

A rhyme matches similar terminal sounds at the end of each line. Rhyme mnemonics are easier to remember because they can be stored by acoustic encoding in the brains.

Examples:

Number of days in a month:

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November;
All the rest have thirty-one
Excepting February alone:
Which hath but twenty-eight, in fine,
Till leap year gives it twenty-nine.

Spelling rule mnemonic:

"I" before "e" except after "c"
or when sounding like "a"
in "neighbor" and "weigh"

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Connection Mnemonics

Connection Mnemonics: This allows you to remember sequences of unrelated items in the appropriate order. GETTY Images

In this type of mnemonic, students connect the information they want to memorize to something they already know.

Examples:

The lines on a globe that run north and south are long, corresponding to LONGitude and making it easier to remember the directions of longitude and latitude. Similarly, there is an N in LONGitude and an N in North. Latitude lines must run east to west, because there is no N in latitude.

Civics students connect the order of the ABCs with the 27 Constitutional Amendments. This Quizlet shows  the 27 Amendments with Mnemonic Aids; here are the first four:

  • 1st Amendment; A = All RAPPS
    Freedom of religion, assembly, petition, press, and speech
  • 2nd Amendment; B = Bear Arms
    The right to bear arms
  • 3rd Amendment; C = Can't intrude
    Quartering of Troops
  • 4th Amendment; D = Don't Search
    Search and Seizure, Search Warrants
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Number Sequence Mnemonics

Numerical Sequence Mnemonics: major memory system works by linking numbers to consonant sound groups, and then by linking these into words. GETTY Images

The Major System

The major system requires a great deal of front-loading, but it is one of the most powerful mnemonic methods to memorize numbers. This is used by magicians or memory technicians.

The major system works by converting numbers into consonant sounds, then into words by adding vowels.

 Examples: 
 182 - d, v, n = Devon
 304 - m, s, r = miser
 400 - r, c, s = races
 651 - j, l, d = jailed
 801 - f, z, d = fazed

The Count System

The count system provides an easy mnemonic techniques for remembering numbers. Start with an easy sentence, then count each word in the sentence.

For example, the sentence, "Hitch your wagon to a star," maps to the numbers "545214. Through association, students match the numbers to the phrase. 

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Mnemonics Generators

Mnemonic Dictionary: Crowdsourced mnemonics. GETTY Images

Students may want to create their own mnemonics. Research suggests that successful mnemonics should have a personal meaning or importance to the learner. Students can start with these online mnemonic generators: 

Students can create their own mnemonics without a digital tool. Here are some tips:

  • Create mnemonics with pleasant images; vivid, colorful, images are easier to remember than drab ones. Mnemonics can contain sounds, smells, tastes, touch, movements and feelings as well as pictures.
  • Exaggerate the size of important parts of the topic or item that needs to be memorized.
  • Create mnemonics that use humor; funny mnemonics are easier to remember than normal ones. (Rude rhymes are also difficult to forget)
  • Everyday symbols (red traffic lights, road signs, pointing fingers, etc.) can be great visuals to use in creating mnemonics.