Mnemonic strategies are commonly used across content areas to help students remember important information or concepts. When we talk about mnemonics, people often think of mnemonic acronyms that enable people to remember items through the use of a catchy word or phrase in which the acronym letters begin each of the terms in a list. For example, many people remember the colors in the rainbow using the acronym “ROY G BIV,” which represents the colors in the order they appear in a rainbow-red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. But there are many other types of mnemonics. They can be classified in two broad categories: organizational mnemonics, which help students organize previously acquired information; and encoding mnemonics, which allow students to transform new information in a meaningful way. In this module we will look at the different types of mnemonic devices as well as strategies for implementing them in the classroom.

Memory Improvement 101: Mnemonic Devices

In the Instruction Practice Section, we will explore the different types of mnemonic devices and give useful resources that will help you incorporate mnemonics in your classroom. 

UDL Alignment

Each College STAR module will explain how a particular instructional practice described within the module aligns with one or more of the principles of UDL. For this module, the focus will be on Provide Multiple Means of Representation, Principle I; Provide Multiple Means of Action or Expression, Principle II; and Provide Multiple Means of Engagement, Principle III.

Module Alignment with Provide Multiple Means of Representation

Mnemonics can align with the principle of Multiples Means of Representation when they are used as prompts for key points of information. Students may use mnemonics to memorize lists, steps, or terminology. In the case of mnemonic acronyms, students have the first letter of words in phrases to help them remember sequences or an important list of information. With keyword mnemonics, students develop associations that help them to remember new information.

Module Alignment with Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression

Offering the option to use mnemonics provides another relevant and valuable way for students to organize and study information. This may also prompt students to create their own mnemonics and other strategies for remembering course information.

Module Alignment with Provide Multiple Means of Engagement

Using mnemonics as an instructional practice aligns with the principle of Multiple Means of Engagement because it supports the idea of creating accepting, welcoming learning environments. With mnemonics, students have rules and routines they can rely upon as they are learning new challenging content or speaking a new language. This reduces the perceived threat to students during class discussions and evaluations.

Instructional Practice

Mnemonic Devices for Instruction

Mnemonic devices can be classified in two broad categories, organizational mnemonics and encoding mnemonics. Both types rely on mental cues, but differ in how these cues are used. In organizational mnemonics, students organize previously acquired information so that they are more easily able to recall it later. For example, can you remember the names of all the Great Lakes in North America? If you can, that’s excellent! If not, maybe a mnemonic device may help you recall them. Use the acronym “HOMES” for the five North American Great Lakes: Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, and Lake Superior. Encoding mnemonics, on the other hand, allow students to transform new, abstract information into concrete and memorable information. These mnemonics are particularly helpful when learning new words, a new language, or trying to associate names with faces. For example, the Italian word for bread is “pane”, which is similar to the English word “pan”. By visualizing bread in a frying pan, students can make a concrete connection between something familiar and new information. In this section we will explore the different types of organizational and encoding mnemonics, and give some examples that you can use with your students.

Organizational Mnemonics

Organization mnemonics allow students to organize information in a memorable way. The different types of organization mnemonics include the method of loci, the peg-word method, acronyms and initialisms, and acrostics.

Method of Loci

The method of loci, also referred to as the “Memory Palace,” is the oldest known memory technique. This technique relies on visualization to organize information, connecting new content with familiar “loci”, or locations. The method of loci is used in a variety of settings, from the classroom to the US Memory Championship, where individuals compete in challenging memory tasks. Joshua Foer, author of the book “Moonwalking with Einstein,” and former US Memory Champion, describes this technique in his TEDTalk “Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do.” [transcript]

Feats of memory anyone can do | Joshua Foer

ber large amounts of related information. Many examples of the method of loci can be found in medical education. In a recent study by Qureshi et al (2014), medical students were taught about insulin and diabetes mellitus using didactic instruction, and a subset of students we also instructed using the method of loci. Those students who used the method of loci scored significantly better than those taught only through lecture, on average scoring 16% better on their end-of-course evaluation. In addition, all students found the method of loci helpful in better understanding the topic.

Peg-Word Method

The peg word method involves the association of new information with a pre-memorized list of words (or pegs) and numbers. The most common implementation of the peg-word method is with number-rhyme pegs. Typically, the list used is:

  1. bun
  2. shoe
  3. tree
  4. door
  5. hive
  6. sticks
  7. heaven
  8. gate
  9. line
  10. hen

Then, for each item in the list to be remembered, students must connect that item with the corresponding peg. For example, if students were asked to remember how animals are classified (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family) they may associate that list in this way:

  1. A king eating a bun.
  2. A file with a shoe on it.
  3. Having a class under a tree.
  4. Someone delivering a pizza order to their door.
  5. A family running away from a bee hive.

There are also other ways to associate peg words and new information. One may use the shape of the numbers (1 looks like a pencil, 2 looks like a swan’s neck, etc.) as a way to associate new information to pegs. A list of some of the common peg-word systems can be found here

25 Acronyms & Initialisms

Acronyms and initialisms are perhaps the most commonly used type of mnemonic in everyday life. Both acronyms and initialisms are types of abbreviations. Though they are usually both referred to as “acronyms” there are slight differences between them. Acronyms are formed when the first letter or first few letters of each word in a phrase are used to form a new word. For example, most of us have heard of sonar, but may not know that the word is a acronym for Sound Navigation And Ranging. Initialisms, on the other hand, are abbreviations where each individual letter is pronounced, for example FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation). Both acronyms and initialisms help students organize information in a way that allows for easier recall later.

One acronym that most people remember from elementary school is PEMDAS, the acronym for the order of operations in arithmetic. Julie Clark from Mahalo explains how to teach the order of operations using this mnemonic [transcript]

Math Tricks - Remembering PEMDAS

This type of mnemonic can even be used in teaching students foreign languages. Dr. Joanna Bradley, teaching assistant professor in the Department of Foreign Languages at East Carolina University, uses acronyms and initialisms when teaching the subjunctive to her Spanish III class. She says acronyms make a difference for her students because they “relax and are no longer intimidated by this concept. They say, ‘Okay, I can do that’.”


Acrostics help students recall information by creating sentences where each the first letter of each word acts as a prompt for the information to be remembered. In the introduction we looked at the example of “HOMES” to remember the great lakes. These can also be remembered using the acrostic “Sam’s Horse Must Eat Oats” Typically, the more interesting an acrostic is, the easier it is for students to remember.

Many examples can be found for acrostics in different fields. Some great examples can be found here

Encoding Mnemonics

Some people only think of mnemonics as a student study tool, and don’t consider it as an instructional tool. However these versatile strategies can be used in many different disciplines to help students remember important information or help students to take abstract concepts and connect them with previously acquired knowledge. This connection to familiar images allows students to better retain new information.

Keyword Mnemonics

Keyword mnemonics, or the keyword method, allow the association of new information with vivid images of things with which students are already familiar. This method is commonly used when teaching vocabulary. The keyword method is a two step process. First, students take the information to be remembered and associate the information with similar sounding words, known as keywords. For example, the French word “pere,” meaning father, sounds like the English word “pear.” Now, the new information (pere) has been associated with a familiar word (pear).Second, a mental image is formed between the old information and the newly acquired information. The student may picture their father biting into a pear as a way to remember pere.

As with acrostics, the more interesting the mental image is the easier it will be to remember. One way to help students remember key vocabulary terms is to ask them to draw the mental image they associate with a particular word, or to provide them with a drawing that illustrates the keyword.

Learn More

Literature Base

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle used mnemonic devices, as early as early as 500 B.C (Amiryousefi & Ketabi, 2011; Reynolds, 1989). The reasoning behind using mnemonic devices stems from the idea that they do a good job of converting newly learned material from short-term memory to long-term memory (Almeidea, 2008; Amiryousefi & Ketabi, 2011; Goll, 2004). Using mnemonic devices allows for better recall of learned material over time, which is particularly important for students when they are learning material for a test. Because there are different types of learning styles (visual, audio, etc.) and multiple different types of classes that students are taking (math, English, chemistry, etc.) different situations call for different types of mnemonic devices

Not only are there several types of mnemonics, but also different classes use mnemonics differently. For instance, a biology class might make more use of one type of mnemonic while a foreign language class more often utilizes a different type. A short list of subjects in which we were able to find examples of using mnemonic devices includes: math (Greene, 1999; Hunt, 2010; Miller et al., 2011; Test & Ellis, 2005), foreign language (Campos, Camino, & Perez-Fabello, 2011; Nuessel, 2007; Nino, 2009), geography (Rittschof & Kulhavy, 1998), biology (Gordon, 1950), and English (Condus, Marshall, & Miller, 1986; Connor, Bickens, & Bitman, 2009; Cook, 2001; Dunn, 2011; Foil & Alber, 2002; Howard, DaDeppo, & Paz, 2008; Rummel, Levin, & Woodward, 2003; Willingham & Price, 2009).

When mnemonics are incorporated to learning material, recall of the material is higher than when mnemonics are not used, whether it is in education (Almedia, 2008; Beitz, 1997; Boers, Fyckmans, & Stengers, 2007; Campos, Camino, & Perez-Fabello, 2011; Franke, Levin, & Carney, 1991; Laing, 2010;Rummel, Levin, & Woodward, 2003; Wang & Thomas, 2000) or in post-school for job training (Dundes, 1961). The use of mnemonics in these settings enables material to be retained longer and recalled later. The course material learned is moved from short-term memory storage to long-term memory. The use of verbal mnemonics, such as keywords or acronyms, and visual mnemonics has been shown to increase student recall of information as compared to recall levels of students who did not use mnemonic devices (Almedia, 2008; Beitz, 1997; Boers, Fyckmans, & Stengers, 2007; Campos, Camino, & Perez-Fabello, 2011; Franke, Levin, & Carney, 1991; Laing, 2010; Rummel, Levin, & Woodward, 2003; Wang & Thomas, 2000).

Although mnemonic devices have proven to increase recall of material for a variety of students, those students with learning disabilities especially benefit from the use of these strategies (Condus, Marshall, & Miller, 1986; Elliott & Gentile, 1986; Foil, 2002;Greene, 1999; Howard, DaDeppo, & Paz, 2008;Hughes, 2011; Kaldenberg et al., 2011; Lombardi & Butera, 1998; Mastropieri, Scruggs, & Levin, 1986;Masterpieri, Sweda, & Scruggs, 2000; Pressley, Johnson, & Symons, 1987; Wolgemuth & Cobb, 2008). Students with learning disabilities may not be able to understand material or recall material during testing as well as students without learning disabilities (Condus, Marshall, & Miller, 1986; Hughes, 2011;Foil, 2002; Greene, 1998; Kaldenberg et al., 2011; Masterpieri, Sweda, & Scruggs, 2000), and mnemonic devices help students with learning disabilities make connections and address this issue. Even though students with learning disabilities often fall behind students without learning disabilities in the classroom, the use of mnemonic devices can level the playing field and lead to higher success rates for these students (Masterpieri, Sweda, & Scruggs, 2000).

Overall, the use of mnemonic devices increases recall of course material for students by better bridging the gap from short-term memory to long-term memory. As shown, there are multiple types mnemonic devices and mnemonics can be used in many different courses. Furthermore, the use of mnemonic devices proves to be successful for both students with or without learning disabilities, which means that the use of mnemonic devices can be a “go-to” tool for all teachers.

References & Resources

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