The Revision Guy blog – mnemonic devices and revision tips

Welcome to my blog. If you’re not sure where to start, check out the two techniques below on writing simple acrostic mnemonics and improving your flashcard performance.

How some simple changes doubled my flashcard speed

Whilst using some flashcards recently, it struck me that the standard way of writing and studying them is so old and basic that it cannot possibly be the most efficient way to use them. There are already couple of more advanced ideas floating around the internet (the Leitner system and the memory spacing effect), but I wanted to create a simple, specific, process that could be quickly learnt and didn’t require fancy software.

I brainstormed a whole bunch of minor changes that I could make to the basic process to speed up the time it takes to learn all the answers. I then set about testing my ideas and getting rid of those that didn’t help, or that didn’t help significantly enough.

After a great deal of testing, I settled on these key principles:

  • The testing effect
  • The memory spacing effect
  • Filtering
  • Mediators

The testing effect

Normally once people get questions right they stop testing themselves – this is a mistake. Actively recalling information strengthens your memory more than reading or concept mapping, but only if you are recalling the information correctly. This is called the testing effect.

Students who study flashcards but stop when they get all the answers right, do worse on tests than those who continue for five correct passes.

The memory spacing effect

Studying a set of flashcards once is not enough to commit it to long term memory. The memory spacing effect shows that repeatedly studying the same information at gradually increasing intervals is better for memorisation than cramming.

Filtering

The Leitner system is a common way of filtering cards into groups based on how often they are answered correctly. Easier cards are studied less often and very easy cards may be dropped.

This is a good idea, but once a question is answered correctly, it changes groups, so the testing effect is minimal. It can be difficult to keep track of the different groups of cards and research shows that dropping easy card from testing negatively affects test scores.

Mediators

A mediator is something that relates to both the question and the answer. This is usually a word or image. These associations make it easier to form mental connections and recall the answers. It’s a technique that people often use naturally to help their memory.

Instructions

  1. Colour associations: Use a selection of five or six different colours to write your flashcards, but use only one colour per card.
  2. Questions together with answers: Write the question on the front of the card as normal but, on the back, write the question and answer together instead of just the answer.
  3. Small batches: Take a batch of ten cards, with the answer sides face up. Set a timer for five minutes, and aim to complete five error free passes before the buzzer sounds.
  4. Create mediators: If this is your first time working with this batch of ten, you need to prime yourself before you test yourself. Cycle through the cards, reading each one and spending just a few seconds trying to find a word or mental image that connects the question to the answer.
  5. Simple filtering: After that, flip the cards over and try to remember the answer to each question. If you get the answer right, move the card to the back of the stack, as you usually would. If you get the question wrong, slide the card into the middle of the stack.
  6. Repeat at increasing intervals: When the buzzer sounds, put the cards to one side. Wait for an hour, then go through the same batch again – always aiming for five correct passes in five minutes. You can stop early if you beat the timer.
  7. Once you’ve done that, put a post-it note on the stack of cards. This is to let you know to go through them again once the following day.
  8. The next day, add two days to whichever day of the week it is and write this on the Post it note. So, if it’s a Monday, write Wednesday on the note and stick it back on the stack.
  9. From this point on, study that set of cards once every time that day comes around until your exam. This means you’ll gradually increase the time that you see each set from one hour, to one week.

Simple steps to writing a basic mnemonic device (an acrostic)

Acrostics are the most common mnemonics that we encounter in day to day life. A good example is the sentence ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’, which is used to remember the colours of the rainbow — the first letter of each word corresponds to the first letter of a colour.

Anyone can write a mnemonic, however, there doesn’t seem to be a straightforward guide to the steps involved. So here’s the process that I’d recommend.

Before we start, you’ll need to know a few bits of terminology that you might have forgotten since you last fell asleep in an English class.

A very brief grammar recap

  • Noun: an object or thing
  • Verb: a doing word (studying, for example)
  • Adverb: a word that describes a verb
  • Adjective: a word that describes a noun

If you consider a sentence to be like an action movie, the star of the show is called the ‘subject’, and the action that takes place is called the ‘predicate’. So in the sentence:

The Revision Guy wrestles an alligator.

‘The Revision Guy’ (that’s me!) is the subject, and ‘wrestling an alligator’ is the predicate.

Writing your first acrostic

Acrostics are excellent mnemonic devices, however, they are mainly suited to short lists of between five and ten items, where most begin with different letters. If you have fewer items, you may want to try an acronym, whereas lists with more items are better suited to a more advanced approach, such as a link or peg mnemonic.

As my example, I’m going to use the planets of the solar system, in their order from the sun:

  • Mercury
  • Venus
  • Earth
  • Mars
  • Jupiter
  • Saturn
  • Uranus
  • Neptune
  • Pluto (which is no longer technically a planet)

Step one

Write out the first letters of each word in your list. Split the letters into two roughly even groups. In the final sentence, the first group will form the subject and the second group will form the predicate.

group one: M, V, E, M
group two: J, S, U, N, P

Step two

List any nouns related to the subject of the mnemonic which begin with the first and last letters of each group. If the list items are not in a fixed order, the noun can begin with any of the letters in the groups. This is so that your mnemonic will relate to its subject and spring to mind more easily when you’re trying to remember the list.

Moon, Martian, Meteorite, Meteorologist, Planet

Step three

Choose a noun or pronoun (preferably from your list) to match either the first or last letter of group one.

Martian

Using the first word in a group as a noun is trickier than using the last word. You will often need to use a conjunction and these are fairly limited. For example:

‘Daniel, the hairy astronaut.’ as opposed to: ‘Hairy astronaut Daniel.’
‘Lizards from outer space.’ as opposed to: ‘Outer space lizards.’

Step four

Try to devise a list of adjectives, or a phrase to act as an adjective from the other letters in group one that will fit with your chosen noun.

Many Venomous, Evil (Martians)

Step five

Choose a verb to match either the first or last letter of group two.

Painting

Step six

Try to devise a phrase to act as an adverb from the other letters in group two that makes sense with your verb.

Just Sit Until Noon (Painting)

This should leave you with your final acrostic mnemonic device.

Many Venomous, Evil Martians Just Sit Until Noon Painting.

Nothing will fit?

  • Can you rearrange the letters?
  • Can you swap any of the words for synonyms that begin with different letters?
  • Can you reverse the order of the letters?
  • What happens if you change the split of letters between each group?

The sentence structure is just a suggestion to get you thinking. Look at the letters of a group on its own and see if anything springs to mind.

4 thoughts on “The Revision Guy blog – mnemonic devices and revision tips

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