Memory aids and systems of coding help learners to recall information when they need it. Under the title “What’s been did and what’s been hid,” that is the sixth of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock it down using similar sources of evidence. This one is about memory aids and systems of coding.
Rote learning is not a very efficient way of remembering things. If you can recall having difficulty in learning lists of facts, dates or foreign language vocabulary at school then you are bound to agree. Memory aids take various forms; some use images, some use words in sentences or rhymes, some use symbols. Their purpose is to prompt a learner with cues to direct them to information they need to remember usually in order to complete a task or pass a test of knowledge.
Trainers love them because they help learners to recall important information when they need it. They are most effective when learners need to recall unorganised names and procedural data, and the words and images they use don’t need to relate conceptually to the context. In the short-term we might recall 5, 6 or 7 unrelated items like digits or letters with relative ease when they are presented to us one at a time. However, we can dramatically improve recall by using a strategy such as associating items in clusters and through practice.
Many memory aids are fun and witty, for example “Rub Your Belly With Grease” is an easy way to remember the order of signals to show the distance between ships in port – Red (20 yards), Yellow (40 yards), Blue (60 yards), White (80 yards), Green (100 yards). Memory aids can thus add an entertainment factor to learning that might otherwise be dull.
When learners struggle to remember things, they often try to invent their own way of making that recall easier. The aid does not have to be perfect or widely understood, for example I remember as a student using SPICE as a device for remembering Piaget’s theory of child development. The initial letters of Sensorimotor, Pre-conceptual, Intuitive, Concrete operations, Formal operations actually spells SPICF and not SPICE, but the memory aid worked for me and that was all that mattered.
Some mnemonics are easier to remember than others, for example I can recall “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” and relate it to notes on the musical stave; and “Never Eat Shredded Wheat” is an easy way for me to recall the points of the compass in clockwise order. “I made a glass alligator” is easy enough to recall Pi to 5 decimal places, but if I move on to nine decimal places the mnemonic may become easy to confuse for example I might invent “I take a train Saturdays at eleven before the night” but then forget what the time of the train or the day of the week in my example.
“Divorced, beheaded, died; Divorced, beheaded, survived” reminds me of the fate of the wives of King Henry VIII, but recalling their names in the same order is a little more tricky:
“Kate an’ Anne an’ Jane an’ Anne an’ Kate (again, again!)” can work as long as your memory doesn’t play tricks and return, “Anne an’ Kate an’ Ann an’ Jane an’ Kate an’ Ann again again” which may give you too many wives and in the wrong order. So learners must first memorise the cues and prompts and their structure and sequence, and then associate each with prompts, linking it with information they have already memorised.
Finally, a truism within the truism is that a picture is worth a thousand words, and so we might assume a visual memory aid to be more effective than figures, symbols or words alone to support some thinking skills.
So the question is, “What evidence do we have to really prove the usefulness of memory aids? Do they enlighten or do they confuse? Are they employed by trainers and teachers because of their fitness for purpose or are they simply confections that delight them and an excuse for skimping on instruction?” Please use the form below if you wish to comment.