Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Memory tricks from Toby that will be a blessing when revising for exams.
A riddle: How can an obscure pagan Goddess help you with your upcoming exams? Unfortunately the answer is not through divine inspiration. Mnemosyne (pronounced ne-mos-in-y) was according to the Ancient Greeks the mother of the Muses, and the Goddess of Memory. And she gives her name to the English word mnemonic, which means a trick or device used to aid memory.
Perhaps the most commonly used mnemonics are phrases that are learned as acronyms to remind us of the order of a list. For instance, children learn the points of the compass as Never East Shredded Wheat, (North, East, South, West, in a clockwise direction.) Pretty stern dietary advice, but it sticks in the mind.
Similarly, musicians are often taught to read the notes treble clef with the phrase Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. This gives us the notes that sit on the lines of the musical stave: E, G, B, D, F. It also encourages morality in the young, which is never a bad thing.
What I want to discuss in this article is something slightly different: the use of visual mnemonics in building memory. To demonstrate how this works, let’s start with a list of ten concrete nouns:
There is a technique for committing such a list easily to memory. It has the added bonus that not only will you remember each of these words, you remember the order they come in. Essentially, what you have to do is link each word to the following word through an arresting visual image.
So we start with the ball. Picture a ball, any shape of size you like. Next you need to think of an image that combines the dog and the ball. The obvious image (to me) is a dog with a ball in its mouth. But it’s better to come up with something more unusual, so instead picture a dog trying to keep its balance while running on a huge exercise ball. Spend a few seconds picturing this to yourself until you are confident you can conjure the image at will.
Now we need to connect the dog to the hat. Perhaps the same dog (minus the ball) is wearing a rather distinguished top hat. Once again, picture this to yourself. Once you are ready to move on, you should try picturing an aeroplane crashing through the lid of a tophat. And proceed in the same fashion until you have a chain linking all the images together.
At this point, look away from the screen, and see if you can start at the ball and summon each successive image in your head. The ball should make you think of the dog, which makes you think of the hat, which makes you think of the plane, and so on and so on. Hopefully, you’ll see that you can recall the original ten words exactly just by thinking through the successive images.
Please note this might not come naturally the first time you attempt it, but becomes easier with practice. It’s also fun. Try getting a friend to name ten nouns for you and see if you can come up with a visual chain linking them together. Once you’re confident in the technique, you’ll be able to set them to memory as quickly as it would take to write them out, enabling you to store the information almost instantaneously!
This is all very well for a party trick, but how can this help with public examinations? Well, for starters, if you need to remember a list of keywords, you can treat them exactly like those ten nouns above. (Ten is an arbitrary number, by the way, it’s possible to commit a larger set to memory in this way if you want to.) But utilising your visual memory can also have other less obvious applications. For instance, if you wanted to remember the four different types of angles for a Maths exam, you could do it as follows.
Acute angles are less than 90 degrees. So picture a thin angle, with a ribbon tied around it (or another image of your choice that indicates it’s “a-cute” angle).
Right angles are 90 degrees exactly. How about picturing a perpendicular angle that is being congratulated by a crowd of friends for being so right?
Your obtuse angle, larger than 90 but smaller than 180 degrees, might have a confused look and a furrowed brow. (It’s too obtuse to understand what’s going on!)
And finally your reflex angle, larger than 180 degrees, might be dropping a hot potato, acting on pure reflex.
All this sounds silly, of course, but it’s genuinely a very effective way of storing information in your brain. And you can have fun with it! Be creative. See what images you can come up with to help you retain a scientific formula, or the key dates for an upcoming History paper. If nothing else, it should make revision a little less monotonous!
Blog Post Crafted by Toby
Toby is in charge of recruitment of new tutors. He conducts interviews with prospective tutors and assesses their lessons to get a feel for whether they have the teaching style we're looking for.