Mnemonics & Memory

Elementary and Middle School Memory Science Fair Project
Photo © 2009 digitalbob8, Flickr

If you've ever studied for a big test, having to memorize large amounts of data or long lists of information (like the 50 states and their capitals!), you've probably wondered, as you plodded through flashcard after flashcard, if there was an easier way to learn and recall the data. Mnemonic devices are one such memory technique that make use of acronyms, rhymes, and even diagrams to help improve recall of dates, figures, names, and other facts when it matters most - or so the experts say! In this human behavior project, students will explore whether mnemonic devices actually do help improve memory.

Project Overview

Using several volunteers, the experimenter explore how well mnemonics help memory. Here are the basic steps:

  • Provide a control group with a list of at least seven words to commit to memory. Dr. Michelle Maranowski, project creator and contributing Science Buddies staff member, suggests using the eight royal houses of England (e.g. Norman, Plantagenet, Lancaster, York, Tudor, Stuart, Hanover, and Windsor) or another such list. [NOTE: The words should be difficult, but not too difficult that your test subjects will be intimidated.] Allow participants 5 minutes to study the words then send them to another room for 1 hour. After the hour has passed, call them back in, provide them with paper and a pencil, and time how long it takes for them to recall the seven terms.
  • Provide a second group with the same list of seven words to commit to memory, but also provide them with a mnemonic device for the words. [If you need help coming up with a memory aid, be sure to check Dennis Congos' 9 Types of Mnemonics for Better Learning.] Give them the same 5 minutes to study the words and mnemonic, an hour of down time, then time how long it takes for participant recall.

For a list of experiment materials, project procedure, several variations, and helpful background information, be sure to visit Maranowski's project page at Science Buddies!

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