Types of Mnemonic Devices: Overview

Mnemonic Devices are memory strategies that create associations that do not exist naturally in the content, but nevertheless make information more memorable and easily retrievable (Terry, 2006).

The word mnemonic is an adjective derived from the Greek words mnemon and mnastbia, meaning, respectively, “mindful” and “to remember” (Webster’s, 1980).

Mnemonics link knowledge to be learned to familiar information, and they have been proven effective in a variety of content. Scientific studies have demonstrated that rather than being something extraordinary, as they have sometimes been considered, mnemonic devices are simply techniques that may be used systematically by children and youth in their regular daily activities to make more effective use of their memories (Brehmer & Li, 2007).

Mnemonics can take several forms. We can use acronyms, for example, such as HOMES to remember the names of the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior) and phrases, such as “Every good boy does fine,” to remember the names of the notes in the treble clef (E, G, B, D, and F). When learners think of the mnemonic, they link it to the information it represents, which aids the recall of information.

Various mnemonics strategies involve a variety of techniques that may be used individually or in combination. For example, recall of a large quantity of information (e.g., a list of food items) may be simplified by reorganizing the information into a few conceptual categories, such as vegetables, fruits, meats and dairy products.

To recall sequentially ordered information that is not readily classified into categories, or where such classification may destroy the sequential ordering of the material, a prememorized mnemonic system may be employed. For example, in the peg word mnemonic method, an individual prelearns a number of words each of which rhymes with the ordinal numbers one, two …. Through a process of peg word mnemonic discussed here Opens in new window, sequentially ordered information may be memorized by associating it with these rhyming words.

Where a mnemonic strategy involves the addition of information, in this manner, to enhance recall, the process is referred to as one of elaboration Opens in new window.

Alternatively, some mnemonic techniques involve reduction rather than elaboration of the material to be memorized. For instance, the trigonometric functions involving the Sine, Cosine, and Tangent, and the Opposite, Adjacent, and Hypotenus sides of a triangle can be quite simply recalled by remembering the word SOH-CAH-TOA. SOH refers to the formula in which the Sine of a triangle equals the Opposite side over the Adjacent side. Many mnemonic strategies involve the use of visual imagery which according to evidence is associated with memory enhancement.

Mnemonics are used to help remember vocabulary, names, rules, lists, and other kinds of factual knowledge. Table underneath provides some variety of mnemonic devices according to common uses or characteristics; alternative terminology is shown in parentheses.

Basic devices used for storing and recalling list of words, or objects:
1. Link method Opens in new window (interactive imagery)Visually linking items in a list into a series of overlapping images in a chain (may be used as an alternative to the peg-word mnemonic Opens in new window)A student visualizes homework stuck in a notebook, which is bound to his/her textbook, pencil, and pen with a rubber band to remember to take the (italicized) items to class
2. Method of Loci Opens in new windowAssociating a list of items with a sequence of fixed physical locations in familiar environments, such as the chair, sofa, lamp, end table, and footstool, in a living roomStudent wanting to remember the first five elements of the periodic table visualizes hydrogen at the chair, helium at the sofa, lithium at the lamp, etc
3. First letter recoding (acronym encoding)Creating a word out of the first letters of the items to be remembered A student creates the word Wajmma to remember the first six presidents in order: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Adams
4. Peg-word Opens in new window (hook) strategyMemorizing a series of “pegs”—such as “one is bun” and “two is shoe”—on which to-be-remembered information is hungA person wanting to get pickles and carrots at the grocery store visualizes a pickle in a bun and a carrot stuck in a shoe
5. Key-word method Opens in new windowAssigning imagery and rhyming words to remember unfamiliar words A learner remembers that trigo, which rhymes with tree, is the Spanish word for wheat by visualizing a sheaf of wheat sticking out of a tree
Basic devices used for storing and recalling list of words, or objects:
6. Syntactic encoding (natural language mediator)Involves associating items in a list with a preposition or a conjunction, or linking items in a phrase, clause, sentence or storyAs example, the list: dog, bone, hill becomes, the dog hid the bone on the hill
7. Conceptual categorizing Opens in new window (taxonomic grouping, or semantic categorizing)Recalling a large quantity of information into a simplified form by reorganizing the items into a few conceptual categoriesFor example, grouping food items in a list into categories, such as vegetables, meats, etc
8. Semantic encodingAssociating two or more words according to a common meaninge.g, berm and earplug = sound barriers
Substituting a single abstract word for a concrete word having the same meaninge.g., origin = egg
9. Phonetic encodingAssociating words that have similar speech sounds, or substituting abstract words for concrete words having similar speech soundse.g., Irrawaddy = ear wad
10. Bridging strategyAssociating two or more words with an intermediate word with which the other words are usually associatede.g., associating the words soup and letter with the word alphabet
Mnemonic devices used for storing and retrieving numbers
1. Digit-consonant encoding (analytic substitution)Substituting letters for numbers to form words e.g., when 1=1; 2=n and 3=m
2. ChunkingAnalyzing an unbroken sequence of numbers into smaller units to assist retention e.g., 436-7529.

Through the use of mnemonic techniques some spectacular results in recall performance have been obtained (Bellezza, 1981). Bower and Clark (1969), for example, found 93 percent recall in a mnemonic group, compared to 13 percent in a control group.

Ericsson, Chase and Faloon (1980), worked with a college student of average intelligence and memory ability whose memory span after 230 hours of practice increased from 7 to 79 digits. His performance on memory tests of digits equaled that of memory experts with life-long training. The authors concluded that, with an appropriate mnemonic system, retrieval method and practice there is seemingly no limit to memory skills.

  1. M. W. Eysenck (1994) Perspectives on psychology (Hove, UK: Psychology Press).
  2. David Baine, Memory and Instruction (Chunking and Categorizing P. 42-43).
  3. J.C. Berryman, D.J. Hargreaves, C.R. Hollin, and K. Howells (1978) Psychology and you (Leicester, UK: BPS Books).
  4. C. Tavris and C. Wade (1997) Psychology in perspective (New York: Longman).
  5. Rod Plotnik, Haig Kouyoumdjian Introduction to Psychology (Chunking P. 241)