Students can often feel overwhelmed by the extent of new information and concepts that they are exposed to throughout a course. As an instructional designer, it’s your responsibility to help learners remember and retain key information and take-aways from your courses.

One handy set of memory tools are known as mnemonic devices.

What Are They?

Mnemonic devices are helpful memory cues that are often made up based on the specific details of the lesson at hand. They’re often funny (and sometimes outrageous), which helps create an indelible memory association between concepts and retention.

One of the earliest mnemonics that many children are exposed to is this rhyming couplet:

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November

By re-phrasing the problem of remembering the number of days in a given month into an easily recalled rhyme, you’ve given learners a simpler way to remember which months have 30 days — and, by extension, which months don’t.

When developing your course content, you can include mnemonics to help your students relate to, learn, and remember new information. Here are four practical methods for devising mnemonic devices in real-life situations.

Mnemonic Acronyms

If your lesson involves a checklist of information, you can introduce an acronym to help students remember the content keywords of that lesson.

For example, if you’re conducting workplace training on “how to deal with a fire on the factory floor,” you can create an acronym that covers the proper sequence in which they should respond to a fire: RACE – Rescue, Alarm, Confine, Extinguish. (In this case, the acronym also creates a word that directly relates to the urgency of the situation, which is even more aesthetically helpful.)

Mnemonic Phrases

Where an acronym works by distilling many words into one single word that’s easier to remember, a mnemonic phrase accomplishes the same goal by creating a matching sentence in which the first letter of each word matches the first letter of the words you want your students to remember.

For example, there’s a proper order in which mathematical functions should be executed, and complex problems containing multiple operations can confuse students — “Which operation should I complete first?” To help students in the U.S. remember the the correct order of operations, math teachers have long used the mnemonic phrase “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” = Parentheses first; then Exponents; then Multiplication; then Division; then Addition; then Subtraction. (Not all devices are perfect, though. Here’s a reminder that this famous phrase still leaves out one important rule that results in some students forgetting a basic step.)

Mnemonic Rhymes

As proven by our “30 days” example, rhymes can be a potent memory training tool. But don’t feel obliged to write poetry every time you have a complex lesson to teach. Even something as simple as rhyming pairs can help students remember key information.

For example, if you are tasked with developing a training orientation for a supermarket or department store chain, you’d need to help new employees remember where every item in the store is shelved. Here’s where rhymes may come in handy: “one is bun” may help them recall the aisle where breads and bakery items may be found; “four is door” could refer to door knobs, hinges, and door-frames; “nine is wine” for liquor and spirits, etc.

Mnemonic Associations

Any aspect of the words in your lesson can be used in a mnemonic acronym, phrase, or rhyme, but these basics can be taken a step further by using mnemonic principles to remind students of a hierarchy among steps or items in a set.

For example, if a course for contractors teaches them that the best practice for a particular repair is: “use wood first, and if that’s not available, then use wrought iron,” a mnemonic association to help students remember that hierarchy is:

If I could, I’d use Wood
But if not, I’ll use Wrought

Use Your Imagination

Each course you design will have specific content that lends itself to unique mnemonic devices, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get creative in how you link your lessons to memory aids.

In some instances, key learning concepts can be re-phrased into lyrics of familiar songs; in other cases, you can create visual flash cards or crossword puzzles to help with relation and retention. Remember, the more outrageous, amusing, or surprising a mnemonic device is, the stronger its impact will be on students’ memories — so, really, the sky’s the limit!

Or, as we could say…

In any mnemonic delicatessen,
The stronger the cheese is, the stronger the lesson

(Okay, so that one was pretty bad… but you’ll remember it longer than you ever wanted to. Mission accomplished!)

Got a Great Mnemonic Example of Your Own?

Feel free to leave your own examples in the comments. Maybe you’ll help a fellow teacher find a new way to help students remember something critical!

BONUS: if you need help finding words that rhyme, Word Hippo is a handy site to bookmark.

Image: “Word” by Dovydas Čiomėnas, via Flickr Creative Commons license