Learning Techniques Series: Mnemonic, Brain & eLearning

Summary: In the first article of the Learning Techniques Series, mnemonic techniques take the spotlight. How do they work in our brains and what do they share with gamification? Let’s discover what preconditions our brains for successful learning.

Mnemonic techniques undeniably improve learning and memory, and the best thing about them is that they can be so much fun. In the realm of eLearning, often gamification grabs the spotlight as the champion of fun. Nevertheless, mnemonic techniques have similar features—in small bites.

A well-crafted mnemonic has the power to inject life into even the dreariest of lists, whether on paper or screen. That’s how great they are, and our brains will confirm it: it is scientifically proven that our memory works better when dealing with mnemonics. Let’s jump into our heads to see how they work.

What happens in our brain when we use mnemonic devices?

Even brain-wise, mnemonic techniques are indeed great. When we learn a mnemonic, so many areas of our brain are active that it almost makes it hard to forget, as two processes are going on simultaneously: cognitive and memory. This means that our brains are working intensely when engaged in mnemonic devices, something they truly love.

This is the first secret to the mnemonics’ success: as Jennifer A. McCabe explains in her lecture on mnemonics, they work because they require a lot of attention.

The more we focus on something, the easier it will be to memorize it and retrieve it from memory later. For example, that is why repetition is so important – when you repeat something, you add more focus time to it, making it easier to remember later.

What is even better for learners is getting them to think of their own mnemonic instead of handing one over to them. This activity will boost their engagement resulting in even easier retrieval later on. The phenomenon is called “the generation effect”: when something is more challenging, when you have to work around it more, think about it more, and invest more effort, the more likely it will enter your long-term memory.

The second secret to the success of mnemonic techniques is the deployment of chunking and organization.

One may say that by chunking and organization, we produce economy packs of information that should be learned. This helps our brains immensely: let’s say that we want to memorize these first two secrets of why mnemonics work: attention, chunking, and organization. If I create a mnemonic “chaos” (chunking, attention, organization = secrets), this means that my brain has to remember one word (“chaos”) instead of three. I created a context around it, which is even more helpful for information retrieval.

The third secret to the mnemonics’ success is dual encoding, as Jennifer A. McCabe points out.

Mnemonics don’t utilize only words, but also, more often than not, mental images. Usually, they are funny and may seem bizarre and senseless, but we almost always detect a connection between the created image and what we’re trying to learn. Our brains love those flashy images—they are more memorable.

This is what happens in our heads: while learning, when we move some of the new information from the verbal to the visual pool of the working memory, we unload our working memory improving our efficiency. Later on, when we retrieve the info, it’s easier to do it because you have more brain areas involved in it.

Three Brain’s Friends: The Science Behind Successful Learning Techniques (And Mnemonic Devices)

We’ve run through the secrets of why mnemonic techniques work so well with our brains. Now let’s take a step back and put all this into a more general context of learning.

Our brains are miraculous: with about 100 billion neurons and thousands of dendrites per each, running out of space to store all that we learn in our lifetime is not likely to happen. Comprehending the number of potential neural pathways is impossible (Sousa: 127). However, in the process of learning, our hippocampus is great at encoding new information, but it does not have an infinite number of options for neuron sequences (Huberman). This is where cool learning techniques step in – let’s learn the science behind them.

If you wish to improve your memory, and engage in more successful learning, schedule a play date with these three brain friends:

  • Effort: in terms of mnemonic techniques, you spend some time thinking about what you’re learning, correlating it to what you already know, and finding similarities and differences. Our brain loves effort and such info will more likely enter our long-term memory.
  • Context: you create a context, a backdrop story of a mnemonic. By doing this, particular neurons are fired in a particular sequence. You will more likely remember this more easily in the future because more brain areas are involved (again this, I trust you now realize how important this brain friend is).
  • Emotion: Mnemonic is fun for learners, and when they are happy, endorphins in the brain make learning more pleasurable and information is easier to remember. This is also true for any game. On the other hand, when learners have negative emotions, the stress-caused hormone cortisol activates defense behaviors. The frontal lobe of the brain is focused on the cause of stress and how to deal with it. This takes up brain space and attention that could be distributed to the learning task instead, so learning becomes limited. (Sousa: 137)

Once we are aware of positive biological incentives for learning, we will be able to facilitate learning in the mode of eLearning, as well. Thus, the three brain friends are here emphasized as principles for successful learning. Thank you, metalearning! (And David Sousa!)

Find Your Perfect Mnemonic Device - Your Brain Will Love It

Different sources will list mnemonic techniques differently, which is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. We can embrace different categorizations and multiplicities of mnemonics. Conversely, sometimes being exposed to such an abundance of information can lead to confusion.

As they deploy different devices, mnemonic techniques are quite liquid when it comes to categorization. In this case, I opted for the techniques Jennifer A. McCabe presented in her lecture. My reasoning behind this is that rhyming mnemonics will be left for a separate discussion in the “Learning Technique Series”.

Let’s dive in! Allow me to have some fun with examples, and work on memorizing the three secrets of mnemonics’ success: attention, chunking and organization, and dual encoding. Let’s discover how the following mnemonic devices can be used to facilitate learning.

  • Acronyms: we make a word using the first letters. I must admit that these are my all-time favorites, simplicity at its finest.
    Example: Earlier in this article I used “chaos” (chunking, attention, organization – secrets), before introducing the dual encoding, so let’s stick with that example and add a “.de” at the end. Thus: “chaos.de”.
  • Acrostics = a level-up acronym – we make a sentence using the first letters. Thinking of one is a bit more demanding, but – hey – that’s good for the brain, isn’t it?
    Example: “Avengers chill out during education”? Huh, what do you think? Too trashy? I completely agree, but it still has something to do with education, plus it is so random, that I will definitely be remembering it for some time. I dare you to make your own.
  • Keyword mnemonic: think of a word that sounds similar to your term, and create a story (context!) to connect the two. I admit that yet again this mnemonic technique seems a bit demanding, but let’s give it a try. This device is great if you have a unique concept to remember, such as “acrostics”, for example. It’s not handy for lists, though.
    Example: So: acrostics – across – to learn a list, you jump across all the words in a sentence. Works for me, did you get yours? (Also, if you’re mnemonic savvy, do check out a face-name association, a keyword’s relative.)
  • Method of Loci: well, I was hesitant to put this one on a list, but after having read a study on this method and how it actually restructures the brain, it definitely earned its spot. We need a set of locations that we are really familiar with (it’s called a mental palace), and we take a mental walk. Each station is a thing on our list we want to memorize, and the key here is to make things as exaggerated and vivid as possible – you basically drop the mental image of a concept to the station and find a funny, creative way to do this.
    Example: If there’s a TV in our mental palace, maybe it plays a video of chaos in German (I’m referring to “chaos.de here” :)).

Conclusion: Why you should include mnemonic techniques in eLearning?

The science behind mnemonic techniques doesn’t lie when saying that the combination of activities involved in learning a mnemonic device makes it memorable and easier to retrieve from memory. Sometimes we may get carried away by using many fancy effects in our eLearning courses, which may unintentionally do more damage to learners’ focus. Every now and then, the old-school learning techniques should be revised and applied.

When thinking about the downsides of mnemonics, I would humbly state that there are none. Rather, we may consider the restraints of eLearning in terms of making mnemonic devices group activities. Another challenge may occur during content translation and localization. My opinion is that a great translator will overcome this challenge. A great learning architect will compensate for the lack of interactivity with other learning techniques in the rest of the content.

As we are designing courses to facilitate learning and make it more approachable and effective, mnemonic techniques inevitably should become one of the learning architect’s tools. They improve memory and reshape our brains—backed by science (as does each instance of learning, in the end – talking about powerful!).

Author: Tamara Tomek
Images: Ivan Blažević

Sources: Huberman, Andrew. “Understand & Improve Memory Using Science-Based Tools | Huberman Lab Podcast #72 by Andrew Huberman”. YouTube, uploaded by Andrew Huberman, 16 May 2022.

McCabe, Jennifer A. “Beyond ROY G BIV: Enhancing Memory for Course Information using Mnemonics”. YouTube, uploaded by Faculty of Science – McMaster University, 12 July 2022,.

Sousa, David. How the Brain Learns. E-book, 5th ed., Corwin: A SAGE Company, 2016.

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