AbstractHave you ever had to remember a long list of planets or the state capitals? These kinds of lists are full of interesting facts, but they can be hard to remember, especially for tests. What could you do to remember the list better? In this human behavior science fair project, you will learn about a memory technique called mnemonics (pronounced nuh-MAH-nicks) and investigate whether using mnemonics can help you and your friends remember lists of words.
Michelle Maranowski, PhD, and Teisha Rowland, PhD, Science Buddies
To determine if using mnemonics can improve peoples' ability to remember a list of words.
Have you ever had to memorize a list of words or an equation for a test at school? Sometimes it can be difficult to remember long lists of words. This is where memory techniques can help. Any memory technique that can help somebody remember information is called a mnemonic (pronounced nuh-MAH-nick). Mnemonics can use systems of rhymes, acronyms, diagrams, or many other techniques to help you remember names, dates, facts, figures, and more. Here are a few examples of mnemonics:
- An example of a mnemonic using a rhyme is "i before e except after c, or when sounding 'a' as in 'neighbor' or 'weigh.'" This mnemonic was designed to help a person remember the order of the letters "i" and "e" in different words.
- As we mentioned, mnemonics can also use acronyms, which are words where each letter of the word stands for something. For example, a mnemonic for remembering the names of the Great Lakes uses the acronym HOMES, where each letter stands for one of the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.
- Similarly, to remember a list of words, they could be turned into a sentence where the first letter of each word is used in a different word. For example, a mnemonic to remember the order of the colors in the rainbow (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet) is the sentence "Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain."
- People also use mnemonics by mentally turning a list of words into a memorable sentence or a mental image that incorporates all of the words. For example, a list with descriptive adjectives and the names of different types of animals could be turned into a visually memorable, and maybe humorous, image.
- There are really few limitations on what a mnemonic can be, as long as it helps a person remember information. You can use music, names, expressions, models, notes, images, connections, spelling, and even your hands as mnemonics. For example, see Figure 1, below, which shows how a person's knuckles can be used to remember how many days are in each month.
Each month is associated with a knuckle or space between a knuckle. January starts on the pinky knuckle of the left hand, March is the left hand ring finger knuckle and February falls in the space between. This pattern continues over both hands with the pointer finger knuckles touching and no month associated with the gap between hands. Each month that falls on a knuckle has 31 days, while every month between knuckles has 30 days. This rule holds true except for February which can have either 28 or 29 days.
Figure 1. This image shows how a mnemonic involving a person's knuckles can be used to remember how many days each month has. (Image source: Tijmen Stam / IIVQ)
The term mnemonic is derived from Greek. It is based on the word mnemonikos which means "of memory." This word refers back to mnema, which means "remembrance." Mnemonics can make little sense and still work. Perhaps it is because a strange or funny mnemonic may stay in your mind better.
In this human behavior science fair project, you will test how well mnemonics can help memory. You will gather at least six of your friends and separate them into two groups. One group will be the control group and the other will be the experimental group. The purpose of a control group is to act as a constant and to highlight any effects the variables in an experiment may have on the experimental group. You will ask each member of the control group to memorize a list without using a mnemonic, then test them by asking them to repeat the list back. Next, you will ask each member of the experimental group to memorize the same list of words, but using a mnemonic. Does the mnemonic help them remember the list better than the control group, who did not use a mnemonic? Many researchers study human memory and how the brain holds memory. This science fair project allows you to study a very interesting area of science—the human mind.
Terms and Concepts
- What is memory?
- What is a mnemonic? Can you name a few different kinds of mnemonics?
- Can you put together a list of words and a mnemonic to help you remember that list?
- Wikipedia Contributors. (2013, November 25). Mnemonic. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved November 25, 2013.
The following webpage has some interesting lists at the bottom of the page. You can try making a mnemonic with one of these lists for your science fair project.
- Congos, D. (2005, January 24). 9 Types of Mnemonics for Better Memory. The Learning Center Exchange. Retrieved January 16, 2009.
This webpage has additional information on different mnemonic techniques:
- Meg Keeley. (2011, May 10). Mnemonics - Memory Techniques. Bucks County Community College. Retrieved November 25, 2013.
For help creating graphs, try this website:
- National Center for Education Statistics, (n.d.). Create a Graph. Retrieved June 25, 2020.
Materials and Equipment
- Paper (at least 16 sheets or separate scraps)
- Volunteers (at least 6, in addition to you)
- Quiet room for testing
- Stopwatch or timer that shows seconds
- Lab notebook
Develop two lists of words and a corresponding mnemonic for each list.
- Make each list at least seven words long.
- Your lists of words are only limited by your own imagination. You can come up with your own lists of words by taking inspiration from the world around you. For example, come up with a mnemonic that corresponds to your parents' grocery list. For more examples of lists you could use, look at the bottom of D. Congos' webpage 9 Types of Mnemonics for Better Memory.
When trying to come up with a mnemonic for each list of words, you can look at the mnemonic examples given in the
- For example, you could come up with an acronym that uses the first letter of each word on the list.
- Alternatively, you could make a list of words that are descriptive and think of a funny sentence or image that incorporates all of those words.
- Split your volunteers into two groups; one will be the control group and one will be the experimental group.
- Clearly write your first list on a sheet or scrap piece of paper. Do not include the mnemonic.
In a quiet room without distractions, have every member of the control group look at the list of words you just wrote. Explain what the list is and give them 5 minutes to study the list.
- Note: If you see that they start to make a mnemonic to memorize the list, tell them not to!
- After 5 minutes have elapsed, take away the sheet of paper with the list of words. Have the group leave the room and wait for 1 hour. They can watch TV, talk, listen to music, or do homework.
After the hour has elapsed, test each member of the control group individually.
- Have one of the control group volunteers come into the room and recite the words from the list or write them on a blank piece of paper.
- Make sure nobody else can hear them or see what they write.
- Use the stopwatch to time how long it takes the volunteer to recall the list and record this in a data table in your lab notebook similar to Table 1, below. Also record in your lab notebook how many words he or she was able to recall correctly.
- Repeat steps 6a–6c for each volunteer of the control group, always recording your data in your lab notebook.
|Volunteer||Control or Experimental||How long did it take to recall this list?||How many words did the volunteer recall correctly?||Percentage of Words Recalled Correctly|
- Now clearly write your first list on a sheet or scrap piece of paper but this time do include the mnemonic (if it is something that can be easily written down).
- Now show the list of words to the volunteers in the experimental group; this time, along with the mnemonic. Explain the list of words to the group and show how the mnemonic works with the list. Let the group examine the list and the mnemonic for 5 minutes.
- Then repeat steps 5–6 with the experimental group. Remember to always record your data in your lab notebook.
- Repeat steps 3–9 using the second list and its corresponding mnemonic. This time, switch which group is the control group and which is the experimental group (in other words, if a person was in the control group before and did not receive the mnemonic for the list, they should now be in the experimental group and receive the mnemonic for the new list). Remember to record all of your data in your lab notebook.
Now look at the data that you have collected. Do the following calculations for each mnemonic you tested. Record all of your answers in your lab notebook.
Calculate the average time that the control group took to recall the list.
- To calculate the average, add together the amount of time that each person in the control group took to recall the list, and then divide that number by the number of people in the control group.
- For example, if there were three people in the control group and they each took 30 seconds, 25 seconds, and 35 seconds to recall the list, the average time that the control group took would be 30 seconds (since the sum of these numbers divided by three is 30).
- Calculate the average time taken by the experimental group to recall the list.
Calculate the percentage of words that each volunteer recalled correctly.
- To do this, divide the number of words they recalled correctly by the total number of words on the list.
- Then calculate the average percentage of words recalled correctly for each of the groups.
- Calculate the average time that the control group took to recall the list.
Plot the data you have on two bar graphs.
- The first graph should show the average percentage of words recalled for the control group and the experimental group for each list used. Label the x-axis List and the y-axis Average Percent Words Recalled. (Make the bars for the control group and experimental group different colors.)
- The second graph should show the average time taken to recall the list. Label the x-axis List and the y-axis Average Time to Recall List. Again, for each list, plot the results of both the control group and the experimental group.
- If you would like help building your graphs or would like to make them online, try the following website: Create a Graph.
Analyze your results. Look at your graphs and try to draw some conclusions.
- Is there a difference between the results of the control group and the experimental group?
- Based on your results, does it look like using mnemonics helps a person remember a list of words accurately?
- Did using mnemonics help with how fast the volunteers were able to recall the list?
Ask an Expert
- How long will the mnemonic help memory? Try increasing the wait time from 1 hour to 5 hours and then to 1 day and see if knowing the mnemonic helps in recalling the list.
- Does using the mnemonic technique help older people recall the list better than younger people? Form a group of older people and a group of younger people. Make sure that you have a control group for each population if you want to try this variation. Give all groups a list to remember and its corresponding mnemonic to the two experimental groups. See if having a mnemonic helps the older people more than the younger ones.
- There are many different types of techniques people use as mnemonics to memorize something. For some examples, see the Introduction. Try this science project again but this time use different types of mnemonics, such as an acronym, a funny sentence that uses all of the words on a list, and words that make a rhyme. Do some types of mnemonics seem to be more effective for memorizing a list of words than others?
- Do some research on how mnemonics are used to memorize long strings of numbers and then design a way to test how effective mnemonics are for doing this. How well do mnemonics work for memorizing a random string of numbers?
- Mnemonics are also famously used for memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards. Do some research into how mnemonics are used to do this and design a way to test how effective the mnemonics are in this application. Do some work better than others? How large of a stack of shuffled playing cards can you memorize the order of by using mnemonics?
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