Though many assignments and examinations are designed to test students’ higher-order thinking skills, you do often need to ensure that they know and are able to recall key facts, processes, systems, or structures that relate to their mastery of a particular topic. As a result, they’ll often find themselves working hard to commit those crucial pieces of information to memory. And as hard as they work, they may often be in need of a system or a tool that helps them recall the information at the time they most need it.
As Linda Wong writes in Essential Study Skills, Eighth Edition, mnemonics are a helpful way to accomplish this goal. Two popular types of mnemonics—acronyms and acrostics—are especially useful tools that students can use to “…[create] some form of an association” that help them recall the information as needed (185).
Wong defines acronyms as “…words or phrases made by using the first letter of key words in a list of items to remember” (186). Your students have probably used many acronyms throughout their schooling. Many of us learned HOMES to recall the names of the five Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior) and RICE to remember the steps for taking care of a muscle strain or sprain (rest, ice, compression, elevation).
An acrostic is similar to an acronym, with the distinction being that it consists of a sentence, rather than a word. As an example: music teachers often use “Every Good Boy Does Fine” as a means of helping their students learn and remember the notes on the treble clef (EGBDF). And, many algebra students mutter “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” as they try to recall the mathematical order of operations (parentheses, exponents, multiply, divide, add, subtract) in the middle of an algebra test.
Of course, well-known acronyms and acrostics don’t exist for every topic or subject a student will need to master. In such cases, students may want to develop their own. The following activity from Essential Study Skills, Eighth Edition gives students some practice in building these tools. The more practice students have in building acronyms and acrostics, the more likely that they’ll use them as they study.
Directions: Create an acronym or an acrostic as indicated for the following items.
1. A pediatrician’s advice for food a child should eat when he or she has a stomach flu: bananas, applesauce, toast, rice. (Letters to use: b a t r)
2. Ten body systems in humans: skeletal, digestive, muscular, endocrine, circulatory, nervous, reproductive, urinary, respiratory, and integumentary. (Letters to use: s d m e c n r u r i)
3. The seven coordinating conjunctions used to form compound sentences: for, and, nor, yet, but, so, or.
(Letters to use: f a n y b s o) Acronym:
4. Vertical structures of the atmosphere, beginning with the closest to the Earth: troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, and thermosphere. (Letters to use: t s m t)
5. Skeletal (bone) structure of the arm: humerus, ulna, radius, carpals, phalanges. (Letters to use: h u r c p)
One caveat: Wong advises students that trying to use too many mnemonics at one time can, in fact, make it more difficult to recall the important information–if they’re too busy trying to remember the mnemonic, they’ll have an even harder time remembering the information it is supposed to represent!
Reference: Wong, Linda. 2015. Essential Study Skills, 8th ed. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.
What other study strategies do you teach to students? Have your students shared their strategies with you? Discuss them in the comments section below.