Strategies

Seeing without words

I was listening on my walk today to an interview with Edward Tufte, the celebrated guru of data visualization. He said something I took particular note of, concerning the benefits of concentrating on what you’re seeing, without any other distractions, external or internal. He spoke of his experience of being out walking one day with a friend, in a natural environment, and what it was like to just sit down for some minutes, not talking, in a very quiet place, just looking at the scene.

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Why asking the right questions is so important, and how to do it

Research; study; learning; solving problems; making decisions — all these, to be done effectively and efficiently, depend on asking the right questions. Much of the time, however, people let others frame the questions, not realizing how much this shapes how they think.

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The value of intensive practice

Let’s talk about the cognitive benefits of learning and using another language.

In a recent news report, I talked about the finding that intensive learning of a very novel language significantly grew several brain regions, of which two were positively associated with language proficiency. These regions were the right hippocampus and the left superior temporal gyrus. Growth of the first of these probably reflects the learning of a great many new words, and the second may reflect heavy use of the phonological loop (a part of working memory).

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When are two (or more) heads better than one?

We must believe that groups produce better results than individuals — why else do we have so many “teams” in the workplace, and so many meetings. But many of us also, of course, hold the opposite belief: that most meetings are a waste of time; that teams might be better for some tasks (and for other people!), but not for all tasks. So what do we know about the circumstances that make groups better value?

References: 

Bahrami, B., Olsen K., Latham P. E., Roepstorff A., Rees G., & Frith C. D. (2010).  Optimally Interacting Minds. Science. 329(5995), 1081 - 1085.

Basden, B.H., Basden, D.R., Bryner, S. & Thomas, R.L. III (1997). A comparison of group and individual remembering: Does collaboration disrupt retrieval strategies? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 23, 1176-1189.

Kirschner, F., Paas F., & Kirschner P. A. (2010).  Task complexity as a driver for collaborative learning efficiency: The collective working-memory effect. Applied Cognitive Psychology. n/a-n/a - n/a-n/a.

Mesmer-Magnus, J. R., & DeChurch L. A. (2009).  Information Sharing and Team Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology. 94(2), 535 - 546.

Ormerod, T. 2005. The way we were: situational shifts in collaborative remembering. Research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/PO/releases/2005/march/...
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-03/esr-wic032305.php

Weldon, M.S. & Bellinger, K.D. (1997). Collective and individual processes in remembering. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 23, 1160-1175.

Woolley, A. W., Chabris C. F., Pentland A., Hashmi N., & Malone T. W. (2010).  Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. Science. science.1193147 - science.1193147.

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List-learning strategies

Guide to Use

  • To be used effectively, you need to be able to create images quickly
  • To be used effectively, all steps need to be properly implemented
  • They help you learn faster, not better
  • They are useful for:
    • learning the right order
    • memorizing retrieval cues
    • anchoring many details

The method of loci or place method

This is the classic mnemonic strategy, dating back to the ancient Greeks, and is (as evident from its continued use over 2500 years) an extremely effective strategy for remembering lists.

First of all, you choose a place you know very very well. Perhaps a familiar route, your house, or a particular room in it. Any place that you know well enough to easily call to mind various ‘landmarks’ (different fixed objects in a room, for example). You must train yourself to go around your landmarks in a particular order. With a route of course, that is easy.

Thus, to remember a shopping list, you simply imagine each item in turn at these landmarks. A loaf of bread sticking out of the letterbox; a giant apple in place of the door; the hall full of beans; a giant banana in the bath, etc.

Because the place method uses cues that are already well-known to you, it is probably the easiest of the imagery mnemonics to master.

Disadvantages

  • difficult to recall a particular item without going through the list in order until you reach the item you want.
  • most effective as a relatively short-term strategy (By using the landmarks again and again, you can only readily recall the last list. Earlier lists are much less easily recalled.)
  • difficult to use if the information is presented too fast

The pegword mnemonic

uses numbers instead of places. These numbers are transformed into visual images by means of the following simple rhyme:

one is a bun
two is a shoe
three is a tree
four is a door
five is a hive
six is sticks
seven is heaven
eight is a gate
nine is a line
ten is a hen

The rhyme must be learned by rote until it is over-learned. Accordingly, there is a higher ‘cost’ to the pegword method than to the place method, where cues already over-learned are used.

Disadvantages

  • most effective as a relatively short-term strategy (By using the landmarks again and again, you can only readily recall the last list. Earlier lists are much less easily recalled.)
  • difficult to use if the information is presented to you too fast
  • difficult to use effectively without extensive training.

Find out more about the pegword mnemonic

The link method

like the others, uses visual images to link items together. However, instead of linking items to a well-learned structure, items are linked to each other. For example, to remember our shopping list of bread, apples, beans, bananas, you would form an image of the bread interacting with apples in some way, then another image of apples and beans, then another image bringing beans and bananas together.

The story method

is the verbal equivalent of the link method. Items are chained together by linking them in a story. For example, A VEGETABLE can be a useful INSTRUMENT for a COLLEGE student. A carrot can be a NAIL for your FENCE or BASIN. But a MERCHANT of the QUEEN would SCALE that fence and feed the carrot to a GOAT.

Disadvantages of Link and Story Methods

  • difficult to recall a particular item without going through the list in order until you reach the item you want.
  • difficult to use if the information is presented too fast.
  • difficult to use effectively without extensive training.

References: 

  • Belleza, F.S. 1983. Mnemonic-device instruction with adults. In Pressley, M. & Levin, J.R. (eds.) Cognitive strategy research: Psychological foundations. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Bower, G.H. & Reitman, J.S. 1972. Mnemonic elaboration in multilist learning. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 478-485.
  • Morris, P.E. 1979. Strategies for learning and recall. In M.M. Gruneberg & P. Morris (eds.) Applied problems in memory. London: Academic Press.

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Visual Vs Verbal Mnemonic Techniques

  • There is no special magic about visual images.
  • Whether verbal or visual mnemonic techniques are better for learning depends partly on the learning material, partly on the nature of the learning task, and partly on the individual.
  • Older adults in general are probably better advised to use verbal mnemonics.
  • There is no particular advantage to using bizarre images.

Most mnemonic strategies use visual images. But as I say in The myth of imagery, while there is no doubt that imagery can be an effective tool, there is nothing particularly special about it. The advantage of imagery is that it provides an easy way of connecting information that is not otherwise readily connected. However, providing verbal links can be equally effective.

One study that compared verbal and visual imagery methods for remembering serial items (lists of words) found that using a verbal strategy resulted in equal performance on both lists of items rated as "high imagery" and "medium imagery". The two visual imagery techniques (method of loci, and pegword) resulted in higher performance than the verbal strategy for the high-imagery list, but poorer performance for the medium-imagery list [5].

A more recent study found that connecting three nouns by imagery was more beneficial for immediate unexpected recall than relating them by sentence, however, after a week, recall was the same for both techniques [3].

It is well-established that people differ in their abilities to visualize, and clearly the usefulness of visual imagery is partly dependent on whether you are a "high-imager" or a "low-imager" (but don't be fooled by these categorical labels - people will vary along a continuum rather than fall into an either-or category).

This talent also seems to change over the course of one's life. It has been suggested that older adults in particular might be better advised to use verbal mnemonics rather than visual image techniques, as they apparently find it difficult to produce and remember visual images ([7]; [1]).

Not entirely independent of these individual differences, there is also a significant difference between the effectiveness of visual images presented to you and those you must generate for yourself.

There is also some evidence that imagery techniques are more effective in particular types of memory tasks compared to others. Herrmann [2] suggested that interactive imagery was the most effective strategy for paired associate learning (linking two items together), but a story mnemonic was most effective for free recall (remembering various items in any order).

On a related subject, a study that looked into the usefulness of bizarre imagery as a mnemonic aid found that bizarre images were remembered better in the immediate term but not the long term, and only if the images were experienced as part of a mixed list (bizarre and non-bizarre items), and the learner could control their pace of learning [4]. A number of studies have failed to find any particular benefit to constructing bizarre images, and indeed, have suggested that bizarre images take longer to construct and may result in poorer performance. Most recently, the bizarreness advantage in mixed lists was eliminated when alternative retrieval strategies were encouraged [6]. These researchers suggested that the advantage of bizarreness depends on your retrieval strategy (whether or not it is based on distinctiveness).

In sum, then, I would say that use of visual imagery is an entirely personal matter, that there is no clear superiority of visual over verbal techniques, and that (as always) it comes down to individual idiosyncracy. Don't feel pressured into using imagery if you're not easy with it. And if you are comfortable with imagery, still restrict your use of the technique to situations where the images come easily - don't spend more time on constructing images than is warranted; be open to using other techniques. There's no magic to visual imagery. Meaningfulness, organization, depth of processing are the crucial elements in learning, not the precise tools you use to get there.

References: 

  1. Baltes, P. B., & Kliegl, R. (1992). Further testing of limits of cognitive plasticity: Negative age differences in a mnemonic skill are robust. Developmental Psychology, 28, 121-125.
  2. Herrmann, D.J. 1987. Task appropriateness of mnemonic techniques. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 64, 171-178.
  3. Hishitani, S. 1985. Coding strategies and imagery differences in memory. Japanese Psychological Research,27(3),154-162.
  4. Iaccino, J. F., & Sowa, S. J. 1989. Bizarre imagery in paired-associate learning: An effective mnemonic aid with mixed context, delayed testing and self-paced conditions. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 68, 307-316.
  5. Marston, P.T. & Young, R.K. 1974. Multiple Serial List Learning with Two Mnemonic Techniques.
  6. McDaniel, M.A., DeLosh, E.L. & Merritt, P.S. 2000. Order information and retrieval distinctiveness: Recall of common versus bizarre material. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26(4), 1045-1056.
  7. Poon, L. W., Walsh-Sweeney, L., & Fozard, J. L. (1980). Memory skill training for the elderly: Salient issues on the use of imagery mnemonics. In L. W. Poon, J. L. Fozard, L. S. Cermak, D. Arenberg, & L. W. Thompson, (Eds.), New directions in memory and aging: Proceedings of the George A Talland Memorial Conference (pp. 461-484). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.

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Verbal mnemonics

  • Coding mnemonics are the most effective means of memorizing numbers.
  • Coding mnemonics can also be used to dramatically extend the value of the pegword method.
  • First-letter mnemonics are most effective for learning the order of well-learned information.
  • First-letter mnemonics can be useful for overcoming memory blocks.
  • The story method is an effective means of learning lists.

Coding mnemonic

Coding mnemonics are used for encoding numbers. Because words are much easier for most of us to remember, a system that transforms numbers into letters is one of the best ways for remembering numbers — as seen in the modern innovation of encoding phone numbers into letters (0800-ANSETT).

A coding system is very useful for remembering numbers, but it must be said that few people have sufficient need to memorize long numbers to make the initial cost of learning the code acceptable.

The coding system’s main value in fact is as a source of pegs for the pegword system. By allowing numbers to be encoded as easily remembered words, the number of pegs can be extended from ten into infinity. Lists of such pegwords are available in various memory improvement books.

Clearly of course, mastery of such a system requires a very large investment of time and effort, as well as a facility for image creation. But if you decide that the pegword strategy is for you, you should certainly increase its value by learning a coding system.

Such systems have been suggested for memorizing such information as appointments, and birthdays and anniversaries. There is no evidence that mnemonic strategies are particularly effective for tasks in the planning memory domain and most people find external strategies — diaries, calendars, watch alarms — more dependable and easier to use.  Find out more

First-letter mnemonics

First-letter mnemonics are probably the most widely used mnemonic. This reflects the popularity of specific mnemonics, rather than its wide use as a strategic tool.

There are two types of first-letter mnemonic: acronyms in which the initial letters form a meaningful word — such as FACE for the notes in the spaces of the treble staff — and acrostics in which the initial letters are used as the initial letters of other words to make a meaningful phrase — such as Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit for the notes on the lines of the treble staff.

First letter mnemonics are a very effective means of recalling the order of well-learned items. First letter mnemonics are a cueing strategy — they remind us of what we already know. They are therefore particularly effective as a means to overcome memory blocks — for example, for students whose minds ‘go blank’ in exams.  Find out more

The story method

The story method is another list-learning strategy. It is the verbal equivalent of the link method. Items are chained together by linking them in a story. This method is as effective as the imagery methods for learning lists. Which one will be most effective for you depends on which type of information (words or images) you deal with most easily.  Find out more

References: 

  • Bower, G.H. & Clark, M.C. 1969. Narrative stories as mediators for serial learning. Psychonomic Science, 14, 181-182.
  • Gruneberg, Michael M. 1992. The practical application of memory aids. In M.M. Gruneberg, & P. Morris (eds). Aspects of memory. Vol.1: The practical aspects. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
  • Morris, P.E. 1978. Sense and nonsense in traditional mnemonics. In M.M. Gruneberg, P.E. Morris & R.N. Sykes (eds.) Practical aspects of memory. London: Academic Press.
  • Morris, P.E. 1979. Strategies for learning and recall. In M.M. Gruneberg & P. Morris (eds.) Applied problems in memory. London: Academic Press.

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Basic principles of learning

When considering what will be the most effective strategies for you, don't forget the basic principles of memory:

(1) Repetition repetition repetition

The trick is to find a way of repeating that is interesting to you. This is partly governed by level of difficulty (too easy is boring; too difficult is discouraging). The point is to find an activity (more than one, in fact), which enable you to hold on to your motivation through sufficient repetitions to drive them into your head. Bear in mind, too, the importance of:

(2) Changing context

Simple repetition (cat - el gato; cat - el gato; cat - el gato ...) is not only boring, but also the least effective way of experiencing the needed repetition. Not only do you want to see/hear words presented in a variety of different sentences; you also want to experience them in different ways - listening, reading, speaking, writing.

(3) Space your practice

(4) Seek the link

The basis for the keyword mnemonic, and the reason some words are "easy" and others not. Looking for the similarities between words, and being inventive when necessary, is crucial to easing the learning burden, and reducing the number of repetitions you need to fix the word in your memory. It can be as simple as observing that "gato" is very like "cat", or that "el borrego" means "sheep" because sheep are boring.

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Effect of working memory capacity on new language learning

  • Vocabulary acquisition in children is significantly affected by the child's ability to repeat back words.
  • This limitation becomes less as the individual gains a large vocabulary, and thus develops a greater ability to make semantic (meaningful) associations.
  • When learning a new language, your ability to repeat back unfamiliar words is only a factor where you are unable to form a meaningful association to a familiar word.
  • In such cases, the keyword mnemonic can be especially useful to those with limited ability to repeat back words.

Research with children has demonstrated that the ability to learn new words is greatly affected by working memory span - specifically, by how much information they can hold in that part of working memory called "phonological short-term memory". The constraining effect of working memory capacity on the ability to learn new words appears to continue into adolescence.

But, as you grow in experience, building a vocabulary, this constraint becomes less important. Because working memory capacity is measured in "chunks" - and the amount of information contained in a chunk is extremely malleable. To a large extent, developing chunking strategies is what memory improvement is all about.

In terms of learning another language, there are essentially four possible classes of word:

  • words that are already familiar because they are the same in your native language (or another known language)
  • words that are already familiar because they involve words that you already know in that language (e.g., learning a related verb form, or learning a word made up of two words you already know, such as sweat-shirt)
  • words that resemble a known word with similar or related meaning (e.g., Russian garlo means throat, and the word garlo resembles the word gargle)
  • words that have no ready association to known words

It appears that in these first three cases, the size of your phonological short-term memory is of no significant relevance. It is only in the last case - where the word cannot utilize any meaningful associations - that your phonological short-term memory capacity becomes important.

Fairly obviously, as your knowledge of language (your own and others) grows, the more meaningful associations you will be able to make, and the fewer new words will fall into this last, difficult, category.

This suggests, of course, the usefulness of a mnemonic strategy (specifically, the keyword strategy) in the last, difficult case.

The importance of phonological short-term memory is also greater for productive learning (learning to produce a language, i.e., speak or write it) than in receptive learning (learning to read or understand a language). For productive learning, the pronounceability of the new words is very important. The more easily pronounced, the more easily learnt.

References: 

  • Nation, I.S.P. 2001. Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ellis, N.C. & Beaton, A. 1993. Factors affecting foreign language vocabulary: imagery keyword mediators and phonological short-term memory. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 46A, 533-58.
  • Papagno, C., Valentine, T. & Baddeley, A. 1991. Phonological short-term memory and foreign-language vocabulary learning. Journal of Memory and Language, 30, 331-47.

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Mnemonics for learning languages

Keyword mnemonic

The one mnemonic strategy that has been investigated quite extensively by researchers is the keyword mnemonic. This has been used successfully in a variety of learning areas, but its chief use has been in the area of learning vocabulary.

The keyword mnemonic is certainly an effective technique, particularly for learning to read in another language, as opposed to writing or talking (where you have to actively remember the words you want, rather than simply recognize them when you see them). But I wouldn't advocate using the keyword mnemonic on 1000 words, or even most of them. I would keep it for the hard words. (Read more on the usefulness of the keyword mnemonic for learning vocabulary. Find out what the keyword method is here)

Linkword

This is essentially the keyword technique, but simplified by fact that someone else has done all the hard work. Dr Michael Gruneberg, a British academic who has done a lot of work in the area of practical mnemonics (a rare concern among academic researchers) formalized the Linkword technique for learning foreign languages, and has produced Linkword books for learning French, German, Spanish, and Italian.

The books aim to quickly teach you a few hundred words of your chosen language (my own count of words taught in the German book was 355), by giving you a linking image to use. Thus, for Raupe (German for caterpillar), you are told to imagine a caterpillar with a rope attached to its middle.

As you would expect (Dr Gruneberg does know his stuff), the books are designed with an eye to fundamental memory principles. Words are grouped according to category; only ten words are given at a time; words are reviewed, etc. Simple grammar points are also included. It's well organized, and I do think it's an excellent way for a beginner to get a quick introduction to the language.

Apart from my general criticisms and warnings about the keyword technique (for which, see my article), my principle caveat is the difficulty in forming the visual images. For example, for Hummer (German for lobster), we are told to imagine a lobster with a sense of humor. Similarly, for Motte (German for moth), we are told to imagine that our personal motto is "I like moths". Personally, I don't find it particularly easy to visualize these "images". Now, I mean no criticism of Dr Gruneberg, the difficulty is experienced by anyone trying to find images to express verbal connections; some words just don't lend themselves to being images. But of course, verbal mnemonics are just as memorable as visual mnemonics, and infinitely more flexible. I assume, although he doesn't say it, that Dr Gruneberg means by "image" something more movie-like, with a sound track.

There are also Linkword courses available, in a wider variety of languages, and for some languages, at more advanced levels (this link is for a British site; here's a U.S. site).

Linkword books available from Amazon

List-learning mnemonics

The various list-learning mnemonics - the method of loci, the pegword method, the link method, the story method - can all be adapted to help you learn lists of words. In general, learning lists is not a particularly useful technique for learning a language, however, there are some circumstances in which it can be helpful.

If you do need to remember a list, my own recommendation is the story mnemonic, unless you are already expert at one of the other techniques. The advantage of the story mnemonic is that it is very simple to master.

Here's an example of its use. I'm brushing up my Latin, and like to run through the various conjugations and declensions in my head before going to sleep (it's wonderfully soothing!). To ensure I cover them all, I've devised the following mnemonics:

I love to advise those who rule that sums are fooey. [1st conjugation: amo, I love; 2nd conjugation: moneo, I advise; 3rd conjugation: rego, I rule; irregular verb to be: sum, I am; fui, I have been]

At the table the daughter awaits the master; the son awaits the god in the field where the boys go to war. The king tells the legion his name is a burden. The citizen lies on his couch in the city. [1st to 3rd declensions, with variants]

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