Study Less, Study Smart – Tip 7: Use Mnemonics

A: How do you say “socks” in Japanese again? I keep repeating the word over and over, but I still can’t seem to remember. Why is my memory so bad?

B: Actually, there is probably nothing wrong with your memory, other than the fact that you’re getting old. You probably need a better strategy. Have you tried mnemonics?

A: Mnemonics? What on earth is that?

B: Let me tell you!

This is Dr. Lobdell’s seventh and final tip in his lecture on how to “Study Less, Study Smart.” His previous tips include chunking your study time, creating a designated study space, practicing active learning, revising your lecture notes, teaching what you learn, and using the SQ4R method of reading. Make sure you go over all 7 tips!

Lobdell’s last tip is to use mnemonics when you study facts, but not for concepts. As you’ve learned earlier, concepts are easy to remember once you’ve learned them, so you don’t need any special tools. Facts, on the other hand, are really easy to forget. What if you want to just remember simple words? When studying vocabulary in a second or foreign language, a lot of learners just try to repeat the word over and over again, or write it over and over again. This is called rote memorization, and it rarely works, especially for adult learners. It’s also a really boring way to study.

A better way to learn facts, such as vocabulary, is to use mnemonics. A mnemonic is basically any system that helps you recall larger pieces of information. There are many types, but Dr. Lobdell describes three in his lecture. These three are acronyms, coined sayings, and image association.


An acronym uses the first letters in a series of words to create a new word. For example, NASA stands for National Aeronautics (and) Space Administration. SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. When my students are creating personal goals for studying English, I tell them to use SMART goals. These are goals that are specific, measurable, achievable or attainable, realistic (no! relevant!), and time-bound (time-based). A common acronym for English grammar is FANBOYS, which is used for connectors. Do you know it? FANFOYS stands for for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.

You can also use initialisms to help you remember. Initialisms are the same as acronyms expect they don’t really form a new word; they must be spelled out instead. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is FBI. DYI (no! DIY!) means do it yourself. HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Deficiency Syndrome (no! virus!). Frequently Asked Questions can either be an initialism or an acronym: FAQ or F-A-Q.

You can use these shortened words in reverse order, too. For example, native English speaking children who learn music are very familiar with the sentence, “Every Good Boy Deserves Fun.” E,G,B,D, and F stand for the notes on the lines of the treble clef. Clearly, one way to remember difficult or long phrases is to use acronyms or initialisms.

Coined Sayings

Dr. Lobdell’s second mnemonic device (or tool) is to use a coined saying to help you remember. “I before E, except after C, or when sounding like A, as in ‘neighbour’ or ‘weigh’.” This is effective to help you remember because the words a rhyme. For non-native English speakers, however, it’s probably not used as much as other types of mnemonic devices.

Image Association

Lobdell’s third mnemonic, image association, is probably the most powerful. Image association means creating a ridiculous (or crazy or silly) picture or story in your mind. Interestingly, the stranger the story or picture or image is, the more easily you’ll be able to recall that piece of information.

I can think of some examples from my experience studying Japanese to help illustrate this. First of all, is the word kutsushita. Kutsushita means socks in English, and I already knew the word kutsu which means shoes, and shita which means under. So, I just have this image in my mind of shoes stamping on top (or stepping on top) of socks, and I could easily remember the word.

Another example from learning kanji is the word for dog. So, without the little flick on the end, this kanji means big, and I think of a man who’s standing wide open (to remember the character). And then the little flick on the end looks like a tail, so I just think of a big dog. And there you go – I’ve remembered the word! (I) didn’t have to work very hard.

Using mnemonics is a great way to remember facts or simple vocabulary. An important thing to remember about mnemonics – whether you use an acronyms, or coined saying, or image associations, or some other system – is that the ones that are the most effective are the ones that your create yourself. Use your imagination!

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