Acronyms: Weird Word, Excellent Mnemonic!

There are a lot of different memory techniques that you can use to learn material for class. The one I’m going to talk about today is called an acronym. This is a word that you make by taking the first letter or first few letters of each word you’re trying to remember and then using these to spell a new word. We actually use these all the time; the word SCUBA stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Another acronym is NABISCO, which stands for NAtional BIscuit COmpany. Here’s an acronym you might already know, which, unlike the last two, is meant as a memory aid rather than only creating a shorter word: ROY G. BIV, which stands for the colors of the visible spectrum (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet). If you already use this acronym to remember these colors, you can see that acronyms can be very handy.

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Acronyms are easy to use; let’s look at an example of how it’s done. Let’s say you had to learn the names of the Great Lakes for a Geography class. The names of these lakes are Ontario, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. To make an acronym, write down the first letter of each word and move the letters around until you spell something. Here, that would be HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior). Now take your time and think about the word HOMES and the names of the Great Lakes that begin with each of its five letters. After a few rehearsals you’ll know the Great Lakes perfectly.

Another example: the three Axis powers of the Second World War were Germany, Japan, and Italy. Can you think of an acronym to remember them? I’m thinking that you came up with JIG. I’m also thinking that you will have no problem remembering this word, and that once you think of this word, you’ll have no problem remembering the Axis powers.

As you come up with acronyms, keep these things in mind.

1) Try to spell a real word. Some students have told me that they use made-up words, but I think this makes things needlessly hard.
2) It’s best if one of the words you need to learn starts with a vowel, or else you’ll have trouble spelling any word you can reasonably pronounce. You can get around this, though, even if it might make the acronym slightly more difficult to remember. If I had to memorize three large cities for some–New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles–I could add a vowel to make the semi-acronym CLaN. I would actively imagine the consonants as uppercase and the extra vowel as lowercase to remind me that only the uppercase letters stood for anything.

Acronyms can really help you come exam time. In later posts I’ll talk about different memory aids.

Consider a Study Group

Getting all your studying done can be a real drag, but one way to make it easier is to join a study group. Here are some reasons why you might want to consider studying with others at least some of the time.

1) A study group can test you on the material. You can test yourself, but maybe you’ll be tempted to get a bit lazy about this—moving to the next item when you feel sure you know something. It’s easier for someone else, like a classmate in a study group, to be tough and make sure you have the right answer before moving on.

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2) Most students don’t have a very regimented study schedule, only studying when they feel they have the time, and therefore missing or avoiding studying. When you’re in a study group, your schedule is strictly determined. If the group meets on Tuesday and Thursday at 9 PM, then that’s when you are going to study; you can’t keep rescheduling your study time and get off track.

3) A less obvious benefit of a study group is that you can compare your notes with those of other members of the group to make sure your notes are complete. During class, it’s easy to miss important material that might be on the exam because you were thinking about something else. In your study group, it’s unlikely that everyone missed the same part of the lecture.

4) You can discuss the class material with those who think differently from you and who each bring unique strengths to the group. Your classmates may understand certain things better than you, and be able to explain them to you. This will make your study session go faster.

5) In a study group, you will have to clearly explain things so that everyone in the group can follow. Because others depend on your ability to explain things, this will push you to thoroughly learn the material.

6) A study group can help build friendships. I always preach that college is a time to grow intellectually, but also a time to grow personally. You can get to know others as you learn material and hopefully become good friends with them—and the friendships you make in college can last a lifetime.

In closing: I understand that some of you only want to study by yourselves. Please consider what I have said, and think carefully about your decision. For some of you, studying with others can really pay off.

Study Tips: Making Things Meaningful

Now you’re likely aware that when you’re in college, studying for exams is a way of life. This doesn’t have to be as much of a bummer as it seems, because you can make your studying easier and more efficient with some powerful lab-tested techniques.

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One of these techniques is to make things meaningful when you study. It’ll make information much easier to remember. I’ve discussed this before, in an earlier post about the difference between maintenance and elaborative rehearsal. Here are some mnemonics, or memory aids, to help you do this.

1) Put the information you need to remember into categories. This is called “chunking.” Let’s say I told you to remember the following letters: FBICIANYCNFL. You could try to remember each letter by itself, but it would be more efficient to group the letters into units that already have meaning: FBI, CIA, NYC, and NFL. This means that you only have to remember 4 things rather than 12.

2) Take material you already know and associate it with information you want to remember. For example, in order to remember the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite, you could remember that a “stalactite,” which grows from the ceiling, has the letter “c” in it, which stands for “ceiling”. A “stalagmite,” which grows from the ground, contains the letter “g.”

3) Use rhymes. We’ve all heard the alphabet song, rhyming grammar rules (“i before e except after c”), and rhyming history facts (“in fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”). Make up some rhymes of your own. There are even websites that use rhymes to help medical students remember anatomical vocabulary.

4) Make an acronym by spelling a new word from the first letter of each one of the words you’re trying to remember. You may have used an acronym to learn the colors of the visible spectrum (ROY G. BIV) or the names of the five Great Lakes (HOMES). It’s easier to remember one word or a short expression than a lot of words.

Don’t stop here, though. If you need to, come up with other ways to make information meaningful. Good luck with your studying!