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.


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.

Tips for Taking Multiple-Choice Exams: Exam Day

When the day of a multiple-choice exam arrives, there are some very helpful test-taking strategies you should keep in mind:

1) When you first receive the exam, give it a quick look over and make sure to read the instructions. As I said in my last post, you will hopefully already know how many questions will be on the exam so you won’t have to take any time figuring out how much time you should spend on each question.

2) Answer all the easier questions first. This lets you spend more time on the harder questions. If a question is hard, skip it for now, and make a mark on your exam to remind you that you need to come back to the question after you finish all the easy questions. If you do this and are using a Scantron or other kind of bubble sheet, make sure not to mark in any of the bubbles for skipped questions.

Hand completing a multiple choice exam.

3) If you can, try to think of the answer to a question immediately after reading it, before reading any of the possible answers. Then, look at the answers and see which one matches. This makes alternatives like “all of the above”, “a and b” or “none of the above” easier to answer. For example, if none of the answers you generated match the choices given, except for “none of the above,” then you know which one to pick.

4) You can make educated guesses based on the following: (a) answers with absolute words (e.g., “all”, “never”) are usually incorrect; (b) answers with qualifiers (e.g., “some”, “generally”) are usually correct; (c) correct answers sometimes repeat some of the terms in the question; (d) partly true and partly false answers are incorrect; (e) if two answers are opposites, only one is likely correct; (f) answers with unfamiliar terms tend to be incorrect; (g) if two answers mean about the same thing and there is only one choice, both are probably incorrect; and (h) just because an answer sounds correct, it doesn’t mean it is correct (e.g., “operatic” is not the same as “operational”).

5) Review the exam. Research pretty conclusively shows that changing answers leads to correct responses. So don’t immediately rush out once you complete the exam. You have time left, so use it to check your answers.

6) Don’t try to guess what the instructor had in mind when he or she made up the exam. Just because an “a” answer hasn’t appeared for a while, this doesn’t mean that one is about to appear. Overthinking in this way leads to errors. Your time is better spent just answering the questions.

Good luck on those multiple-choice exams!

Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.

Image credit by Alberto G. on Flicker.  CC by 2.0.

Tips for Taking Multiple-Choice Exams

By now, most of you have already taken a multiple-choice exam. If you haven’t yet, then you will soon. These exams are the preferred method of testing in many college classes, especially large survey courses. These exams are easy to grade, and professors can ask questions about a lot of material. Despite how often these exams are given, multiple-choice exams aren’t often well liked. Selecting one right answer from among many wrong ones can be pretty hard. There might be more than one right answer, “all of the above” answers and even the dreaded “none of the above.” In spite of this, you should understand that multiple-choice exams generally involve recognition (identifying an item you’ve already seen), which is often easier than recall (generating an item from memory).


The topic of multiple-choice exams is quite large, so I’m going to break it up into more than one post. In this one, I’ll talk about how to prepare for multiple-choice exams. There are three main points to make with regard to preparation:

1) Study, Study, Study! It’s critical to study hard, because multiple-choice exams are all about memorizing details—definitions, dates, formulas, and so on. In addition, do not cram for these exams because there is typically so much information you need to learn. Also, as I’ve said before, a great way to study details is to use flashcards because this study method is specifically designed to get you remembering a lot of specific information. Finally, keep in mind when you study that multiple-choice exams are typically going to test your ability to recognize information but may also test your ability to apply the information you learned to different situations.

2) Learn specifics about each multiple-choice exam you are taking. Talk to the Instructor and be sure you’re clear on how many questions are on the exam and how much time you have to take it. Then use this information to calculate how long you can spend on every question, while still leaving at least five minutes at the end to check your answers.

3) See if you can get old exams so you can review them. Even if your instructor doesn’t have old exams, maybe they tell you something about the questions and answers. Are the questions long or short? Does each answers always involve one specific choice that is present in the choice of answers, or are there going to be other choices, like “a and b” or “none of the above?” The more you know about the exam, the better prepared you will be.

Preparation is important, but of course taking the exam has its own issues. I will discuss tips to taking multiple-choice exams in another post.

Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.