Executive Functions: Mnemonics

Executive Functions can be defined as having the “ability to control and direct one’s learning” (Lerner & Johns, 113).  A person’s memory, language skills and attentiveness all play a role in how a well a person’s executive functions develop and how well they are able to learn new material.  An instructional strategy used to help implore memorization of important details and facts is Mnemonics.  Amiryousefi and Ketabi (2011) state that mnemonics is a “memory enhancing instructional strategy that involves teaching students to link new information taught to information they already know” (179).  Students tend to have a higher success rate of learning if they can make meaningful connections to new material being taught.  Mnemonic devices are a great way to make those connections.

As a thirty-one year old man, I can still remember simple mnemonic devices that were taught to me when I was in grade school, struggling to remember the names of the Great Lakes in order (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior=HOMES), or the notes on a musical staff (Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge and FACE), and the Order of Operations in Math (Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally = Parenthesis, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition and Subtraction).  I have never (or maybe on a very rare occasion) needed those tidbits of information in my adult life, however, if someone would happen to quiz me on what the order of the planets are from the sun, I would only have to remember that “My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.”

The connection one makes is what allows that information to stick in your brain effectively.  The brain only has a short window of time to get information from the short-term memory to the long-term memory files.  The countless, meaningless information that our brain processes on a daily basis can only hold so much in the short-term memory before it either sends relevant information onto the long-term memory files, or simply drops the information by the wayside and is forgotten.  These mnemonic devices can be either visual or verbal in nature, and works best when the device plays to the student or person’s strength.

Mnemonic devices aren’t just tools that students learn in school.  These strategies follow us into the real world, and help us to remember important dates, names and places that we need to recall in certain situations.  Check out a real life example from Michael Scott from the Office and his trick to remember people’s names at the bottom of this post.   While his examples may not be school appropriate; Goll (2004) states that “the imagery you use in your mnemonics can be as violent, vivid or sensual as you like, as long as it helps you remember” (309).  An effective way for some people to remember certain bits of information is by putting information to a tune, or in the form of a picture.  People who have a musical intelligence find a way to use song and music to help them memorize important information, and those with good spatial intelligence might find success in creating a drawing to help remember certain things.

As a Special Educator, I have seen children who struggle with long-term retrieval, but also have difficulty in organizing their own thoughts.  With mnemonic devices, these children will hopefully gain a better understanding of content material that is being presented to them.  On a couple of occasions, I have seen those students write PEMDAS on the top of their math assessment for order of operations.  I have also, personally, tried to find ways to remember certain bits of information that needs memorization.  As an undergrad, I remember struggling with Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs and trying to remember each level.  These sometimes difficult concepts can be made simplier with a simple organization of ideas with mnemonic devices.  I see nothing wrong with writing down a tool, such as a mnemonic, to help a student become more successful in the classroom.

Goll (2004) mentions a website, Mindtools.com, that has great executive function tools to help deal with the organization and management of your life, whether its time and stress management or memory skills.  A link to an article on mnemonic devices is at the end of this blog, but other portions of this site should be explored as well.

While executive functioning can fall into a wide array of different categories, whether it is organization, memory and attention, mnemonic devices can play an important role in organizing ones thoughts and memorization.  Mnemonic devices are life long skills that can be a excellent way to help organize thoughts and remember important details.

Michael Scott Explains His Way of Remembering Names



Amiryousefi, M., & Ketabi, S. (2011). Mnemonic instruction: a way to boost vocabulary learning and recall. Journal of Language Teaching and Research2(1), 178-182.

Goll, P. S. (2004). Mnemonic strategies: creating schemata for learning enhancement. Education125(2), 306-312.

Lerner, J., & Johns, B. (2009). Learning disabilities and related mild disabilities. (11 ed., pp. 113-114). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.

One Response to “Executive Functions: Mnemonics”
  1. theldman says:

    Hey Brian,

    I always get a kick out of “Do I have a teaching disability”. Nice touch of humour.

    I have always been a fan of mnemonics. I think they serve a great purpose and can be highly effective. In one of the parts of your post you stated Amiryousefi and Ketabi (2011) state that mnemonics is a “memory enhancing instructional strategy that involves teaching students to link new information taught to information they already know” (179).  Students tend to have a higher success rate of learning if they can make meaningful connections to new material being taught.  Mnemonic devices are a great way to make those connections.

    While I agree with this, I think it’s important to remember that what students have a tendency to do is link information to their own prior knowledge, not the background knowledge. I for one (yes I can be stubborn) have a hard time giving up or having someone refute my prior knowledge. Similar to myself, many students have an issue with not reverting back to prior knowledge, even if it’s wrong. This is why teaching proper background knowledge is so critical.

    I agree completely that this is a tool that can follow us into the real world. At the moment, my wife is memorizing at 90 minute dialogue for becoming a yoga instructor. To help her remember the order of the 26 varying poses, she created a mnemonic device, similar to as you did with the planets and “My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.” Sounds crazy, but I was browsing the internet for mnemonics and someone has made one for medical students. http://www.medicalmnemonics.com/ I just hope that the doc remembers FM stands for Flexor Medial, not the radio. Yet again, crazier things have happened.

    A piece that I found really interesting and never thought of is that mnemonic devices can be visual or verbal. As a visual person myself, now that I think about, I utilize the visual mnemonics daily, I just don’t call them visual mnemonics. Great post, and I 100% agree that as a special educator as well, they really are a great tool.

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