Home > Education, Memory > And the Goose Ran Away With the Worm: Keyword Mnemonic as a Study Strategy

And the Goose Ran Away With the Worm: Keyword Mnemonic as a Study Strategy

There exists a myriad of study strategies available for students to use in their academic endeavors.  One of the more imaginative strategies is keyword mnemonic. In this strategy students connect the material with another keyword to better remember information. This is most commonly used for foreign language vocabulary. For example, the Spanish word for worm is gusano and a possible keyword for remembering this is “goose”. The student then would create interactive imagery between the vocabulary word and the keyword, such as imagining a goose running away with a giant worm in its beak.  This interactive image should help distinguish the vocab word from other possible objects in the image, hence why the worm is “giant.” It is presumed that by creating a vivid memorable image in the student’s mind, that when presented with the Spanish word gusano he/she will recall the scene and easily know the Spanish word’s meaning.  Other material keyword mnemonic has been found useful for includes obscure English and science vocabulary, states and their capitals, medical terminology, and people’s names and accomplishments.

The idea of keyword mnemonic sounds promising, how could you forget such ridiculous images? The strategy has benefited students of many different ages and abilities. In a study of fifth graders using the technique to learn Spanish vocabulary students who used the technique preformed substantially better on tests of the vocab than did control groups asked to use their own study strategies (Levin, Pressley, McCormick, Miller, and Shriberg, 1979). Students with learning disabilities have shown benefits from the technique as well. When used in studies where the same group of students is tested for immediate recall and then a delayed recall the group using the technique showed improved performance over control groups.  These results would suggest keyword mnemonic is an effective study technique, but there is another side to the story.

The keyword mnemonic strategy has its limitations. Although the previously mentioned study including delayed recall would suggest that the technique would be effective for durable retention of information, a flaw in the experimental methods just made this seem to be the case. That study used the same students in the immediate and delayed recall conditions, the retrieval practice they received from the earlier immediate test (not the keyword mnemonic strategy) most likely helped them recall information in the later delay test.  A separate study (Wang et al., 1992) using different groups of students for the immediate and delayed recall showed improvement only in the immediate recall group when using keyword mnemonic, the delayed recall keyword mnemonic group actually preformed worst than the control group using rote repetition as a study technique. Many studies of the keyword mnemonic technique also use keywords provided by the experimenter, it may be more difficult for students (especially young students) to come up with their own keywords to use. Teachers or textbook designers could create keywords for students, though this could take more time and effort than the technique’s utility is worth. In studies of high school and college students the technique did not result in improved performance like it did with fifth graders. The material being learned must be somewhat keyword friendly in order for the technique to be useful as well. It may not be usable on more complex subjects (Dunlosky et al., 2013).

Overall, the flaws in this technique seem to outweigh the benefits in most classroom settings. Other more effective strategies are known for study and therefore are more commonly used in the classroom and by students.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

Levin, J. R., Pressley, M., McCormick, C. B., Miller, G. E., & Shriberg, L. K. (1979). Assessing the classroom potential of the keyword method. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71(5), 583-594.

Wang, A. Y., Thomas, M. H., & Ouellette, J. A. (1992). Keyword mnemonic and retention of second-language vocabulary words. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, 520-528

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  1. December 2nd, 2013 at 16:56 | #1

    Although the results of this study do not seem to be able to be practically applied, I think that this technique may be able to be combined with other effective study strategies that could help to improve the keyword mnemonic technique. For example, in class, we learned that retrieval practice is an effective technique for correct recall for both immediate and delayed recall (Karpicke, 2012). Therefore, combining the keyword mnemonic strategy with retrieval practice may improve recall. For example, repeatedly using keyword mnemonics to recall the learned information may be a helpful addition to practiced retrieval for better recall. Better yet, if this strategy is used in a spaced study format, the recall could be even better (Carpenter et al., 2012)!

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