Picture Mnemonics Can Improve Student Learning

As humankind seeks new knowledge we also find new and better ways to educate ourselves. The art of educating is constantly evolving and improving over time. Some of the most innovative approaches to education in the last few decades have been enabled by technology.

The concept of learning through pictures dates back to the days humans first roamed the earth. The science behind the use of pictures to memorize facts was brought to light over many centuries. And now educators turn to picture-mnemonic-based technology tools to help engage students and improve learning outcomes.

In this article we will explain the science behind picture mnemonics and the research that has proven their effectiveness.

What are Visual Mnemonics?

The popular saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is based on science. Simply put, a complex idea can be expressed better with a single image than a block of text, and a fact associated with a wacky image will be remembered longer, too. These “symbols” can in turn help trigger memories of facts and hard-to-remember information, improving learning and performance.

Visual Mnemonics

The Science of Memory

Since early Roman times, people have been fascinated by the science of memory, developing techniques to improve memory function (encoding), enhance retrieval and reduce forgetting. The Greek orators actively used the Method of Loci, using mnemonics to memorize a list. In recent centuries, philosophers, biologists, and psychologists have researched and documented memory phenomenon such as Picture Superiority effect, Dual-coding theory and Von Restorff effect. Hermann Ebbinghaus charted the rate at which information is forgotten over time (known as the forgetting curve), which led to the discovery of “the spacing effect”.

All of this research has led to the development of techniques that improve one’s ability to learn and retain knowledge. In turn, better knowledge retention can lead to improved conceptual understanding and increase the likelihood that what is learned can be effectively applied to solving real-life problems and scenarios.

1 https://www.britannica.com/science/memory-psychology/Long-term-memory#ref985315

How Memories are Formed

Memory formation is a three-part process. Memories are encoded, stored, and then retrieved.

Step 1: Encoding

It all starts with the senses, where external stimuli (visual, acoustic, tactile and semantic) are converted into electrical signals that are sent to the brain for processing. Based on how information is presented has a major impact on where and how well it is encoded in the brain. A few memory phenomena come into play that can be leveraged to encode more durable memories.

Dual Coding Theory

Verbal and nonverbal information is processed through different channels in our brain, and provide separate representations for information. For example, seeing a picture of a circle is processed in a different neural pathway than hearing the word “circle.” To form a strong memory Dual Coding Theory says that both channels should be used concurrently when encoding information (look at a circle and hear the word “circle” at the same time).

Picture Superiority Effect

Picture superiority effect basically states that images are remembered better than text alone. Therefore visual cues can facilitate recall of facts and information.

Von Restorff Effect

The isolation effect explains that weird, odd or unique things tend to stand out and are remembered better. The more something stands out, even if it’s unfamiliar or nonsensical, the easier it will be to remember it.

2 Clark, J. M. & Paivio, A. (1991). Dual coding theory and education. Educational Psychology Review, 3(3), 149-170.
3Levin & Levin https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3102/00028312027002301
4 Hunt, R. Reed (1995). “The subtlety of distinctiveness: What von Restorff really did” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24203592

Humor Effect

When emotions run high experiences are more likely to be remembered. Facts are remembered better when they are funny, rather than mundane, because laughter evokes emotion that improves memory.

Baker-Baker Paradox

If one is introduced to John “the Baker,” the brain can weave associations between what is already known (a “baker”, perhaps in a white baker’s hat baking bread) and what is unknown (his name is “John”). This enables one to remember a name better because of the visual representation.

Step 2

Memory RecallOnce new information is encoded, storage is the next step in the memory formation process. Visual picture mnemonics are tools to help encode, store and recall information more easily.

A very basic form of a mnemonic, and usually the most common, is an acronym which takes the first letter of every word in a list and creates a new word. A few examples are ROYGBIV for the colors of the rainbow or FACE and EGBDF for notes on the treble clef in music.

However, with some acronyms, it’s hard to remember what each letter stands for. Using the Baker-Baker Paradox, a phonetic representation and a visual character can be developed to accompany the acronym, because the more associations that are attached to something, the higher likelihood a fact will be remembered and recalled.

Adding an interaction with another visual character forms more associations that lead to stronger memories. This is also known as the “linking” or “story” method.

5 Badli, Tunku & Dzulkifli, Mariam. (2013). The Effect of Humour and Mood on Memory Recall. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. 97. 252-257. 10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.10.230.
6 James, L. E. (2004). Meeting Mr. Farmer Versus Meeting a Farmer: Specific Effects of Aging on Learning Proper Names. Psychology and Aging, 19(3), 515–522. https://doi.org/10.1037/0882-7974.19.3.515
7 https://artofmemory.com/wiki/How_to_Link_Mnemonic_Images

Example: “Cabbage” represents CABG (Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting)

Step 3

Retrieval is the final step that will ensure one can always recall memories when we need them, even in a stressful situation such as taking an exam.

A huge misconception is that rereading a textbook, reviewing study guides and notes over and over will get information to stick. Just memorizing the visual text creates an illusion of mastery; repetition is an ineffective tool in mastering a complex subject at an advanced level, information is only being re-encoded over and over again, not learned for the long term.

Instead, practicing “active recall” of recently learned information will stimulate the memory process and strengthen memories, making it easier to recall information in the future. Flashcards, simple quizzes or having a friend ask questions out loud are easy ways to practice active recall.

Validation for Visual Picture Mnemonics

Medical students Ron Robertson and Adeel Yang leveraged the scientific research behind image mnemonics and created a tool for medical, nursing and other students in the healthcare professions to memorize hard-to-remember facts required to pass class and board exams and excel in school. They took thousands of topics and created wacky characters tied together with humorous stories and audio – and put it online to create the ultimate interactive studying system for retention and recall.

In a randomized, subject-blinded, controlled study the Picmonic Visual Learning System was compared to text-based material and found that students using Picmonic picture mnemonics improved retention of facts by 331% over a one month period, using a paired matching method of recall. Using free recall, students showed 200% improvement.

8Peter Brown, “Make It Stick”, Belknap Press.
9Picmonic Learning System

With either method of retrieval, students using Picmonic’s visual picture mnemonics outperformed the control group.

Another way of looking at the data is by observing how much Picmonic lessened the forgetting curve. Using paired matching method of recall, even if students in the control and test group had recalled the same number of facts during session 1, students who used Picmonic remembered greater than double the number of facts than the control group at the end of the 1 month period.

Using free recall, students who used Picmonic recalled nearly double the number of facts than the control group.

Adv. Med. Educ. Pract. 2014 May 8; 5: 125-32 doi: 10.2147/AMEP.S61875. eCollection 2014

Educators Report Better Student Outcomes

To date, Picmonic’s visual picture mnemonics have helped over 750,000 students become healthcare professionals by successfully supporting their journey through classes and exams. Educators also feel Picmonic helps students, and are using Picmonic to increase student engagement.

“The students that are using Picmonic really love it and have seen a (positive) change in their grades and some increase in test scores. We have also seen an increase in class participation.” – Amber M. Scott, MSN, RN, Nursing Faculty, Montgomery Community College

Picmonic takes challenging content and not only makes it understandable and memorable, for a wide variety of students (especially those who are visual, or whose first language is not English), but it also helps students build the connections that will lead to better analysis and critical thinking which is essential to becoming a successful healthcare professional. Picmonic not only reinforces critical thinking, but conveys valuable content using a fun, interactive format that today’s gamer-culture-immersed students just get.” – Tonya Taylor, RN, MSN, MBA, COS-C Director of Nursing & Associate Professor at Northeast Texas Community College

“My tutoring students rave about Picmonic, saying, “Everything on the exam I reviewed with Picmonic I got right.” They express less stress while studying, more confidence in knowledge, and longer recall of information studied. I would absolutely recommend Picmonic to students, especially visual learners.” – Julia Young, Delaware Technical Community College

For more comments from educators, visit our channel on Youtube.

For an overview of Picmonic that you can share with your colleagues, download our Overview Guide to Picmonic.

For more information about Picmonic, to receive free educator access or to book a free memory seminar and demo for students or faculty, contact educators@picmonic.com.

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