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We hope everyone is having a great holiday season so far

This week’s topic came from a recent email regarding learning novel words, which I found incredibly interesting in the context of adult learning. When we enter a new field, we are often subjected to learning a list of new “vocabulary words.” *Cue the flashbacks to writing sentences with vocabulary words while in grade school.*

To honor the tradition, our articles this week address the following:

  • How can we improve learning lists of words?
  • What is the best way to present an acronym for memorization?

New Information, Old Tricks

A recent article in PLoS ONE, which is a personal favorite, assesses word learning within the medical field (Reser et al., 2021). In this study, learners were provided with a list of 20 butterfly names to memorize in a 10 minute span. While it might seem odd to have butterfly names rather than medical terminology since the learners were all being trained for the medical field, they were used so that participants did not feel they would be disadvantaged in their training based on group assignment (Reser et al., 2021). The researchers included 3 groups: one that used an Australian Aboriginal memory technique, one that used a memory palace, and another without a memory technique.

The Australian Aboriginal technique was taught by an Australian Aboriginal educator. Learners were instructed to construct a narrative around the word list incorporating nature. In this instance, the instructor led them through a narrative where learners walked “around a rock garden located on campus which contained multiple rocks, plants and concrete slabs arranged in the shape of a large, stylized footprint.” The list of butterfly names were incorporated throughout the garden (Reser et al., 2021). For the memory palace method, learners were instructed to “visualize a familiar room and setting,” then to associate butterfly names from the list with objects in the "palace" (Reser et al., 2021).

Both training methods resulted in a high level of recall among the medical learners compared to the no-training group. When we dive into the comparison between the two training methods, we see that the learners trained in the Australian Aboriginal technique showed significantly fewer errors for sequence recall. Those in the memory palace technique group illustrated less “near miss” errors. The overall improvement, in the graph below, was largest for the Australian Aboriginal method (Reser et al., 2021).

Lastly, learners reported the Australian Aboriginal methods to be “meaningful, interesting, and fun” (Reser et al., 2021).. Considering the success and learner enthusiasm, this memory technique shows great promise!

Key Takeaway: Using mnemonic devices is beneficial for learning, particularly when memorizing lists of new words is necessary. If possible, provide learners with a method and narrative to facilitate improved learning.

       *If you are interested in ancient memory methods, check out Lynne Kelly’s TED Talk!

Read More (Open Access): Reser, D., Simmons, M., Johns, E., Ghaly, A., Quayle, M., Dordevic, A. L., Tare, M., McArdle, A., Willems, J., & Yunkaporta, T. (2021). Australian Aboriginal techniques for memorization: Translation into a medical and allied health education setting. PLOS ONE, 16(5).

Integrate This Technique ASAP

Our second article builds on memorization by looking at a sequential task. Radović and Manzey (2019) evaluated the use of a mnemonic acronym for a procedural task. To maintain objectivity in regards to experience, they employed a sequence of tasks that resulted in a binary - at each step there were two options for progression (Radović & Manzey, 2019). The events took place within a computer program, in which visual stimuli were shown and the learners then had to type a response to said stimuli. The researchers taught the acronym “WORTKLAU” for the procedure (see below). This study was conducted with German learners, the acronym consists of two words: WORT & KLAU, which the authors point out correspond to the English words “work and theft” (Radović & Manzey, 2019).

(Radović & Manzey, 2019)

Further, they also implemented interruptions, to mimic everyday life or professional settings! I thought this was an especially interesting component, which makes the findings more generalizable. During the interruptions, learners had to engage in a working memory math task (Radović & Manzey, 2019). So, did the acronym help?

Those in the acronym group learned the procedure significantly quicker than the non-acronym group. However, error rates and completion times showed no difference between groups (Radović & Manzey, 2019).

The researchers also conducted a follow-up study to evaluate the semantic structure of the acronym. To make the word boundaries more salient and improve mental representation, a hyphen was placed between the words.
TLDR; they changed the acronym from “WORTKLAU” to “WORT-KLAU” (Radović & Manzey, 2019).

Similar to the first experiment, the acronym group learned the sequence quicker than the non-acronym group. Importantly, the resumption time from the interruptions was significantly reduced in this version, meaning learners were more resilient (Radović & Manzey, 2019).

The results provide evidence that mnemonic systems are beneficial for learning a novel procedure. Structure of the mnemonic should be quite salient, to aid in mental representation. Lastly, utilizing a mnemonic acronym to aid in this process can help to improve resilience from interruptions - a finding that has important implications for a busy work environment (Radović & Manzey, 2019).

Key Takeaway: When teaching or learning a new procedure, try to utilize a mnemonic with easy to identify words. This method is particularly effective to improve resilience from interruptions.

Read More (Open Access): Radović, T., & Manzey, D. (2019). The Impact of a Mnemonic Acronym on Learning and Performing a Procedural Task and Its Resilience Toward Interruptions. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.

Pets of Learning Science Weekly

Our star this week comes in the form of a generous rescue pup! Here you'll find a photo of Wally engaging in "outdoor learning", likely after a long day of work since he kindly lets his human "use his office for working from home and remote learning during COVID."

Thanks for sharing him with us, Fred 🍃

Send us your pet pics at

Wondering why we’re including animal photos in a learning science newsletter? It may seem weird, we admit. But we’re banking on the baby schema effect and the “power of Kawaii.” So, send us your cute pet pics -- you’re helping us all learn better!

The LSW Crew

Learning Science Weekly is written and edited by Kaitlyn Erhardt, Ph.D.

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