Monday, May 26, 2008

Learning Strategies

Using Effective Learning Strategies (Mnemonics, Personal Association & Humor) to Assist Student Learning

By Mayra García
EDCI 6304-60 Learning and Cognition
School of Education
University of Texas at Brownsville
Spring 2008

This Paper was presented at the 2nd Conference of Elementary Secondary Teaching & Learning (CESTL) in April, 2008, Brownsville, Texas. Correspondence concerning this article should be directly addressed to Mayra García at

Literature Review

Education in America today is going through many changes. Learning is becoming more and more complicated and challenging as our student population becomes more and more diverse in almost every classroom. Therefore, knowing about different kinds of learning tactics and learning strategies becomes very important for both educators and students in order to produce effective learning in the classroom.

It is important that teachers develop a deep understanding of the different types of learning tactics used to formulate learning strategies which enhance the encoding process in learning. Encoding is the process of remembering useful information. If teachers and students learn how to use learning strategies collectively, this encoding process will become much faster, easier, and stronger. “With some effort and planning, a teacher can make logically organized and relevant lessons” (Snowman & Biehler, 2006, p. 256).

A learning strategy is a plan to achieve a long-term goal. Learning tactics and learning strategies are interrelated with each other. When used correctly, they can help students’ learning in the long run. Teachers can use tactics to help the students build on learning strategies for long-term learning, and help students become more self-directed and self-motivated learners (Snowman & Biehler, 2006). Therefore, it is very important for educators to be trained and educated on different learning strategies as well as how these strategies facilitate students learning.

So far, many learning tactics and strategies have been developed to facilitate student learning (Snowman & Biehler, 2006). This research will specifically investigate three learning tactics: mnemonic devices, personal association, and humor.

Mnemonic Devices

Mnemonic strategies, also known as memory enhancing strategies, facilitate retrieval of knowledge (Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1990). Keyword strategies fall under mnemonic strategies; they are usually easy to remember due to their familiarity and meaningfulness (Fontana, Scruggs, & Mastropieri, 2007). The keyword method, a method derived from mnemonic strategies, helps students create a concrete and similar keyword for the unfamiliar word to be learned (Uberti, Scruggs, & Mastropieri 2003).

In a study conducted by Fontana, Scruggs, and Mastropieri, the comparison between direct instruction and mnemonic devices within a four week period was made based on academic performance. Two high school world history classes consisting of fifty-nine students in total were involved in this study; one class was instructed with direct instruction while the other one was taught with mnemonic devices consisting of keywords. This study found that the class taught with mnemonic devices consisting of keywords performed much better than the class taught with direct instruction.

Mnemonic devices have been used from early childhood to college. They are tactics which help a learner to transform or organize information in a more meaningful way to enhance its retrievability (Snowman & Biehler, 2006). Through mnemonic devices, learners are able to organize unrelated items through meaningful tactics such as keywords, acronyms, and songs. The effect of learning strategies and tactics such as mnemonic devices, humor, and personal association benefit students in their learning process. Goll (1994) states that mnemonic devices facilitate problem solving and analytical tasks. In the study conducted by Goll in 2004, students for whose English was a second language scored significantly higher in the mnemonic condition than students in general education, students with learning disabilities, and first-language English students. Goll’s investigation on mnemonic devices and the process of remembering conclude that these strategies and techniques are beneficial for all students (2004). Unfortunately, many teachers do not teach their students these specific learning strategies.

Personal Association

Personal association is another learning tactic. Personal association occurs when the teacher is able to help the students internalize information and make it relevant to either the teacher's or the students' own life experiences throughout the lesson. Personal association provides emotions and visual images which make the encoding of the new information much faster. “Information that is emotionally charged is usually remembered” (Goll, 2004, p. 3). Meaningful encoding would enhance the student’s ability to recall the knowledge faster when needed.


Humor is the third tactic which can help students learn. According to Snowman and Biehler , humor is an excellent and engaging “all-around technique” (2006, p. 435). Humor is especially useful when students are feeling tense or anxious (Snowman & Biehler, 2006). Although humor has not been researched as a main learning strategy, it should be implemented in all classrooms to enhance the learning process for students and teachers as well.


Research Question

This research intended to address this research question:
How can teachers use the learning strategies such as mnemonics, personal association, and humor to help students learn effectively?

Research Site

The research sites for this study was at two South Texas public schools (one middle school and one elementary school) in a small city located in South Texas. These two schools were selected because of the easy access and also because these school displayed interest in participating in this study. They also provided administrative support for my study.

Participants in this study included five primary school teachers and three secondary school teachers. Three primary and three secondary school teachers were observed for a period of one hour each. Most observed teachers had less than ten years of experience in the classroom. Half of the teacher participants were female, as the other half were male. They were predominantly Hispanic except one Asian. All six class observations (one hour each time) was on science class. The two interviewed teachers both had twenty years of teaching experience at the elementary level.

Research Methods

This study took place over a period of two months from February to March 2008. This research used qualitative research methods by conducting classroom observations of both the teachers and students. During the classroom observations, the researcher paid specific focus on the use of learning strategies including mnemonic devices, personal association, and humor used by both the students and the teacher.


Mnemonic Devices

First of all, I was very surprised to find out that some teachers had low awareness of learning tactics and strategies, and some of them had never heard of mnemonics. For example, when I asked Teacher 1 about using mnemonics, she was not sure what the word meant. After I listed some examples, the teacher was able to relate to the concept right away. Teacher 1 said that since she had been teaching pre-kinder for so long, she was not able to use mnemonics in class because the children were a bit young and they needed more concrete examples to remember information. Teacher 2 had consequently never heard of mnemonic devices as learning strategies. She mentioned that she would like to know more about how to use mnemonic devices. Once mnemonic devices were explained to her, she mentioned that she had used them before but not consecutively or consistently. She stated that she had not heard of any research being done on mnemonic devices, but she would be interested to read literature regarding these types of learning strategies.

However, although some teachers have little knowledge of mnemonic devices, this research revealed that mnemonic devices were considered to better assist students’ learning and was seen as better than using direct instruction by those teachers who did know about them. Mnemonics devices were also observed in these teachers' classrooms. For example, during the second observation, one teacher instructed a class of middle school students to review the scientific concept of cycles during tutorial.

There was one instance of mnemonic devices in this observation. Instruction consisted of using mnemonic devices and peer teaching. Students were instructed to work in pairs and write keywords that described each cycle or stage of each cycle on an index card. Once the keywords were written, students were instructed to write why they felt this was an important keyword and how it helped them remember each phase or cycle. If they were able to find keywords but didn’t know the meaning of it, this was fine because students were working cooperatively. Once students wrote their keywords, students switched partners and were able to discuss the keywords they used to remember each cycle or phases of each cycle.

Later I interviewed this teacher. When I asked her about learning strategies, she became very excited and enthusiastic about the subject. She stated that she had worked at a South Texas School District’s main office for eight years and gave presentations to enforce learning strategies benefiting English Language Learners (ELLs). She stated that since she had once been an English Language Learner (ELL) as an adult, she felt it was her duty to come up with excellent learning strategies for ELLs. She recalled that she would present suggestions for learning strategies to teachers within the district all the time. She was able to invent games for ELLs that facilitated the learning of the English language. She also made Piggy Back songs (songs that carry a familiar tune but have different lyrics) with Spanish and English lyrics. She focused most of her interview responses on English Language Learners and mentioned that learning strategies depended on many variables: gender, age, grade level, type of learner, personal experiences, etc.

The second teacher I interviewed also stated that she really liked using different learning strategies geared towards English Language Learners because she loved seeing the successes and triumphs in their work. She also stated that she loved working with English Language Learners, who have inspired her to pursue her master’s degree in English as a Second Language. The teacher who I observed in Observation 2 also stated that a lot of the times, a second language was very helpful when learning in the different content areas. She stated that since cognates are words that are spelled and mean the same in two languages, it’s easier to comprehend each keyword.

Students also reported that they benefited from using different learning strategies. During one of my observations while discussing the keywords that helped students remember cycles or stages of each cycle, one student mentioned that some words like precipitation and evaporation were easy for her to understand because of the fact that she was an English Language Learner. These words not only served as keywords for her but were easier to understand because they were cognates with other Spanish words.

Personal Association

Personal association was the most prevalent learning strategy used in the observations. Overall, there were nine instances of personal association observed in all classes. These learning strategies seemed to happen simultaneous within the lesson. This proved that personal association technique can be used with all types of lessons and all ages of students.
Teachers in both interviews were observed to have used personal association more than mnemonics or humor in their classroom teaching. According to first teacher who I interviewed, personal association helps students create relevance between their lives and the lesson being presented. Personal association allows individuals to make that association with a personal experience, and internalize the information and make connections much faster. Further interviewing concluded that personal association made the learning process easier, especially when students had background knowledge on the information being presented.

During my observation, I observed that the first interviewed teacher Mr. Reyes used personal association. One day, he started prompting students and making them brainstorm and use personal association by asking if anyone knew the meaning of bicycle. One student meant that the word cycle stood out to him; it meant that it was a reoccurring pattern. Mr. Reyes praised the student and asked if anyone else had any other suggestions. Other eager students raised their hands. One student mentioned that the prefix “bi-“referred to double or the number two. Mr. Reyes praised this student as well and made it clear that both students were right. He reinstated that bicycle dealt with two things that occurred or worked in a repeating pattern. After this, he explained that since a bicycle had two wheels, those two wheels worked in a repeating circular/spinning/ turning pattern to keep the bike going. He told them to always remember bicycles when dealing with Earth’s cycles; the association of the wheels spinning round and round just like Earth’s cycles was made with the students.

Another great example of teacher's using personal association to assist students' learning was during another observation when the teacher was teaching a lesson on the importance of the opposable thumb. This was a class of 17 fourth grade students. The teacher began the lesson by talking to the children with tape around her hands; her thumbs were taped inside her hands. The teacher started asking what was wrong and students immediately commented on her taped hands and how her thumb was hidden. She tried picking up different items but couldn’t due to her taped back thumbs. Students figured out why she couldn’t grab anything; her thumbs were taped back. Once students were able to figure this out, the teacher took the tape off of her hands and reviewed the bone structure of the human hand. The teacher drew a human hand and its bones on the board as students followed along; the bones were labeled as well. She clarified that the thumb is known as an opposable thumb because it can move and help us grasp many things; we can’t live without it.

After this quick review, the teacher told students that they were going to be able to experience what she had experienced. She taped each student’s hand and hid their opposable thumb. At first, she gave them tasks to do such as grabbing a pencil and grabbing paper. Some students were able to succeed but the majority didn’t. They experienced having a hard time with the lack of an opposable thumb. After they finished this experiment, the teacher explained that once again, the opposable thumb is very important.

Once the experiment was over, the teacher ended the lesson by asking the students to make a table on their paper and write five things they could do with an opposable thumb and five things they could not do with an opposable thumb. Some children claimed that if they were missing their opposable thumbs, they would not be able to take a shower to turn the knob or pour shampoo. Some students also stated that they wouldn’t be able to write correctly.
The lesson implemented definitely incorporated personal association and was able to not only activate but create prior knowledge. By having students tape their opposable thumbs back, they were able to personally associate with someone lacking an opposable thumb to their own experiences. They were also able to personally associate and reason why the opposable thumb is so important by experiencing it themselves.


Although research shows that humor can be very good learning tactic to assist students' learning especially when the learning environment is tense (Snowman & Biehler, 2006), to my surprise, I found that it was seldom used in all the classrooms observed. When I asked Teacher 1 about using humor in her lessons, she responded that she had never thought of it as a learning strategy. She stated that she did use humor to engage students into the lesson, but did not think of it as a learning strategy. Another reason that she did not use humor in her class was because she worried that students would lose respect or focus on the concept of the day if she was using humor in class. Teacher 2 also stated that she had never used humor as a learning strategy, but had experienced it with her college professors. She thought it was a good idea to break the ice and make students feel comfortable and at ease. However, like teacher 1, this teacher was also concerned by losing students' respect if using humor in class. She believed that if humor was to be used, students should first ensure full authority and full respect from all students.

During my observation, I did find teacher's using humor could excite the students and engage them more in the learning. One day I observed a class 22 first graders. This was a lesson about plant cultivation The teacher reviewed the process of cultivating a plant by writing the details on the whiteboard. The teacher asked students what happened at the end of the process; students replied by saying that the plant would grow into a flower or a tree. The teacher was excited and confirmed their answers; when confirming their answers, he pulled out a flower from the sleeve of his jacket. Students started laughing and got very excited. After this humorous stunt, students were completely engaged throughout the activity and were focused as well.

Other Learning Strategies

Although this research only focused on the three learning tactics, I did also observed other learning tactics and strategies used by the teachers through their own creativity: strategies and techniques which I had not thought of before. During the six one-hour observations that were used for this study, half of the teachers used creativity in their lessons to cognitively engage their students. One third of teachers used games or gaming models to add to their daily lessons; this would be another considerable way of engaging students’ attention and instilling a sense of motivation throughout their lessons. Also, when teachers were being interviewed about the three learning strategies, they mentioned other learning strategies they were familiar with, such as using flashcards and songs. They stated that their main focus with strategies relied on the strengths and weaknesses of English Language Learners (ELLs).


The research findings showed that many teachers are still not very aware of the types and effect of different types of learning tactics and strategies. Many of them do not know about mnemonic devices or how they should be employed or used to assist students' learning. It would be essential to help teachers learn about these types of strategies through professional development.

However, for those teachers who did use or show instances of using learning tactics and strategies such as personal association, students seemed to be much more engaged in learning. This research also showed that although some teachers were not familiar with the learning tactics and strategies terminology, some of them did use certain strategies without knowing it. Many teachers claimed that it came natural to them and occurs instinctually and spontaneously throughout the lesson. Lastly, humor was not seen by most teachers as a legitimate strategy to use in the classroom, and the main concern was it conflicted with the notion that a teacher should be the authority figure in class.


According to the findings of my research, I strongly encourage all educators employ mnemonics, personal association, and humor in their daily class instructions. It is imperative to help students conceptualize basic and complex subjects throughout the curriculum. What better way to help students understand than by using mnemonics, personal association, and humor? Mnemonics, personal association, and humor help students internalize information and feel more at ease when learning in the classroom. By learning at ease and using strategies that help students understand information, students are able to retain information for longer periods of time, therefore storing information in their long term memories.

The information collected from this qualitative research will help me greatly when I become a teacher myself and have a classroom of my own. I will try to employ as many learning strategies as I can without bombarding the students with information. I will also try to have my students cognitively engaged by exercising these strategies and techniques in my class.

Future Research

Future research regarding three strategies (mnemonics, humor, and personal association) would include the investigation of age, gender and subject appropriateness for each strategy used. It would be interesting to find out what strategies worked best with females or males, primary or secondary grades, and at specific ages as well. Also, since most teachers seemed to have concerns about using humor in their class, it would be enlightening to conduct a research based on humor as the main strategy or one of the main strategies of instruction.


Goll, P., (2004). Mnemonic strategies: creating schemata for learning enhancement. 125, 305- 312. [Retrieved March 28, 2008 from Academic Search Complete database.]
Fontana, J., Scruggs, T., & Mastropieri, M. (2007). Mnemonic strategy Instruction in inclusive secondary social studies classes. 28, 345-355.[Retrieved March 28, 2008 from Academic Search Complete database.]

Snowman, J., & Beihler, R. (2006). Psychology applied to teaching. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin. -

Uberti, H., Scruggs, T., & Mastropieri, M. (2003). Keywords make the difference!. Teaching Exceptional Children. 35, 1-6. [Retrieved March 28, 2008 from Academic Search Complete database.]

To read other articles of this week:

Peer Relationships & Learning by Blanca Nuez

Adolescents motivation by Analicia K. Springer

Help China EarthQuake!

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