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Memorizing vocabulary easily and effectively

By Tanveen Rai, 4th-year Bio/Psychology student

When is memorization beneficial?

As students we have all been told time and time again to stay on top of material and gradually gain an understanding of course material. One of the first steps involved in learning new material is getting to know the terminology, and this is initially done through memorization.

When I say memorization, I am not necessarily talking about rote memorization where your spit out information in a robotic manner. This can actually be very time consuming and difficult to do. Instead it is beneficial to make word associations.

The most obvious example of when memorization is essential is in a language class where students have to be able to translate words and correctly conjugate verbs. However, memorization is also helpful in almost any other course such as biology, psychology, geology and the list goes on.

For example…

In an introductory anatomy class I took this semester, we had to be able to name the bones that make up the axial and appendicular skeletons. I’m going to be using this example throughout the article in order to illustrate how to most effectively memorize.

Here is a list of some of the bones that make up the axial and appendicular skeletons:

  • Humerus
  • Femur
  • Shoulder girdle
  • Radius
  • Fibula
  • Patella
  • Bones of skull
  • Ulna
  • Tibia
  • Ribs

Effective memory strategies

1. Chunking

The easiest way to remember the bones listed is by chunking. Chunking involves breaking this relatively large list into smaller groups.

For instance, the bones can be divided into bones that belong to the axial skeleton versus those that belong in the appendicular skeleton:

Axial skeleton:

  • Bones of the skull
  • Ribs

Appendicular skeleton:

  • Humerus
  • Femur
  • Shoulder girdle
  • Radius
  • Fibula
  • Patella
  • Ulna
  • Tibia

The appendicular skeleton section can then be further subdivided by grouping bones that make up the arm versus bones that make up the leg. By making associations between the different bones, it will become easier to remember what goes where.

  • Bones of arm: humerus, radius, ulna
  • Bones of leg: femur, fibula, patella, tibia

Consider visually representing these categories using a mind map or other graphic organizer to help your memorization even more.

2. Repetition

One strategy that works really well for me is to rewrite words over and over. This can be especially useful for a language class where by writing the vocabulary out you also learn how to spell the word at the same time.

Another strategy I use when have to label diagrams is to repeatedly label them and to also recite the terms out loud.

The key is to repeat, drill and review, ideally spreading out these review sessions over several days (rather than trying to do it all at once). The more you review the easier you will be able to recall information.

3. Flashcards

Another question that can be asked in relation to the anatomy example is to describe the function of each bone. Using flashcards to quiz yourself is a great method to quickly learn definitions of words or as in this case the function of a particular structure.

For example, on one side of my flashcard, I would write the keyword “Femur.” On the reverse, I would write the details: “bone in thigh; very strong; enables movement of lower extremities.”

Flashcards also go hand in hand with the first and second strategies. You can separate the flashcards and organize them into separate groups to more easily remember them. Having a set of flashcards also means that you can train yourself over and over again and can do so pretty much anywhere — even in line while waiting for your coffee!

For more information, see our online resource on Memory Strategies.

Photo courtesy of Neil Conway under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.