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Get across your studies with these memory aids: acronyms and acrostics

The world would be a far different place without acronyms. Our text messages would be clunky and long, we’d be referring to lasers as Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, and you’d be calling your bae, Before Anyone Else… doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it?

Since becoming popular during WWII, acronyms have slipped into the English vocabulary – some of them becoming so engrained they’re just words now. Hands up, who actually knew scuba was an acronym for ‘self-contained underwater breathing apparatus’?

Acronyms are a powerful tool for recalling information which makes them a fantastic memory aid. The acrostic is another tool in the same vein as acronyms, but their use dates as far back as Ancient Greece. The use of acrostic devices is now an imperative part of the English language, especially when it comes to helping us memorise chunks of information.

To explain the difference between these two popular memory aids and how you can use them to ace your studies, we spoke with Dr Stefanie Sharman, a Senior Lecturer for the School of Psychology at Deakin University.

The lowdown on acronyms

Dr Sharman defines an acronym as ‘a pronounceable word made out of the first letters of the name of something.’ One of the earliest experiences of using an acronym for most people is, ROY G BIV: an acronym used to identify the colours of the rainbow in order. That is: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

While memorising the colours of the rainbow was a high priority for most primary schoolers, study priorities change as you get older and learning gets more convoluted. Luckily, the good old acronym is versatile enough to help you memorise just about anything.

Perhaps you’re not sure which order you should tackle that maths problem with multiple calculations? Remember BEDMAS: brackets, exponents, division, multiplication, addition, subtraction. Need to recall what the stages of cell division are? It’s IPMAT: interphase, prophase, metaphase, anaphase, telophase.

If an acronym doesn’t already exist for something you need to memorise, you could even DIY (which is even better for memory recall because you can get creative).

How are acrostics different?

Although closely associated to acronyms, the acrostic memory aid follows a different format. ‘It’s a form of writing in which the first letter, syllable or word of each line, spells out a word or message,’ Dr Sharman explains.

The age old acrostic used to memorise the planets in our solar system is a perfect example of this: My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nachos (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune).

Just like acronyms, acrostics can be used to memorise a broad range of information. Recalling the bones of the skull is easy when you remember that Old People From Texas Eat Spiders (occipital, parietal, frontal, temporal, ethmoid, sphenoid). If you need to memorise the taxonomic classification system for living organisms, just think King Phillip Can Only Find his Green Slippers (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species).

What are the advantages of using these memory aids?

If you’ve ever used acronyms or acrostics in your studies, you’ll know just how beneficial both these methods can be in aiding your memory recall. They’re perfect for exam study since the main advantage these memory aids provide is the ability to remember a set number of items in their correct order.

Another benefit of both acronyms and acrostics is that they typically utilise creative structures, which means the information is a lot more easily remembered and retrieved. For instance, a commonly used acrostic, ‘never eat soggy Weetbix’, makes it easy to recall the compass directions thanks to its unusual nature.

But here’s the catch…

Unfortunately, however useful these memory aids are in helping you to recall information quickly and easily, that is all they allow you to do. ‘Acrostics and acronyms only give you information about the order, no deeper knowledge or meaning is associated with them,’ Dr Sharman says.

So, while you might have a list of information memorised for that upcoming test, if you don’t know the hows and whys behind the what, you’re still going to struggle.

The best way to think of these methods is as a kind of filing system for your mind – The acronym or acrostic is the label on the file, and by having it memorised you can more easily recall the key information you need to know about it.

Is there more you’d like to know about strengthening your memory? Learn about the other kinds of memory aids, and how they can help.

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Dr Stefanie Sharman
Dr Stefanie Sharman

Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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