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Key in a lock

The memory aid with the key to unlocking your recall potential

Maybe you dream of working in Paris but the only French you know is oui and merci beaucoup. Perhaps you’ve just started a new job, and you can’t seem to wrap your head around the technical jargon. Or, you might find yourself meeting your partner’s mum for the first time, and are desperate to make a face-name association so you don’t mistakenly ask ‘Becky’ to pass the salt after she introduces herself as Bethany…

Luckily (and amazingly) there’s one memory aid that can solve any of these problems: the keyword method.

Dr Stefanie Sharman, Senior Lecturer for the School of Psychology at Deakin University explains how you can use this versatile memory device.

What is the keyword method?

The keyword method is a technique that utilises creative visualisations to improve memory retrieval. There is an extensive body of research to show this device’s effectiveness in recalling definitions of vocabulary. The keyword method can also come in handy for those learning a new language, Dr Sharman explains:

‘Say you needed to remember that the Spanish word carta means letter in English. First, you would find an English word that sounds similar to the Spanish word, such as cart. Cart is the keyword.

‘Second, you link the keyword with the English meaning of the Spanish word (letter), such as visualising a giant letter being towed around in a wooden cart. Therefore, you see or hear the word carta, you should think of cart, which should in turn help you retrieve the word “letter.”’

The keyword method can also be utilised for memorising key facts. This could be medical or scientific terminology, important historical figures, or the names of places and locations.

‘To remember Canberra is the capital of Australia, for example,’ Dr Sharman says, ‘you could visualise a can on top of the outline of Australia. The “can” is the keyword here.’

The most effective way to put this memory aid into practice is to create your own visualisations – and the more unusual, the better.

'To remember Canberra is the capital of Australia, for example, you could visualise a can on top of the outline of Australia. The “can” is the keyword here.'

Dr Stefanie Sharman,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Benefits of this memory aid

The keyword method can be applied to most scenarios, so its versatility and effectiveness make it a great option for memorisation – and it’s a lot more entertaining than rote learning. ‘The main benefit is that is that it can help you remember the meanings of words,’ Dr Sharman says. Another advantage this method has over some other memorisation strategies is that you can learn things faster. So, for that last minute cram session, the keyword mnemonic can be a really useful tactic.

It sounds too good to be true… because it kind of is

Unfortunately, this mnemonic does come with its downfalls. Although the keyword method is useful in remembering what certain words mean, Dr Sharman explains it doesn’t help you to recall the word itself.

‘For example, if asked, “What is the Canberra the capital of?” it is easy to think of can and its association with the outline of Australia. However, if asked, “What is the capital of Australia?” it is more difficult to retrieve the answer of Canberra,’ she says.

As well as this, some words are difficult to make associations with. ‘Carta is easy because there is a similar sounding English word (cart). However, for other words, such as the Spanish word of pequenos (little ones) is not so easy to associate with a similar sounding English word,’ Dr Sharman concludes.

Want to utilise other effective memory aids in your studies? Learn what they are and how they work so you never forget anything again.

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Dr Stefanie Sharman
Dr Stefanie Sharman

Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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