Method of Loci

For this week’s assignment in CECS 5210, we were asked to practice using the method of loci (or memory palace technique) to remember the four components of Wilson’s view of Situated Instructional Design. I’m a huge fan of the BBC show Sherlock, whose protagonist uses the mind palace technique to retrieve relevant facts and memories to solve cases, so I was excited to try out the technique myself.

At first, I had trouble with the assignment. Having to constantly open my eyes to look at the assignment instructions and what I had to memorize was repeatedly jarring to my relaxed state. And the examples provided in the assignment threw me off as well. I just couldn’t see how imagining “the faces of 20 people staring out from [my] front door at the top, hands holding a harmonica up to one of the faces to practice emerging from another spot on the door, while a piece of sheet music hovers in front of the door as an ‘outcome’” could help me remember “A learning community examines and negotiates its own values, desired outcomes, and acceptable conventions and practices.” But then I decided to instead imagine a group of people in my living room negotiating and the made-up word VOP (for values, outcomes, and practices), and my effectiveness with the technique improved from there.

Out of curiosity, I read some research articles on the method of loci. In an article titled “Effects of instruction on learners’ ability to generate an effective pathway in the method of loci,” Cristina Massen, Bianca Vaterrodt-Plunnecke, Lucia Krings, and Benjamin E. Hilbig (2009) present some interesting findings. For example, “it has been found that the method of loci is more effective for material that is presented orally rather than in a written format” (p. 725). (Based on the difficulties I had in memorizing the written components for this assignment, I agree that the experience would have been easier if I had had someone read aloud the components to me instead.) The results of the experiments conducted by the writers also showed that “recall performance was superior when participants were instructed to generate and apply loci on a path to their work as compared to loci on a path in the house” (p. 729). They hypothesize that these results may be due to greater distances or more distinctive qualities between items along the path to a workplace or due to a less complex pathway.

Another article titled “Looking for long-term mnemonic effects on serial recall: The legacy of Simonides” summarizes research performed by Alvin Y. Wang and Margaret H. Thomas (2000). Their study found that “students given mnemonic instruction and those who had generated their own spontaneous strategies retained more information than those who had engaged in maintenance rehearsal. There were no significant differences between the two mnemonic groups and the spontaneous strategy control group” (p. 335). Mnemonic instruction was provided on the method of loci and the pegword strategy; spontaneous strategies involved using spontaneous organizational or imagery-based techniques, such as making a story, using acronyms, or imagining the words as a picture; and maintenance rehearsal involved simply repeating what was being memorized over and over again. The results of this study led me to believe that I really wasn’t using the method of loci but the spontaneous strategy of imagining the words as a picture.

Regardless, I can definitely see the benefits of using such a cognitive activity to improve the acquisition of knowledge. Using metaphors, stories, or acronyms, for example, in an instructional design would greatly help facilitate the learning process. The brain retrieves information via associations, and if we as instructional designers can create more and more associations to help learners retrieve that information, then we are doing are job well.


Massen, C., Vaterrodt-Plunnecke, B., Krings, L., & Hilbig, B.E. (2009). Effects of instruction on learners’ ability to generate an effective pathway in the method of loci. Memory, 17(7), 724-731.

Wang, A. Y., & Thomas, M. H. (2000). Looking for long-term mnemonic effects on serial recall: The legacy of Simonides. American Journal of Psychology, 113, 331_340.

Instructional Design

I’ve been practicing instructional design for my entire professional career; I just didn’t realize it. As a teacher, I had to analyze the situation each day, design and develop a lesson, implement it, and then evaluate the lesson. The next day would depend on whether the goals were met the previous day. As a writer and editor for educational publishing companies, I did pretty much the same thing, but I wasn’t able to analyze the learners and their needs as effectively since the products were intended for a general audience. The companies that I worked for did not implement an evaluation process either, so I did not really have the opportunity to determine whether the instructional materials I created were effective, how they could be improved, which methodologies actually worked, etc.

The lack of analysis and evaluation felt wrong to me and led me to search for more meaningful work. I felt that it was more about the quantity rather the quality, what could sell instead of what actually worked. During my job search, I came across several job postings wanting instructional designers. The work sounded exactly like what I was doing as a writer and editor for an educational publishing company but with the analysis and evaluation processes incorporated.

As a test to see whether this field was for me, I read Julie Dirksen’s book, Design for How People Learn, and that’s what cinched it: I wanted to be an instructional designer. The field involves everything I love to do: writing, editing, designing with technology, learning, and teaching. And it places great emphasis on effective design practices and learning methodologies. Ever since then, I’ve been on a wonderful educational journey, learning more about those effective design practices and learning methodologies, the research that supports it all.

I’ve been able to learn more about what I’ve been doing right and wrong all these years and why. I’ve been able to meet with several subject matter experts, learn what they know, and then spread their knowledge with successful applications of instructional design. The entire analysis, design, development, implementation, evaluation cycle is a lot more time-consuming than the design projects I performed early on in my career, but in the long run, I know it is still worth it, because what I am doing ensures that the instruction will actually work and be used more often. Instructional design is a fascinating field that will continue to grow as more and more organizations realize how much time and money effective instructional design saves. I am excited about its future and my future in it.