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.

References

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.

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