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I’ve recently discovered Memrise, a site that’s designed to encourage learning (particularly of languages), by gamifying the process. They use ‘brain science’ (honestly, their words) to encourage learning and retention. One of the key factors in this are ‘mems’:

Mems is our natty word for the morsels of interesting and relevant information you see beneath every word on Memrise. Mems can be mnemonics, etymologies, amusing videos, photos, example sentences: anything which helps connect what you’re learning and bring it to life.

I think of mems as the sticky note attached to the new word or fact – and the weirder, the better. The more unusual or amusing the mem is, the more likely you are to recall it and its associated fact. I first came across this idea during maths in school, when we were told to come up with our own silly phrases to remember SOHCAHTOA. I’m still resentful that they said mine was ‘too silly’, and made me learn Silly Old Harry Caught A Haddock Trawling Off America. Ok, I still remember it – but I remember mine better, and without having to think ‘it was a fish that began with h. What fish begin with h? And anyway, what’s silly about catching a haddock?’

And I’ve definitely been finding the slightly more obtuse mems the most useful, such as ‘a woman and a shameful kangaroo‘ for cooked rice. Ok, I don’t see the kangaroo myself, but I remember that someone else did.

I often find myself putting my own twist on the mems that other people have provided. For instance, my personal mem for ‘vorrei’ is ‘Ketel One’, based on this mem, but adding the fact that the specific Ray I’m buying a drink for is Ray from Achewood*.

But the stickiest mem I’ve found is this:

It´s all very well being told details to remember (these are useful too), but I need something to jog my memory that relates to what they look like and links it to the name. So for this one, imagine the tune to California Dreaming, but with the first line going:
“Alder leaves are round…”

I defy you to ever sing California Dreaming the same way again…

Memrise also allows you to create your own courses, and it looks like some teachers are using it to reinforce learning for specific courses. I’ve found GCSE RE, Australian Year 10 Chemistry, and B6 Biology.

If you can get student take-up, this seems like a great idea. Thinking library/info lit specific, you could create a course to teach specific styles of referencing, or Dewey/LoC/classification system of your choice (though I’m not sure anyone actually wants to learn the Dewey classes). Personally, I’ve run aground on the mountain of ‘mems for MARC fields’ (my best attempt so far. Seriously. It’s hard.)

Thinking about what makes a good mem has made me think about learning, and my teaching/presenting style. I’ve realised that what I’m doing when I add images and text to my slides (such as here or here), what I’m actually doing is trying to add a mem to the slide. I usually think of the key point that I want people to take from the slides, then find an image to reinforce that point. I prefer interesting and slightly unusual images – if people remember the image, they’re more likely to remember the point.

I think this is what sits behind using battledecks to reinforce learning. In that post, Ned mentions that feedback from students suggested he use more ‘funny’ clues – again, it’s those odd and unusual ones that get people hooked.

So I’m definitely going to be thinking more carefully about the images I choose for my presentations from now on. I need to make sure that they’re not too personal (Ketel One) or only memorable because you don’t understand them (shameful kangaroo). I’m aiming for the ‘alder leaves are round’ gold-standard of mems – catchy, almost universally accessible, and pretty much unforgettable.

I’ll leave you with a mem that could double as library marketing

el libro (book): books in libraries are free, bro!!!

*If you don’t know Achewood, you should totally clear some time to go read it. But maybe not at work. Start here.

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