What is it about?

Students often are required to learn material consisting of arbitrary associations— for example, foreign language vocabulary, biology taxonomies, and medical terminology. This material is challenging because students cannot utilize typical strategies that allow them to achieve deep understanding. In two experiments, we investigated effective learning strategies for arbitrary associations using college materials that consisted of anthropologists’ names and their contributions to the field of anthropology. Students learned anthropologist/contribution pairs using a mnemonic (keyword) method, retrieval practice (practice quiz), a mnemonic-retrieval combination strategy, or repeated study. In both experiments, we found that the mnemonic method and retrieval practice conferred approximately equal learning benefits relative to repeated study. When combined, the benefits of each technique added together to produce better learning than each technique alone. Our findings indicate that for the learning of educational material with arbitrary associations, students would significantly benefit from a study approach that combines a mnemonic (e.g., keyword) method with retrieval practice.

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Why is it important?

Students often face the task of learning material with arbitrary associations (e.g., terminology). This task is difficult because students cannot rely on typical study strategies that help foster deep understanding. Consequently, in lieu of such meaningful strategies students may instead resort to rote, “brute force” learning methods such as repeating material until it sticks. The present experiments demonstrated that two learning strategies used in combination--a mnemonic (keyword) strategy and retrieval practice (practice quizzes)--are substantially more effective relative to repeated study for an authentic college learning task (learning scientists' names and their primary scientific contributions).


I hope this article helps students and educators appreciate potent study techniques for learning material that consists of arbitrary associations, like terminology which must be learned for many courses. An added bonus is that these techniques might be more enjoyable for students than a rote-repetition strategy that many might otherwise adopt.

Mark McDaniel
Washington University in Saint Louis

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This page is a summary of: Do not forget the keyword method: Learning educational content with arbitrary associations., Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, April 2022, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/mac0000031.
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