Student Names and the Memory Palace

I don’t have a particularly good memory.

I love movies, but can rarely tell you the title of one I enjoyed or the name of the lead actor. I read a lot for pleasure, but have to refer back to my library record to be able to recommend a recent novel to you. I never did that well in academic subjects where one’s success depended upon rote memorization.

But despite my weak memory, I’ve always made a commitment to learning my students’ names, which I’ve written some tips about previously here at ProfHacker. Because I typically teach classes of only 30-35 students, I can usually learn most of them by the second day because I really work at it. But a year or two later, although I recognize students easily when I see them around campus, it’s rare for me to still know their names, because the mental energy involved in learning them is now spent on another semester’s worth of student names and faces.

So I was very interested to read Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, an account of his experience first observing and then participating in the U.S. Memory Championship, in which contestants memorize dazzling sequences of cards, numbers, and other information.

Visualize an image of what you want to remember

As Foer explains, the human brain is designed to be very good at certain kinds of memory tasks, such as that related to places and faces (spatial and visual memory), which were vital for survival early in our biological history. Memorizing to-do lists and mathematical formulae came much later in our intellectual, social, and and neurological development. So to improve one’s memory of numerical sequences, one has to translate those numbers into engaging images that the brain is more likely to retain.

In experiments, most people are able to accurately distinguish between images they’ve been shown (even for only a few seconds) and those they hadn’t seen before. So your memory for your students’ faces is probably better than you think it is.

Foer memorized over 100 first and last names correctly matched with a head shot in 15 minutes for a memory competition. He did this by creating mental images of the person’s face associated with an image that would remind him of the name: a pickup truck for someone named Ford, and so forth. Because the brain works by associations, and these associations tend to be highly personal, your mnemonic images wouldn’t be the same as anyone else’s, even if you use the same technique.

The memory palace
Most memory contestants use variations of the memory palace to learn all kinds of information. The memory palace, based on the classical rhetorical technique of loci, connects visual images of the information you want to memorize to spots in a familiar location. So if you want to remember a shopping list containing bread, broccoli, and tofu, you might visualize those items in specific places around the entryway of your childhood home. But since an image of a loaf of bread isn’t likely to stand out in your memory, you have to make it noticeable in some way: visualize a talking loaf of bread, or one that looks like a celebrity or someone you know. Then you walk through the space of your memory palace first placing the items there, and then again when you want to remember the list in order.

It turns out I was already using some aspects of the memory palace, as my personal method of learning student names includes going through the roster again after class, matching each name and face to my memory of where the student was sitting in the room. Even though they won’t necessarily be sitting in the same seats again, that spatial association helps me learn their names initially. (Some people record student names on a seating chart the first day, or even assign seats for the first two weeks to facilitate this process.)

Be creative
The first lesson from Foer’s book is that to become much better at memorizing anything, you have to put a lot of creative attention into it. Part of his training to prepare for memory competition involved creating his own person-action-object (PAO) system, in which every two-digit number from 00-99 is assigned an image of a person performing an action on an object. Larger numbers then become combinations of the two-digit images (a person from the first, an action from the second, and so on). The more absurd or risque the image, the better, in order to anchor it into your mind.

A contestant memorizes a sequence of numbers by quickly visualizing them as a series of images, using the individual PAO system he or she has previously created. Some contestants also use the Major System, a mnemonic code invented in the 17th century that translates the digits 0-9 into consonant letters, which can then be transformed into words by adding vowels. These words then become images to place in a memory palace.

Yes, memory contestants put in a lot of time practicing and improving their skills. But rather than the rote drills I remember from learning the multiplication tables, for instance, much of that time involves creating and reviewing outlandish, entertaining images (Foer moonwalking with Einstein, for instance). It is definitely a lot of work, but a more engaging and playful kind of work than I had initially imagined.

Personally Speaking
Since reading Foer’s book, I haven’t yet tried my hand at using a full memory palace system, but I have been making more of an effort to visualize images for words or ideas I want to remember. In my graduate seminar course this term, we spent a few minutes on the first day playing a “name game” in which students associate their first name with an animal and repeat those of the other students around the table (i.e., “Josh, bear,” “Cathy, raven,” and I’m Stacy and my animal is a cat”). (I both start and end the circle.) I’ve done this for years as it helps the students in a small discussion course learn each other’s names. This year, I made an effort to clearly visualize the animals as we played the game and it definitely helped me learn all of them.

Most importantly, Foer’s book makes the point that memory is part of a larger process of attention:

What I had really trained my brain to do, as much as to memorize, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice. (268)

Foer’s book made me re-evaluate some of my assumptions about “rote” memorization and helped me better understand my long-standing commitment to learning my students’ names quickly. It’s important to me to pay attention to my students as individual human beings. Learning their names is an important component of the mindful awareness I try to bring to my teaching through breathwork and other pedagogical choices.

[Have you ever used a memory palace or other mnemonic system? let us know in the comments!]
[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user Mahesh Telkar]

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