Guest Blog by Mitch Adler

here and thereTWA asked Mitch Adler, an SAT expert, about his views on rote memorization while writing the recent post, Educationally Speaking: Rote is Out – Thinking is In! Here’s what he had to say:

Despite the ocean waves of change over the decades to improve American education so that advances in our understanding and appreciation of the basic fact that everyone’s different and so learn in different ways, much of what students are required to know – and demonstrate that they know — comes down to their ability to recall information.  I am a big fan of creative work, but even the most inventive forms, such as creating imaginative literature, depend first upon the memorization of the alphabet – or at least most of the letters. And all of us, even those with terrible memories, can recall having to memorize something at some time.  As I sit here typing, years later, I can recollect having to commit to memory my telephone number (which was something people had to do back when phones had no memory), and I can recall struggling to at least try to remember the plural of the Spanish verb ‘to be.’  Was it tener?

In the old days we were expected to memorize more than students do today, which is interesting when one considers how much more there is to know now.  And we were just told to do it.  There were no methods, at least none that were widely communicated.  So, at least in this way, the world is better today than it used to be.  Now every teacher worth his or her salt has at least a pocketful of mnemonics, and great teachers have hundreds, if not thousands.  All they are is memory tricks.  They come in different types, from picture mnemonics to ones that the learner has to physically act out, but they all have one thing in common:  For many learners they are a godsend. Can’t recall when to use the formula for permutations rather than combinations?  Just think… combinations begins with COMB, while permutations begins with PERM.  So? Well, when you comb your hair, it’s free, i.e. it doesn’t cost you a penny to comb your hair, while getting your hair ‘permed’ at the haircutter does cost you money.  And when something is free, order doesn’t matter, because if you comb your hair the wrong way you just comb the other way to correct it.  But the order of the curls or waves (or whatever) you have put in your hair does matter when you’re paying the big bucks, so permutations is for word problems in which the order of the items matter.  And, of course, you use combinations when the order does not matter.

How about the three kinds of triangles?  Equilateral, isosceles, and scalene.  Equilateral… I think the word pretty much comes with its own built-in mnemonic.  All equal sides. Isosceles?  Pronounce it incorrectly, say “i-socks-o-les” and think of a pair of socks.  Yup, a pair of matching sides only.  Scalene?  There are millions of fish in the sea, and billions of scales when you add up all the little guys adorning all those fish.  And guess what?  Like fingerprints, no two scales are exactly the same.  And, yes, a scalene triangle is one with three different sides.

What about the bane of many students’ existence, the multiplication table?  Well, understanding them is the ultimate goal, but in the process a bit of memorization is a good idea.  8 x 8 = 64.  Say this:  “I ate and I ate and I got sick on the floor.”  Say it five times fast.  If you don’t hear a mnemonic, then try it ten times fast.  If that doesn’t work… well then, come up with your own.  Which, by the way, often the best kind of mnemonic is one you make up yourself.  This 8 x 8 one is well-known, but I (and I’m sure a lot of teachers) can give you one for each and every combo in the 12 x 12 table.

Try these:  x-axis vs. y-axis.  If you had to rest a dozen eggs on one of the two, would you rather place the eggs on the horizontal axis or on the tippy top of the vertical? Call me crazy, but I’d rather place them on the horizontal.  Thus, the eggs-axis.

mnemonics-smBy the way, most adults use mnemonics, even though I suspect a lot of people don’t realize it.  From attorneys who need to recall the many parts of some statues, to physicians who need to be able to assess an array of symptoms to distinguish between various viruses, few people are uniformly above leaning on an occasional memory trick.  In fact, when I was a child there was an entertainer whose act consisted entirely of having each and every member of the audience tell him their name and the name of their hometown.  Then, as you might have surmised, he would go back through the crowd and recite each name and town.  500 people, a thousand, it didn’t matter.  Everyone was impressed.  And entertained, as he would sprinkle the routine with jokes. I believe he wrote a bestseller, explaining that within one or two seconds he would silently make a mnemonic for each person in the crowd. He would envision Stanley STANding.  He would picture Susan in court SUE-ing someone, and so forth.  The man was phenomenal. Absolutely phenomenal. I wish I could recall his name.

About the Author

mitch_blackboard 2Mitch Adler, is an SAT/ACT tutor and college adviser coach in East Hampton and Southampton, NY. He was a contributing editor at National Lampoon who won first prize in an Internet-based science fiction contest and has contributing editor to The East Hampton Star.

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