Using Mnemonic Devices To Earn Good Grades

PHOTO: Samantha Towle earned an A in her high school calculus class by using creative study methods.PlayCourtesy Samantha Towle
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Samantha Towle spent many days daydreaming and doodling in a notebook during her honors calculus class at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, N.J. Bored, she often wondered, "What use could I possibly have for this class … aside from a nod of approval from my parents?"

Week after week, her strict teacher's lectures went in one ear and out the other, and pretty soon Towle, a senior, had fallen behind in her studies and had no idea what was going on in class.

Towle desperately needed to catch up and find a way to stay mentally engaged during class so she started writing lyrics to her favorite tunes, like the Pokemon theme song and Colors of the Wind, a song from the movie Pocahontas.

And then she sang …

"Constants' derivatives are always zero, graphs have both global and local maximums." Parodying the 90s Disney tune was one technique Towle used to ace honors calculus.

Her high school calculus teacher, Ming Chwan-Chow, said on average he gives out five A's in honors calculus. Towle was one of three students to receive an A in the course.

And now Towle, 18, is a freshman at Ithaca College, where she has been named 'America's Smartest Slacker' by CourseSmart, provider of eTextbooks, and CollegeHumor, a comedy website. This follows a month-long search for students who have mastered the concept of working "smarter, not harder."

From acing Spanish with the help of Sesame Street, to memorizing equations to the beat of fencing-footwork, the America's Smartest Slacker contest garnered over 300 "slacker" stories from students all over the country who wanted to share their quirky, progressive, and sometimes bizarre approaches to learning.

The Science Behind Innovative Study Methods

Psychology researchers say alternative learning techniques have a proven track record.

Associate psychology professor at Howard University, Danielle Brown, says making personal connections to course material increases the rate of retention.

"If you're headed to the grocery store and you don't want to forget to pick up ham, linking the ham to your grocery bag may help you remember," explained Brown. "Ham-bag sounds like handbag!"

Although it could be argued that these innovative memorization techniques create more work for students, Brown says, most students who use "normal" study methods, usually do significantly worse on exams than students with innovative methods.

"I find that students like to re-read the chapters that will be on the test -- this is not an effective study method," Brown said.

She said students should adjust their study techniques to the type of test they are taking.

"A multiple choice test requires you to recognize an answer -- not necessarily remember the answer," said Brown. "Using flash cards allows you to recognize the correct answers while you study."

Doodling: A Mnemonic Device?

"I have more of a creative and artistic brain," said Towle as she described her struggle grasp tough calculus-related theorems and postulates. "It was hard for me to learn the concepts by using concrete methods like memorization."

Stressed and under pressure, Towle, who is now a cinema and psychology double major, needed to take the edge off. Instead of mindlessly doodling, she began doodling comic strips about equations that she didn't understand.

"If the teacher gave an equation that needed QED at the end, I would draw a quail, an eagle and a dog," explained Towle.

Towle noticed that she was able to recall the calculus material from her comic strips during tests.

"I kind of put my own creative spin on [calculus]!" she explained. "I added some humor to a rather dull calculus class."

A 2009 study conducted by Jackie Andrade of the School of Psychology at the University of Plymouth in the U.K. demonstrated that test subjects who doodle while listening to a recorded message had a 29 percent better recall of the message's details than those who didn't doodle.

In her research, which was published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Andrade asked 40 students who had just taken a psychology test to listen to a rather dull audio recording of someone listing several names of people and places.

At the end of the two and a half minute tape the students were told to write down the eight names of people going to a party, according to the recording. The doodlers recalled on average 7.5 names of people and places compared to only 5.8 by the non-doodlers.

Andrade's study suggests doodling distracts students from daydreaming.

"If someone is doing a boring task, like listening to a dull telephone conversation, they may start to daydream," Andrade said in a news release issued by the journal's publisher. "Daydreaming distracts them from the task, resulting in poorer performance. A simple task, like doodling, may be sufficient to stop daydreaming without affecting performance on the main task."

Using Mnemonic Devices In Class

Doodling isn't the only mnemonic device students are using to focus during class.

Howard University senior, Michael Tomlin-Crutchfield uses his writing abilities to retain information. "I do event coverage for all of my classes," explained Crutchfield.

Crutchfield, a broadcast journalism major, said he organizes his notes in the form of a print article as though each of his classes is a newsworthy event.

"To write a news article on an event you need to constantly be paying attention. If you are not, you may miss a good soundbite," said Crutchfield. "By me going to class with a reporter's mindset, I focus better and retain more."

Tomlin says he chose his "reporter's mindset" technique to not only help him retain information but to incorporate his major into all aspects of his life.

Towle says finding a technique that suits you, is the key to academic success.

"Thinking smarter, not harder means you don't have to put in more work than your classmates," explained Towle.

She says "slacking smartly" is about discovering ways to learn that are in-tune with who you are.

"By doodling comic strips and doing what everyone else would call 'slacking off,' I was able to tap into my natural talents and learn in a completely new way," she continued.

Not only did Towle doodle her way to an A in honors calculus, she is using her study methods to help her peers.

"I've tutored two students in calculus" Towle said excitedly. "My notebook full of calculus comic strips really helped them."

The grand prize from CourseSmart and CollegeHumor for writing silly songs and doodling all semester?

A year's supply of free eTextbooks from CourseSmart, $1000 cash, and the reigning title of "America's Smartest Slacker."

Towle says this isn't the end of her quirky mathematical comics.

"I have to take a statistics class and I can pretty much guarantee that my notebook will be full of comics," she said. contributor Kyla C. Grant is a member of the ABC News on Campus program at Howard University.