Revision Technique: The Memory Palace

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Vietnamese Woman Ross McGill 2010


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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Could your students benefit from having a memory palace?

The Memory Palace is an adaptation of the ancient Greek method of loci, where students use a familiar environment to place and recall information systematically.

Above is a photograph I took in Vietnam in 2010. It will forever remain in my episodic memory.

Episodic memory is associated with personal experiences, but it’s not semantic memory, which is responsible for storing concepts, rules, and facts.

While I may remember this lady’s face and teeth, I cannot recall anything about the Vietnamese tradition of teeth blackening. The knowledge I may have initially been exposed to when experiencing Vietnamese culture, I remain conscious of the image but subconscious to the knowledge. In essence, the facts have been lost.

The method of loci

When students learn the power of this technique – the memory palace, usually known as the method of loci – navigating through this space to recall detailed information, students can link abstract data to specific, creating visually memorable locations to enhance the retention and retrieval of information.

The Virtual Memory Palace E. FASSBENDER1†, W. HEIDEN2In this paper, The Virtual Memory Palace (Fassbender & Heiden, 2006) explore a virtual 3D architectural image to place icons at various locations within this model.

This method leverages the well-documented benefits of visual and spatial learning.

With digital tools at our fingertips, it is so easy to be distracted. Integrating such engaging learning techniques can significantly boost students’ memory retention. It is especially relevant now, as teachers seek ways to enhance classroom environments with techniques that capture students’ attention to improve their ability to recall information.

One strategy teachers can use during the examination season is to help students devise a memory palace.

Teachers can use the memory palace technique to guide students when ‘creating their own palaces’ using familiar settings. Perhaps students could use their school or a photograph they recognise and love. As students associate subject information with different locations inside the image, teachers should encourage students to revisit and expand their palaces, reinforcing their learning through repeated exposure and active engagement.

The memory palace provides students with a mnemonic technique to recall detailed information.

It is essential that students choose an image they have deep associaitons with. For example, family and loved ones, a holiday, famous person or a pop star. The image should preferably, but not exclusively, have a range of objects in the image so that knowledge association can be generated to align with content they will need to retrieve.

An example of a memory palace

As I write this blog post, I have been going through some photographs I took 15 years ago. I want to use one image of a bustling Vietnamese market as a memory palace I took in 2010. Here are some questions and memory prompts based on different elements within the market scene that could help in this process to enable me to use the visual image to recall detailed subject knowledge:

  1. The Entrance: What is the first item or stall you see when you enter this market in your memory palace? Use this as the starting point of your journey.
  2. Colours and Sights: Which stall has the most vibrant colours? Assign a specific memory or fact to the colours you see (e.g., red could be used to remember a related detail that is ‘urgent’ or ‘important’).
  3. Sounds and Smells: Imagine the sounds you might hear at this market. Which stall would be the loudest? Link this to something that needs to stand out in your memory. What smells might be present and how can they help you recall different memories?
  4. Path through the Market: Chart a path that you would take through this market. Each turn or stop could represent a different memory or piece of information. How would you navigate from one end to the other?
  5. Stall Interactions: Select a stall with a lot of activity. What kind of interactions are happening there? Use these interactions to symbolise communication or relationship dynamics in the memories you want to retain.
  6. Unique Items: Identify something unique in the market that catches your eye (like a particular product or an unusual decoration). Assign a unique or significant memory to this item.
  7. Market Characters: Focus on one of the vendors or customers. What are they wearing? What are they doing? Use their actions or attire to signify a key fact or date.
  8. Textures and Materials: Visualize the textures of the items sold (e.g., the smoothness of ceramics or the roughness of baskets). How can these textures remind you of historical dates or scientific facts?
  9. End of the Visit: As you prepare to ‘leave’ your memory palace, choose a final stall or item representing the conclusion of a narrative or a summary of what you’ve learned.
  10. Reflection: After walking through your memory palace, which spots were most memorable and why? Use this insight to adjust the way you place memories in the future.

Now, some context is needed. I might use this image in a design and technology (textiles) lesson to develop knowledge about materials and products.

Vietnam Market

Reflection questions for teachers

  1. How can teachers integrate the Memory Palace into their existing curriculum plans?
  2. What tools and resources are available to help teachers create a virtual Memory Palace?
  3. Could this method help students with different needs to engage more deeply with curriculum material?
  4. How might teachers assess the effectiveness of this technique in their teaching?
  5. What adaptations might be necessary to cater to younger students or those with special educational needs?
  6. How can teachers ensure this technique adds value to the learning rather than just being a novelty?
  7. What training might teachers need to implement this technique effectively?
  8. How might this approach be tailored for group projects or collaborative learning?

The research paper concludes:

When asked to remember the items from the Virtual Memory Palace one even said “Oh, that is easy now” and remembered all 10 items without hesitation!

Over the next week or so, I’ll aim to publish a resource to help teachers.

Image credit: Ross McGill

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