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Keyword mnemonic VS other strategies

As a general rule, studies into the effectiveness of the keyword mnemonic have compared it to, most often, rote repetition, or, less often, “trying your hardest to remember” (i.e., your own methods).

It’s not surprising that the keyword mnemonic should be superior to rote repetition, and studies reveal why comparisons with “free” controls might show inconsistent (and uninformative) results.

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A number of studies have compared the keyword strategy against the context method of learning vocabulary (where you experience the word to be learned in several different meaningful contexts).

Theory suggests that the context method should encourage multiple connections to the target word, and is thus expected to be a highly effective strategy. However, the studies have found that the keyword method produces better learning than the context method.

It has been suggested that you might benefit more from the context method if you had to work out the meaning of the word yourself, from the context.

However, it has been found that using the context method is significantly worse than using the keyword mnemonic. 

This is true even when people are given a test that would be thought to give an advantage to the context method — namely, being required to produce meaningful sentences with the target words.

The context method might be superior in long-term recall — benefiting from the multiple connections / retrieval paths to the target word. In an experiment where both keyword and context groups learned the words until they had mastered them, recall was no better for the context group than it was for the keyword group, when tested a week later.

Another study looked at the question of whether a combined keyword – repetition strategy (in which you use repetition as well as imagery when linking the keyword to the English translation of the word to be learned) was better than the keyword strategy on its own. They failed to find any benefit to using repetition on top of the imagery.

Imagine you’re trying to learn that “carta” is Spanish for “letter”. The obvious keyword is cart.

Accordingly, you form an image of a cart full of letters. However, having constructed this image, you are now told to repeat the words “carta – letter” over and over to yourself.

It’s not hard to see that many people might completely lose track of the image while they are doing this.

Thus the repetition component of the strategy would not be so much augmenting the imagery link, as replacing it. Repetition of the link you are supposed to be augmenting (a cart full of letters) might be more useful. In fact, it would be better to repeat: “carta – letter; a cart full of letters”.

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