Game-Changer Checklist for High Test Scores


I wonder what exciting is going to happen today.


•   Get the feel of it:    Relax and mess around.

 The more fun you have the higher your score – guaranteed.

Browse.     Browse.     Browse

•   Do easiest questions first.

Rack up easy points: Build confidence.

Don’t make the test tough.

Use your own natural intelligence. Make common-sense guesses.

•  Use the way the test is put together to find answer clues and patterns:

Grammatical tip-offs, longest or shortest answers, and so on.

•  Watch out for absolute, definite answers; they are commonly false.

•   Answer all questions — even if instructed otherwise.  Your score will be higher.

•   When all else fails, choose the third answer.

   Tests are academic crossword puzzles.

Look for clues in other questions and even in multiple-choice answers.

•    Ask for clarification of ambiguous or flawed questions.

If necessary, explain your answer in the margin.

•    Think like your opponent. Psych out the test maker.

•    Don’t sweat questions you can afford to miss.

Mess around.    Mess around.    Mess around.

Tests into Puzzles III

Crossword 2LOOK . . . THEN LEAP.

Always look over a test — any test — before you start.


You’re  trying to get the feel of it.  What sort of a test is it?  Do the questions look easy?  Hard?  Do you see any item you can answer right off the bat?

Take a look at this test.  You’ll probably notice a trick question or two, the sort you’ve probably seen before.  OK, so it’s a trick test.  I’m tipping my hand here, but you could figure that out yourself if you browse it first.  Right?

So go ahead an see how many points you can rack up.  I’ll provide the answers the test-maker wants (not necessarily the most intelligent or thoughtful answers) and comment later on what I think the test really measures.



Test Your What?

Allow yourself a maximum of eight minutes. Then check your answers.

1. Allow yourself five minutes to rearrange the letters 0-W-D—
E-N-A-R-W to spell a new word—but not a proper name, nor anything foreign or “unnatural.” Write it out.


2. Quickly now: How many animals of each species did Adam take
aboard the Ark with him? (Note that the question is not how many pairs , but how many animals.)


3. What unusual characteristics do these six words have in common?
DEFT SIGHING CALMNESS CANOPY FIRST STUN (Please complete your answer within five minutes.)

4. Figure out this problem in diplomatic relations: If an international
airliner crashed exactly on the U. S.-Canadian border, where would they be required by international law to bury the survivors? (If you can’t decide within one minute what your answer will be, please go on to the next item.)

5. What is the minimum number of active baseball players on the
playing field during any part of an inning?

6. Figure out this problem within one minute: If one face of a cube
measures 2″ x 4″, what is the area of each of the faces, and what is the total area of all eight faces? (Jot down your answer in the margin.)

7. A farmer had 17 sheep. All but nine died. How many did he have left?

8. An archeologist reported finding two gold coins dated 46 B. C.
Later, at a dinner in his honor, he was thoroughly and openly discredited by a disgruntled fellow archeologist. Why?

9, A man living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, may not be
buried in a state west of the Mississippi River—nor in Hawaii or Alaska— even in the event of Presidential intervention. Why is this?

10. If you went to bed at 8 o’clock last night, and set your alarm clock
to get up at 9 o’clock this morning, why on earth—after 13 hours’ rest, especially!—are you so sleepy today?

11. If you had only one match, and entered a room to start up a
kerosene lamp, an oil heater, and a wood-burning stove, which would you light first—and why?

12. Quickly, now: Divide 30 by 1/2, and add 10. What is the answer?

13. If your doctor gave you three pills, and told you to take one every
half hour, how long would it require for you to take all of them?

14. Two men played checkers. They played five games, and each man
won three. How do you explain this?

15. Look at these phrases, for a moment, to get them firmly in mind:

Triangle  Words
Now look away and write down these exact phrases.


Answers and Comments


This is a test-taking test.

As always, you’ll rack up the most points if you’re relaxed and playful.  So you begin by messing around.

Browse     Browse     Browse

Yes, it’s a trick test, and  logical reasoning is actually a hindrance.  There are some old chestnuts here, and you’re likely to see the wanted answers to some of them right off. Once you know the game, you know how to play.

1.  If you try to work this out logically, you’ll use up your 8 minutes.  So if you don’t see the trick, for heaven’s sake, skip it! and do the easy questions first.  The wanted answer is  a new word.  The test-maker tries to make it seem hard by distracting you and uses your reading strengths against you: “Allow five minutes . . .” And so on.  Once you catch on, it’s a breeze.  He uses the same tricks over and over.

2.  OK, so it was Noah, not Adam.  All the surrounding stuff is there to keep you from noticing the word Adam.  Once you catch on, you can go back and check your answers.

3.  Most of the questions on this test call for the same kind of thinking and the same level of thinking, but this one is different.  So if you don’t see a solution right away, you should set it aside.  If you have time at the end, you can come back to it.  Answer: They all have alphabetical sequences of letters in them:   DEF, GHI, LMN, NOP, RST, and STU. [Unless the test-maker defines what he means by “unusual” there could be all sorts of “correct”answers .]

4.  The test-maker camouflages the phrase bury the survivors with underlinings, italics and helpful hints – all intended to take your eye off the obvious: You don’t bury survivors.  Shady salesmen write up contracts this way, too.  But you already knew that.

In any test, find out what’s really being asked.


Nervous test-takers tend to  skim questions or misread them.  Treat the test like hopscotch.  Rack up points.

5.  Oh, well, he wants the batter included.  Answer: Ten   If you wanted to get pushy about it, you could question what the test-maker means by “active.”  Usually everybody’s standing still till the pitcher lets fly.  And so on!  This is a poorly worded question.  You should annotate your answer in the margin – but nicely, of course.

6.  If you’re a math whiz, you could easily hurry with the calculation and screw up. You know perfectly well that all sides of a cube are equal, so a face can’t be 2 by 4.   This question is set up the way Number 4 is, isn’t it –  lots of diverting instructions.

7.  All BUT nine died.  Get it?    Same trick as the Noah / Adam question.

On any test helpful clues are scattered all over.

8.  Well, you should know this far into the “test” that the answer in right there on the surface.  The test doesn’t require knowledge of archaeology – or anything else!  If you don’t catch on right away, come back later.  B. C. might pop right out at you.

9.  A man LIVING should not be buried – no matter where he lives. There have already been a couple of questions like this –  2, 4, ans 7, for example.

10.  By now you know there’s bound to be something tricky in the wording.  The 13 hours phrase is a tip-off, but you can visualize setting the clock for 9 and hitting the sack at 8.  You can see what would happen.  The test-maker probably doesn’t have a twenty-four-hour clock.

If you take this question seriously, you can waste a lot of time.  This test does not require imaginative thinking, only familiarity with parlor games.

Keep your responses within the test-maker’s level of thought.

These questions are suitable for seventh or eighth graders, wouldn’t you say?

11.  A good reader thinks the word which refers only to lamp, heater, and stove.  The test-maker is counting on it.  But you know this isn’t a very sophisticated test.

On any test, you can actually build your skill with it as you go along. 

12.  Divide 30 by ½ .  “Quickly” throws you off.

If a question looks too easy, read it more slowly and more carefully.

How may halves are there in 30?  Now, that’s more like it.  Then you’re to add 10.  The wanted answer is 70.  But add 10 halves? Or 10 wholes —  which would be 20 halves?  Not that simple after all, but think at the level the test and put down 70.

13.  Visualize.

One, say, at 7, next at 7:30, next at 8.  Bingo: One hour.


Slow down when a question looks easy.

Rule: Relax if it’s hard.  Sweat if it’s easy.

14.  The test-maker leaves out information you need.  But this is a trick test, so you’re on to him and you see, aha!, they didn’t play each other.  This omission is deliberate, but teachers sometimes  inadvertently leave out needed information, too.

On school tests, if needed information is missing, ask for it.

15.  This question counts on you’re being a good reader.  Good readers read for ideas.  A copyeditor or proofreader  would see the wanted response right away, the duplications of THE, THE; A, A; THE, THE; and  AT, AT.

If you followed the lead of Question 1, though, you might have answered, “these exact phrases.”  But the test-maker isn’t all that swift, so you’d better go with the other answer.



Tests Into Crossword Puzzles II


Crossword 2








Want to get good at playing the piano?  Practice.

Want to get higher scores on tests?  Practice.

Here’s a “test” my colleague Karl Staubach made up to show how you can pull out answers from a test without knowing much at all.  This skeleton test has hardly any content, so you have to use test-taking experience to guess the answers.  In this “test” the game itself is clearly the subject, not history or calculus.

 How to Take a Test Without Knowing Anything
(Time Limit 15 Minutes)

Quantitative Reasoning

1.  What is the diameter of the circle in Figure (a)?

Circumference 1 Pic(a)

2.  Develop an equation for apparent loss of elevation due to curvature of the Earth: express unknowns in terms of feet and miles; show your work.

Critical Analysis

3.  How long does it take an inchworm to go a foot?

4.  This statement is false.     True/False

5.   Unscramble the following words, one point for each answer.

a.  TUTIWHO                b. GRAINDE            c.  PANETRAP
d.  MORNWICH            e.  RILACTIC

Reading Comprehension

6.  Blah ba blah blah because . . . ?

a.  blah ba blah blah.   b. blah blah ba blah  c.  blah ba blah ba blah,
blah, blah blah. d.  blah ba blah ba blah.

7.  Blah ba blah no blah . . . ?

a.  blah not blah ba blah.     b.  no blah ba blah blah.
c.  blah ba blah ba blah       d.  ba blah isn’t ba blah

8.  Blah ba never blah ba blah. . . . ?     True/False

9.  Blah ba blah ba blah . . . ?

a.  blah ba blah.         b.  blah blah ba.
c. blah: ½ blah.          d.  ba blah blah.

10.  Unknowns in equations for the Earth’s curvature are usually expressed in

a.  millimeters.    b.  feet and inches.
c.  miles and feet.   d. hundredths of inches.







Most people find out a little about hopscotch or poker before getting into the game.  So

Mess around  until you understand the game.  Then

Rack up all the points you can.  Then

Do the leftovers. 

       Use the test to answer the test.

10. You can get 14 points on this test, and if you browsed it, you’d have nailed Number 10 — because the answer is given away in Number 2.  Score: 1 point

2. Also, for me, actually figuring out  Number 2 looks like it would take a while, and I don’t think I know enough, so I’ll save it for last.  I’m after points.

1.  You could probably figure out Number 1, but if it makes you nervous, skip it for now.  (If you don’t know what a diameter is, ask the person giving the test.)  If you know what a diameter is,  use the line that’s 6 long as your ruler  to measure the diameter.


 4. No one can answer Number 4.   Test questions are often poorly written.  Karl put this in as an example of that.   If you have time left over, you could toss a coin and put a note in the margin, pointing out that it’s ambiguous.

 3. In Number 3, the test-maker left out the inchworm’s rate of speed — how fast he’s going — so you’d have to raise your hand on that one, or put a note in the margin — or put in a silly answer, and put a note in the margin.

Answer all questions.  You don’t get points for blanks.

 5. The answers to all five scrambled words in Number 5 are on the test itself. For example, MORNWICH unscrambles as INCHWORM, which is in Number 3. This question is worth five points, so use the test to answer the test.

6. Often clues to the wanted answer are in the wording.  In Number 6, there’s no content, so see if there’s a give-away in the answers.  Um, hum, answer c is longer than a, b, and d, so go with the most different-looking answer.  Also, when all else fails, choose third answer.  It’s not fool-proof, but the third answer does come up as “correct” more often.  Remember, this is a point game.

7.  Again, only one answer in Number 7 stands out as different-looking, c.  Answers a, b, and d all have negatives in them and c doesn’t.  If you choose any of the others, you’d end up with two negatives and a messy sentence, maybe even a frowned-on double negative.

8.  As you probably have noticed, teachers are not fond of making absolute statements.  So in questions like  Number 8, the answer is False.  If a definite statement is the wanted answer, it will have been pounded in so much you will know that and will mark it TRUE anyway.

9.  The gibberish in three of the four answers in Number 9 looks pretty much the same, but Answer c, blah:  ½  blah, is different.  Choose it.

Your Score

Here’s the deal.  If you don’t know anything but if you do know something about how tests are set up, you could pass this test with 11 out of 14.  Not bad!  Unless I’m into math,  I’d miss Number 2, but I don’t care.  I’m in this for points.  Numbers 3 and 4 are hopeless, but they’re poorly written.  I’d still put those notes in the margin; I might get something. Don’t be snotty, though; teachers have thin skins.

Like crossword puzzles, tests are full of information you can use to figure out answers.   Think of tests as puzzles, do enough of them, and  they can be more fun than crossword puzzles.

Turning Tests into Crossword Puzzles

Test Pics for Post

Children’s Games

  I have resented to this day
When any but myself presumed to say
That there was anything I could not be.
                                    – Robert Frost

The Testing Mania

There is so much wrong with giving each other tests I hardly know where to begin.  Your own sweet Self has no interest in the hoops other people think up for you to jump through.   You may be interested, though, in what’s going on in the back room where tests are invented.

Here’s a little inventory you can start with to get you tuned in to my  comments on this BIG MYTH that bankrolls the huge nation-wide test-making industry and keeps teachers up late at night dreaming up “questions.”


Mark only the ideas you agree with.  Then read the commentary.

□   1.  Tests measure how much you have learned.

□    2.  Tests are objective.

□    3.   Tests are fair.

□    4.   Tests help teachers see how effective their teaching is.

□    5.   Tests help you learn.

□    6.   Essay tests measure your understanding better than short-answer tests do.

□    7.   If it’s taught, it must be tested.

□    8.   To  get a high score, thoroughly understand the subject.

□    9.   Tests can predict how well you’ll do when you get a job.

□   10.   SATs identify the best students for college.


Commentary: What Tests Really Measure

Most people think the statements above are true, but research shows they’re not. It’s a sucker’s game.   Reflect on it a little; you’ll see very quickly that tests  interfere with what really matters – your journey through the realms of gold  – that is, your drive to live a full, rich life, the life your own biology insists on, not the straitjacket other people think you should wear. Once you see tests as crossword puzzles, though, you can actually have fun figuring them out, and when your Self is running the show, it’s always fun.IMG_1234

As you know, learning involves change, growth, and understanding, but tests don’t measure those things.  All tests really do is  measure skill in taking tests.  Do 150 bits and pieces of data reflect complex changes in you?  Do those bits an pieces come even close to all the stuff you body and mind have picked up?  Of course not.

I’ll get into some of the myths  in later posts.  Right now, though, I want to tell you about a test my students used to love.

A Test My Students Used to Love

I quit giving tests altogether a few years into teaching. I would have quit sooner, but I’m a slow learner. I thought I had to, even after I realized how destructive they are. I didn’t have to; my students  got along just fine for the next thirty years without them. But I always gave a name-game “test.” I would tell the students they have to know everyone’s name, one of the few specific trivia requirements of the course. There will be a test, I would tell them, in a couple of weeks. They knew very well I wasn’t really going to give them a test, but they acted like it anyway, doing all the stuff I used to hate about test games. “Do we have to spell them all correctly?” “How much time will we have?” “Can we just give first names?” “Can we have more time to get ready?” I pretended it was all very serious, too. I did want them to know each other’s names, but I certainly wasn’t going to grade them on it.

So one sunny day the students arrive, and it’s TEST day. As they file in, each student gets a number to wear and a roster. There is music playing, and the teaching assistants and I have set up a table with things to eat and drink. The “test” is to match the person’s number with a name on the roster. They have to get 100 percent or they fail.

Of course, it doesn’t take a minute for people to start cheating. They start going up to each other and asking their names. (Big surprise: Lots of them haven’t studied much.) The first thing you know the whole class is milling about, talking with each other. It turns into a jolly good time. Everyone is thoroughly enjoying the “test.” More than once I found a couple of guys erasing numbers from their rosters. That way, they had an excuse to talk with someone they were attracted to. Pretty smart, eh?


The one-and-only test day turns out to be one of the best days of the semester, and everyone knows everyone else much better by the end of the hour, wonderful enthusiasm, lots of positive energy. What’s amusing is that people actually turn in their “test paper” at the end. They really know how to play the school game.

As always, students think about the event in their reflections. (See my menu item Reflective Writing.) Often we talk about whether that really was a test. Then we get a chance to explore what a test is, what it is said to be for and what it actually is for. Is the name-game test a good test? If tests are learning tools, did everyone know more by the end of the test? Sure. Should you be allowed to cheat on a test? Depends on how you define cheat. Should the atmosphere be formal or informal? Which elicits your best performance? Should it be fun to take a test? Should it be on how much you know or how little? Is it really necessary to scare the pants off everyone in order to advance understanding of the periodic chart or whatever? Do you get to cheat in real life? And so on. Students are subjected to tests from the time they set foot in kindergarten onward. For many, reflecting on the name-game test is the first time they ever take a good look at what is going on.

So the name game and its test accomplish exactly what any traditional teacher would want and a whole lot more. It is only one example of what a multifaceted “lesson” can be. All classes can learn that way. Everyone, including teachers, would actually enjoy coming to class and experiencing what Goethe described as “a rich, manifold life, brought close to the eyes.”



What if your class got to list all the tidbits of your experience together?

In my classes we used to finish up a semester by going around the room and everyone would contribute something he or she remembered from what we had shared together.  Anything counted, no matter how insignificant.  We had a couple of students putting each item on the chalk board as we went around.  It felt wonderful.  It was as if each item had a spotlight shown on it.  Each bit was like a capsule that burst open and all sorts of memories flooded out. And the connections got better and brighter as we went along. There was so much. We filled up the board. We weren’t noticing how little we had experienced but how much.  We all felt great.  That is Self affirming!  Wouldn’t you think schools ought to be nurturing that?



Guess What I’m Thinking

Tests are games in which large numbers of players guess what the test-maker wants.  Like any other game, tests have rules: time and space limits, playing fields, equipment, arbitrary scoring procedures, number of players, winners, losers, referees. Playing the game is an end in itself. Getting ready for it is very different from getting good at French or engineering.  What you accomplish in literature, mathematics or welding is one thing; tests are something else again.  That’s all.

Figure out how tests work, get good at it, and you’re in business.

The Method of Places – The Most Powerful Memory Tool


toilet paperlettuce


Find a familiar place to store each thing you want to recall, look in that place, and there it is.



If you want to recall nine or ten grocery items, say

lettuce            toilet paper            butter          cereal          hamburger

                 milk                sugar          potatoes           tea

put them in rooms in your home.

“In the first place” put the lettuce in the entrance hall and picture it there, in the middle of the floor where you’ll step on it.  Get a good visual impression.

“In the second place ”  – whatever’s the next room, the kitchen maybe – put the toilet paper, maybe in the refrigerator with the door open.

“In the third place – maybe in the living room across the hall –  put the butter, unwrapped on the seat of your expensive upholstered chair.

Let’s see how this is going.  Shut your eyes.  What did you put in your entrance hall?  Can you see it there?  What’s in the kitchen?  What’s in the living room?

You get the point.  You’re connecting — also called linking —  each new item with a place already  firmly placed in your memory bank (in this case the rooms of your home).  You make a good bond between them.  You exaggerate.  You visualize.  You associate.  And any other memory device you already know about.  I’ll bet the potatoes end up in the toilet.

That’s it, in a nutshell.


All the  techniques you already use or know about  are likely to be involved in  of the method of places – which goes back at least as far as ancient Greek orators who didn’t have teleprompters and pictured  each main  point of their speeches,  odes or whatever, sequentially in the rooms of their houses and then retrieved them, safe and sound, as they went along.  It was a fine art by the 1600s when Matteo Ricci developed a memory palace of more than a thousand places — and was part of the education of the young Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal Rising.


Variations of the Method of Places

      The Grid method

GRIDUse a nine-square grid instead of your home.

It’s neater and portable.  You can make links between the items, too, as you go along, if you feel like it. Always start in the same square.  I suggest the upper left square, then snake to the right, then down one and to the left, then down again and to the right.  If you have more items, use a second grid.

I’ll post a couple of more variations of the Method of Places next time


Intelligent Memorizing Strategies in the Realms of Gold


pick-up sticks

imagesGetting Curious

Usually when you become absorbed in something — or fall in love with it; it’s the same thing – remembering happens without conscious effort.  All of a sudden it’s been “memorized.”  For example, scores of poems are stored in my memory, but I didn’t “try” to memorize or learn any of them.  They were fascinating. My nonconscious mind did the rest.  If you’re not interested to begin with, use the Mess-Around Method I’ve described in some of my other posts; that is, browse, be playful, have some fun with the stuff.  More often than not, you’ll find yourself becoming curious.  You’ll begin to notice patterns, and you’re on your way.  Your body takes rubbings, your senses envelope the rose, the lover’s eyes – whatever your body  “looks upon.”

Taking Charge

Here are some of the techniques involved that you may not be conscious of.   If a test or some work requirement is urgent, you can use them on purpose.  You’re already using most of them – perhaps not consciously  –  so this is just a reminder.


Rhythm and Rhyme
Coined Words/ Acronyms
Humor, Exaggeration, Irreverence

                                        The Enabling Mode: Relaxed playfulness


All memory techniques boil down to making connections, to association,.  Making connections is involved in all deliberate, conscious memory work. The more links you create the more ways you will have to find the information later. If you want to store things on purpose, make associations, the more the better.

●  Analogy

Students learning the relationship of current, resistance, and voltage,sometimes use this analogy. “The flow of electricity through wires is like the flow of water through pipes.”

That doesn’t mean they are the same. Current, resistance, and voltage are like the flow of water, the pipe’s diameter, and the pressure pushing it. If you can see the similarity, you can  do things with wiring and so forth until it all becomes “second nature”, sort of like training wheels – another analogy.  We’re just plain naturally “wired” to notice likeness – and difference.


See it.

Kids use visualization to remember how to spell troublesome words.

Make it bigger: Parallel?  paraLLel. (Notice the parallel letters in para ll el.)
       There, their, they’re?: THEre, THEir, THEy’re

To spell piece correctly, notice the piece of pie in piece.  And so on.

If a word won’t stick, do something visual to it. Kids know dozens of memory tricks for spelling.

After you use the word a few times, you won’t need the memory device.  I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words over the years.  They flow off my finger tips without thought. I still have a copyeditor go over my manuscripts, though.

                         When it’s time to edit, pretend you’re a rotten speller.

Test-Taking Tip
Students who first take time to visualize the place where they prepared for the tests score higher than those who don’t.  My guess is that the setting contains lots of nonconscious rubbings (connections) with what you’re working on, all sorts of associations we’re unaware of.  Seeing the setting makes the connections available to the conscious mind.
During a test visualize the place where you studied.

The Role of Music

                        The universe is a musical composition.

The music of the spheres is vibrating in throughout our  nervous systems, and the first thing we must do when we get up in the morning  is take down a musical instrument, as the 13th century poet Rumi wrote.  That is, we have to get tuned up, in tune with, the melody that’s playing around us.  That puts us in harmony with whatever’s on our plate.  If it’s getting ready for a test, we’ve taken a major step already.

The Music of the Spheres

The Music of the Spheres


There are plenty of studies that show that when we are relaxed and awake, we do much better at learning and remembering. Once I realized that, there would be calming music playing when students arrived at my classroom.  It became more and more a part of whatever we were doing.  Foreign language classes that have students singing are more successful than those that don’t.  A young man from Peru I know thought himself English watching Sesame Street and learning English-language songs. We all know that when we’re not attuned, we don’t ride our bikes as well.  And we certainly don’t enjoy the ride. 


Any batch of random information can be grouped one way or another.  When you play around with a pile of facts, they will fall into a pattern on their own, like yarrow sticks – if we don’t interfere.

All we have to do is be quiet and listen.

The mind insists on making connections.  It is very old and very wise.  Trust it.  John Phillip Sousa, the March King, said he took dictation from the inner chambers of his mind.  His compositions “came to him” complete.  It’s the same for everyone.   No doubt the nonconscious mind sees connections from the what the conscious mind passes over to it and puts it all together.

Here are a few of scores of  ways to use music in your long-term memory work. You may remember some of these simple examples from when you were a kid.  The concepts work just as well for adults.  They are perfectly respectable.   Whenever the material seems to call for it, see if a poem or a song would help.

Rhythm, Rhythm, Melody

I before e
except after c
or when sounded as a
as in neighbor and weigh

C is for cookie.
That’s good enough for me
Oh! Cookie, cookie, cookie
Starts with C.

Remember the Alphabet Song?  Kids know what works.  It’s a natural.

Coined Words

Once you’ve gotten the feel of the colors of the visual spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet), they can be retrieved in order.  You don’t have to remember nine things, just remember

                                                 ROY G. BIV.

One student examined the key vocabulary of his geology class and with some messing around coined SAM GALOPAGUS.  Maybe.  I’m taking his word for it.

The Great Lakes?


Their location on the map?

S       H       O

    M      E

Know these acronyms?



Planets out from the Sun?

     Mother Very Energetically Made a Jelly Sandwich Under No Protest.


Students in every field from surgery to mathematics have created memory devices such as acronyms, coined words, and sentences for storing essential facts.  With use, the device drops away and the desired material remains.

For longer lists, you can make up stories.

The twelve cranial nerves (olfactory, optic, oculomotor, troclear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, audiitory, glossophryngeal, vagus, accessory, and hypoglossal) could be stored into a sentence. A rhyming sentence would be even better.

On Old Olympus’s Towering Top
A Fat-Assed Giant Vaults and Hops

A story would require more involvement and even better retention:

At the oil factory (olfactory) the optician (optic) looked for the occupant (oculomotor) of the truck (troclear).  And so on.  You can’t help but form a mental picture as the story unfolds.

●  Humor, Exaggeration, Irreverence

        Make it funny, make it big, make it little, make it disreputable.

The mind delights in far-out, irrational connections.  If you have some fun thinking up socially unacceptable or humorous connections, you’ll remember.  Don’t be too serious.

This ought to get you started taking charge of the process.

In my next post, I’ll give you an overview of one of the most effective memory techniques of all: The Method of Places

The Zen of Remembering

As Good as Necessary

        Get Your A Book                                       Keys at Door

To remember well enough to get through your classes with high grades or to remember what you need at the store or to turn out the lights when you get ready for bed, you don’t have to be a memory whiz.  You don’t have to be a Matteo Ricci (1552 – 1610) – who developed mnemonics into a fine art and was fantastic at it – to get as good at remembering as you need to.

Most the tips I offered in the 1996 edition of Get Your  A Out of College I’ve used sometime or other, but I apply them only when I must.  I got pretty good at it when I was offering a college skills class and didn’t want to embarrass myself.  Generally, I try to fix it so that I don’t have to.

But for several years I memorized the first and last names of the students in my classes during one one-hour session.  And all the students did, too!  I did it as an experiment, and I was the last person to name everyone.  After a couple of times my hands quit sweating.  That was great for the semester, maybe even six months or so afterwards, but of my 20,000 students I remember the names of only a handful – who found their way into my long-term memory because their imprint was stronger –  and without conscious effort on my part.

I hope it’s becoming clear that you can remember as much as you want to or need to.

Generally,  I find ways to avoid all that effort.  So I add and item  to the grocery list on the refrigerator at the time I think of it.  If I don’t, short-term memory will erase it the minute I think of something else.  That’s just how the brain is designed.  So I go along with how our brains work.  If I’m out somewhere and don’t have some way to write down something important, then I’ll probably use a memory device – then and there – otherwise, poof!, it will be gone.  If I’ve been forgetting my cap or my reading glasses or my folder all over Alameda, I put my name and phone number on them–in BIG print. You can lay the car keys at the door you go out or  attach them to an over-sized key ring that’s impossible to miss.  And so on.

Assume your memory is rotten.  Then you can apply strategies to compensate.

Keys on LeashGo Along With How Your Brain Works

I tell my wife that I don’t have a good memory.  I do know lots of memory strategies, though.  I do know those.  Even without thinking of them for a long time, I can retrieve them. And I never even tried.  Working with them and getting the feel of them took care of it. (Taking rubbings.  See my 3/2/13 post.)  If you grew up with siblings, you don’t have to memorize them. You absorbed them, Bud and Sis and Joe; they are all over your organism.  You don’t have to memorize how to ride a bike. Whatever you do becomes part of you.  “There was a child went forth . . .”

The Zen way of remembering: Fall IN it, like falling IN love.

Oh, yes, and you can throw in the lines from Yeats’ “Memory .” (See my 3/2/13 post):



. . .  the mountain grass [you]
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare has lain.

Natural Aids to Memory

[The posts in this website are sequential, like the chapters of a book.  I put the earliest at the top.  If you want to go to the most recent, they’re listed on the left of this page.]

pick-up sticks

Get Your A Book





The Element of Love
 When you love something,  you don’t have to memorize.

For trivia storage, fake it.

In my previous post, before I fell in love, sort of,  with those peaks, what was the process I used to store all those mountain elevations in my mind where I could get at them later?

No one’s really sure how that works.  But we do know some of the things I consciously did.  You’ve probably used them and lots of others yourself from time to time.  Here, I’m just bringing them to your awareness.  Then, if you like, you can use them on purpose.

● Coincidence

● Visualization

● Comparison and Contrast

● Rhythm and Grouping

● Luck

● When I saw that Fuji’s elevation is the same as the number of months and days of the year (12 and 365), ah! the gift of coincidence!  In these realms of gold we live in, coincidence is all over the place, and the more you notice, the fewer things you’ll have to memorize.  It’s done for you.

● When I imagined myself on Adams looking north, “up”, to Rainier and south, “down” to Hood, I was visualizing.

When you’re sitting in a classroom trying to recall these elevations, picture yourself on Adams and your nonconscious will supply all sorts of data you didn’t even realize you were absorbing.  Visualizing is a powerful mnemonic (memorizing) tool.

● While I was messing around, I started associating the mountains with each other.  I even started making a meaningful sketch. Fuji and Adams are about the same. Rainier is about 2,000 feet higher.  Hood is about 1,000 feet lower.  Diablo is about a third.  Everest is two times higher than the highest of the American group

(By the way, using a pencil to trace, to draw, to copy, to connect, gets your motor neurons into the process, too.)

● Meanwhile, I was noticing similarities and differences among these mountain elevations.  That was going on all by itself.  It’s just natural, isn’t it?

Your body is a musical instrument. (You knew that, didn’t you?)

You can feel it acutely sometimes while listening to a concert or while dancing.  For the height of Diablo (3,849), I used rhythm and grouping.  Saying “three thousand eight hundred forty-nine” doesn’t have much going for it. Calling out the digits – “three, eight, four, nine”–  isn’t much better.  But put it in the poetic, musical, mode – “thirty-eight, forty-nine” – and your nonconscious sort of likes that.  Or if you say, “three-eight, four-nine” there’s an nice progression of  digits to notice, and it feels good on the tongue. Melodious.

Luck is a highly underrated participant in each moment of our lives.

It’s there all the time, and we can deliberately make it our ally.  It’s just luck – I guess – that some of the elevations make interesting patterns.  Hood: one, one, two, four, five (11, 245).  Rainier: One, four, four, four, four (14,444).  If we’re alert for such lucky accidents, they seem to pop up everywhere.

Relaxed and Comfortable

You may have noticed other natural mnemonic (memorizing) devices involved in  fooling around with the numbers.  If initial study of the material is treated as play, these natural memory aids will crop up automatically.

The hidden school subject that no one teaches is the art of memorizing, but how much you can remember for some quiz or test is what’s being graded.

In my next post, I’ll pass on some age-old mnemonic tricks.

Memorizing Raw Data

Get Your A Bookimages





The Mind Is a Connecting Organ.

Storing masses of unrelated data is impossible.

If the nonconscious mind doesn’t see relationships, bits of data float  loosely around and can’t be summoned for trivia tests.  The mind doesn’t know where to look.  The bits and pieces probably are in there somewhere, but there’s no way to find all those isolated pieces.

Normally, in our real life – the life outside of school –

We learn the things we love.


Here’s a way to get  all the senses into the mix .  It’s  from a reflection a student of mine from Puerto Rico wrote after she had spent a day on Mt. Diablo near our college. You can do this with raw data, too.  Just let yourself get the feel of the facts.

Dear McKowen:  I have spent a Sunday up on the mountain of Diablo: Motorcycling up and down, looking at the scenic view. . . .  I brought back all the world on my face — cheeks set aglow by sunset sky, planes, hawks, people, woods, horses, spring flowers and wind.

It could be pinball machines, bluegrass, auto mechanics, the internet, ballet, oceanography.  After sailing around awhile in that sea , we realize we’ve amassed hundreds of terms – without even trying.  They’ve become interwoven in a pattern our nonconscious mind has generously created for us.

Terminology follows interest.  It doesn’t  precede it.

Unfortunately, in way too many school courses, you  are expected to memorize the vocabulary first. That’s backwards.  If students had a chance to fiddle around with a new subject first, they would absorb the language and ideas automatically.

An Example of Natural Memorizing

A colleague of mine, Karl Staubach, had been a forester on Mt. Adams in Washington.  When I was working on the first edition of my college skills book, I decided to give Karl a little memory quiz.

Karl, what’s the height of Mt. Adams?406

Oh, it’s 12,326 feet.

What about Rainier?  (Which you can see from the west side of Mt. Adams)

That’s 14,444

And Mt. Hood?  (visible to the south)


OK.  How about Fujiyama?


All right.  Everest, the highest mountain in the world?

It’s 29,002.  It’s really 29,000, but that doesn’t look scientific, so they added 2 feet.

One more.  Mt. Diablo (That’s a mountain near the college where we taught.)

The biggest mud pile in the United States: 3,849

The point is Karl never tried to memorize those elevations.  Knowing them is a by-product of his interest in nature.  No doubt he could tell the elevation of just about every other major mountain in the world.  He knows all sorts of things about trees, too, and spiders and rocks and snakes. But he did not study these things; he would consider such behavior undignified.

This encyclopedic knowledge is the result of fascination, absorption and love.

Fall in love with something, and you won’t need to memorize it.

Before bar codes, the checkers at my supermarket learned hundreds of new prices every week.  A student of mine who served cocktails in a bar could remember the drinks of a dozen people at a table and automatically bring a second round, getting each person’s drink mixed exactly as ordered.  When I was a division chairman, I knew the office numbers of all 37 division members, most of their phone extensions, their schedules, all course numbers and titles. I never tried to memorize any of that information.  Some nonconscious ally of the cocktail server, the checker, and the division chairman knew how to store the data and make it accessible for retrieval.

An Example of Making Raw Data Meaningful

But then you could find yourself in a required course and a teacher who demands that everyone memorize the elevations of six mountains – or 12 or a 100 – without your ever setting foot on any of them, or smelling the air or swimming in an icy mountain lake or seeing paw prints of a cougar on the trail.  That situation is fairly typical of schooling, isn’t it, and it happened to me.

Since I was not very interested in mountains at the time, I thought this would be a good chance to try out a memory strategy, to commit raw data to memory long enough to pass a test, even though I couldn’t care less about the subject.  Here’s a description of how it went – at least for the part of the process I was conscious of.

First, I jotted down the data I needed for the quiz.  Since they meant nothing to me, there was no order.

Adams  12,326

Diablo  3,849

Hood  11,245

Everest  29,002

Fuji   12,365                                Rainier  14,000

I started playing around to see what I might notice, light and easy and not really trying.  Right away I noticed Rainier: 14,444 – a 1 and all those 4s.  And look at Everest: so much higher than any of the others – 29,002, a little over twice as high as Rainier.  (And the 2 at the end seemed so odd that I doubted I would forget it.)

Wait a minute!  Look at Fuji: 12,365, a natural memory device built right into it – 12 and 365, the number and months in a year and the number of days in a year.  (I’ve never forgotten the height of Fuji since I first saw that.  How could I?)

Then I put Fuji and Adams side by side: 12,365 and 12,326 – a 39-foot difference, practically no significance at all.  Look again at Adams: the digit sequence is almost the same as Fuji, and four of the five digits are indeed the same.  Move the 6 to the right and stick in a 2; it boils down to the last two digits, and one unchanged and moved to the right.  Only the 2 is new.  So if I could retrieve Fuji (and who couldn’t?), Adams was duck soup.

Now look at Hood: 11,245, about 1,100 feet less than Adams or Fuji.  That a good look at the digits: 1, 1, and 2, then doubled to 4, plus one for a 5 – 11,245, a nice pattern of digits.

280px-View_of_Mount_Diablo_and_CA_Highway_24_from_Lafayette_HeightsAs you can see, Diablo doesn’t come up to even half the elevation of the least of the others.  It’s about one-third the height of Fuji or Adams.  And look at the digits.  Three-eight, four-nine; 3-8, 4-9.  Take the digits of the 38 and add 1 to each: 49.

Continuing to play, I remembered that I had backpacked on Adams. Looking north I could see Rainier.  Hood could be seen to the south.  You go “up north” and “down south.”  Rainier is “up” and higher.  Hood is “down” and lower.  Rainier is about 2,100 feet higher than Adams.  Hood is about 1,100 feet lower.

Get Involved

Your senses are a powerful aid to connecting up the bits and pieces. 

When you try to recall something, summon where you were, the setting, and all sorts of support you didn’t even realize becomes available.  So, draw pictures, get the feel, whatever senses you can throw into the mix.  Here’s a drawing we put into Get Your A Out of College to show how you could do this.  But there are all sorts of ways to connect up the pieces.  Be my guest.












Look what happened.  Merely by playing, messing around, I began building relationships.  Starting with Adams as the kingpin, I was able to retrieve all the other elevations or come close enough to get them all correct on a multiple-guess test.

No one has yet nailed for sure  what the process really is that stored this information for me, but we do know some of the circumstances that accompany such good storage.


Guess what happened to me while I was storing trivia?  I started getting interested in mountains, especially all those beautiful volcanic mountains that dot the drive from California to Canada. In fact, I’ve spent days and days on some of them and the theme picture for this website is Mt. Shasta. That’s education — so different from schooling!

In my next post I’ll point out some of these natural aids to memory.


Your Powerful Natural Memory

Natural Memory – on Purpose:


Get Your A Book









For the unnatural process of storing and recalling trivia – in classrooms or offices,


Why It Works

When you’re stressed out, it’s hard to learn.  Learn the way a little kid does.  It’s child’s play.

Think how you feel when you learn to do things you love.  You feel alive and well, and every bit of energy you use counts.  You’re like a cat, at ease but not passive.  All parts of your body and mind work in harmony.   Be like that when you study, and you’ll learn and remember as easily as a little kid learns language.



Play Music

When you study, play the slow movement of a symphony of  a composer like  Bach, Corelli, Handel, Teleman, Vivaldi – instrumental music preferably.  We’re not sure why this works, but the pace is  at about that of the alpha rhythms of your brain.

Take a Half-Speed Walk

One step per second (described in my 1/15/13 post) until you feel yourself quieted down.

The idea is to give your conscious mind something to do so that it can’t play distracting self-critical tapes.  Your mind and body get a chance to work together harmoniously.  Then, what you’re playfully picking up in the left hemisphere of your brain (for most people) can pass over to the non-conscious right side, which creates a meaningful network of interconnected data.

This is where understanding occurs, but it’s also  a safe, secure place for storing your data, not randomly but in a network of connections.

Tune Up Your Sensorium

A Great Alternative to the Half-Speed Walk:

Sit in a comfortable chair, play the music, shut your eyes and give your attention to your toes.

As soon as you’re aware of your toes and can actually feel them (without moving them), move your attention back along your feet, your heels, your ankles, and so on.

Once you fully sense your feet, move on, up your legs, up your torso, your arms, the back of your head, until the senses of your whole body are wakened.

Your body will feel tingly all over, and any stress will have drained away.



If you want to store up stuff for later recall, your mind has to find a framework or create one.

Beginning at the beginning is going blindly into the wilderness without a map.  Without an overview, any effort to memorize is futile.  The circuitry has to be set up.  You need a format.

Messing around is another name for formatting.

The rest is pretty much the mess-around strategy I described in my  11/11/12 post for reading, browse, focus, absorb, reinforce.

Play your music and use a relaxation exercise.  

You should feel good – comfortable and awake but not tense, no sense of pressure.  Then look over the job.  Do a pass through.  It doesn’t matter where you start.  You can move in any direction and pause anywhere, for as long as you like.  Let your curiosity guide you.  When you feel saturated, take a break.

When you’re ready, come back and do another pass through the whole thing again.

Keep messing around in this fashion until you become aware of the pattern.
Meaning will begin to emerge and take form.

Keep playing with the material. 

At some point you will become aware of a pattern taking shape.  Gradually you will flesh out your understanding.

Don’t try to memorize anything until you can say, “Yes.  I really do understand this.”

If you have no experience with the subject at all, you might feel nervous and inadequate.  (little kids would never feel like that, but you may well have suffered through lots of judgmental classrooms over the years that you haven’t got out of your system yet.) So go away for a while.  Your nonconscious will be working on it in the meantime.

Keep coming back.

Suddenly It Makes Sense

Seemingly on their own, things that appeared hopelessly vague will suddenly start making sense.  Just let it happen.  There can be a number of passes through, some long, some short, some superficial, some intense.


Sometimes you may want to interact.  Go right ahead.

Try problems, draw pictures, fool around with possibilities.

The total time spent will be no longer than that of typical, fruitless methods, but the results will be amazing.  You will have shifted the learning (and storage of data) to your brilliant nonconscious mind, which does this sort of thing effortlessly.

Your conscious and nonconscious programs will be working in harmony, and you will actually feel refreshed.

Bottom Line:

Browse.  Browse.  Browse.


When you feel thoroughly comfortable and familiar with the material and confident that you do understand, then see if there is anything left to memorize.  You will find there is hardly anything left to worry about.  Without even trying, you will have done most of the memorizing, and the material will be lodged far more permanently in your mind than it would have been with conventional study methods.

In my next post, I’ll describe a couple of ways people have figured out for storing and recalling trivia.