COMPASS - The implementation of memory strategies in 21st century classrooms

By Heather Y. Boone and Meaghan G.J. Reist


Heather Y. Boone, B.A.(Hons), B.Ed., M.C. 


Heather Boone graduated from Memorial University in 2004, Newfoundland, with a BEd. She teaches high school English at Olds High School in Alberta and completed a Masters of Counselling Psychology in 2013 through a joint program from University of Calgary, University of Lethbridge, and Athabasca University.  Heather is also a provisional psychologist and works to amalgamate psychology and education, seeking innovative ways to enhance student learning through a psychological perspective. 

Meaghan G.J. Reist, B.A., M.Ed.


Meaghan Reist teaches high school English at Olds High School in Alberta. She graduated from the University of Lethbridge in 2006 with a BEd and completed her Masters of Education program at the University of Calgary specializing in Educational Leadership. Meaghan works to personalize learning for students in 21st century classrooms, team-teaches high school English at Olds High School, and seeks collaborative methods focused on curriculum retention.



Traditional approaches to memorization are accessible to some students, but not all; furthermore, some techniques are more applicable to one subject area than another. In today’s education system, 21st century learning needs require personalization, flexibility, and engagement to effectively reach all students, and the Curriculum Oriented Memory Palace Association Strategy for Success (COMPASS) caters to student needs. COMPASS is a teacher-directed and teacher-created learning initiative applicable to all curricula. Teachers, using the ancient Method of Loci, develop a Memory Palace for all students by pre-constructing and providing mnemonic memory practices to each student, instead of requiring they develop these structures on their own. COMPASS caters to 21st century learning needs by integrating past memorization practices, utilizing present psychology research and promoting creativity in future classrooms to improve student success surrounding memorization.


Word. Definition. Example. Word. Definition. Example. This is how we learned it in high school. This is how our parents learned it in high school. As we looked out over a sea of blank faces, students numb to traditional instruction, we knew we needed a change. It was painfully clear our students did as well.

As high school English teachers, our curriculum requires we teach a variety of course specific terms, many of which are challenging to students. English is similar to other subjects like Physics, Chemistry, and Social Studies where students are bombarded with multiple terms and definitions. However, we always found English terminology challenging for students to learn, understand, and retain. We asked ourselves, who wants to learn alliteration and juxtaposition in English when they can study metamorphosis and genetic mutations in the Biology?

We needed a way for English terminology to stick. After years of note taking, vocabulary tests and other ineffective study strategies, we knew most traditional in-class approaches to memorization were only accessible to few. Recognizing 21st century learning needs, we employed personalization and engagement as a way to reach the majority of our students through the use of COMPASS.


Looking Back

The Curriculum Oriented Memory Palace Association Strategy for Success (COMPASS) was developed after a psychoeducational assessment was completed in our school. In the assessment, a student was diagnosed with a learning disorder and the psychologist who completed the assessment suggested this particular student could benefit from a strategy called the Memory Palace – an ancient memory aid in which the individual uses spatial memory to remember words or lists of words. Upon considering this strategy for one student, we decided to utilize the Memory Palace method to impact entire classrooms.

Interestingly, the psychologist’s suggestion to use the Memory Palace was the first time either of us heard of this particular mnemonic. However, the use of mnemonics in education is not a novel concept. The Memory Palace, also known as the Method of Loci, is considered the oldest known memory aid and was developed approximately 2000 years ago (Amiryousefi & Ketabi, 2011; Foer, 2011; Nager & Heinrichs, 2009; Robson, 2014). In his bestselling novel, Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer explores various memory aids used by the ‘mental athletes’ who participate in world memory competitions. Through his self-exploration on mnemonics, he delves into Memory Palace technique and its history in education. Foer explains that, prior to the renaissance, mnemonic systems “profoundly shaped the way people approached the world” and then seemed to disappear (p. 18). As Foer explains, these techniques were a fundamental component to classical education; however, with the advent of technology and the start of the printing press, modern gadgets negated the need for memorization and recall that was once required. Even today, day timers, electronic address books, and apps for shopping lists give us few opportunities to exercise our memory.

Although Foer describes teachers and memory experts utilizing mnemonic devices such as the Memory Palace in 21st century classrooms, this usage appears limited and has not achieved widespread success in the general classroom. Hodges (1982) states, “many teachers do not use or know the major mnemonic techniques themselves” (p.23) and he emphasizes the importance of their use in the classroom. Our success with COMPASS in our classes indicates a strong need for these techniques within the heavily laden curriculum of secondary schools; yet, these strategies still have not surfaced sufficiently enough in the high school classroom despite their proven success.

Hodges (1982) recommends teachers educate students on different mnemonic techniques and should also provide “ready-made” mnemonics to their classes. Additionally, Amiryousefi and Ketabi (2011) state teachers should offer mnemonic devices to students when they are unable to come up with these strategies on their own. Yet, our own experience in the Canadian education system suggests educators are not fully aware of the mnemonic systems that exist and how these systems might be employed to benefit student learning. Furthermore, even if educators are knowledgeable about existing mnemonics, they may be only providing that information to students in a way that would require additional self-direction and motivation from the students themselves. Therefore, rather than providing students with the method and assuming they have the knowledge and ability to create and employ these strategies, COMPASS is a teacher-directed learning initiative.

In the COMPASS process, teachers are creators who construct a Memory Palace for all students in their classroom. This teacher-led process eliminates the use of the mnemonic technique for a select few students and instead provides all students with a “ready-made” system rather than relying on the students to create their own palace themselves. Although this process requires more initial work for the educator, the process can benefit the entire class - especially those students who would lack the initiative and ability to explore mnemonics independently.


The Creative Process

As students prepare for graduation and post-secondary ventures, the provincial standardized final exams have a significant impact on a student’s final grade in high school. Heavily weighted and challenging, these exams ensure students know terminology from their previous twelve years of education. Unfortunately, there is no way to prepare students for which terms will be on the exam, therefore many teachers feel pressured to ensure students know all literary terms from past years of instruction.

Twelve years of terminology is a daunting task for any teacher; and, although many figures of speech and literary terminologies should be remembered from past instruction, many grade 12 students feel they are learning them for the first time. In the past, we employed a variety of different methods to help students memorize these definitions. But all these methods using standard and traditional instruction resulted in limited success. To address student anxiety and ensure we prepared them as best we could, COMPASS was created.

COMPASS is a day in the life of our average student in a home they are very familiar with. Utilizing the basic idea of the Method of Loci, we associate literary terms with areas in the home. By selecting a physical space students are familiar with, we ask them to attach terminology and a scenario to a setting already solidified in their long-term memory. Theoretically, this attachment makes it easier to remember new literary terms. The result, for every vocabulary term, is a four-step process. First, students may be asked to visualize a room and an object or person (e.g. your friend sitting on the couch) and to then visualize a word written on that object or person (e.g. juxtaposition on your friend’s forehead). The definition of the word is given, and a humorous moment occurs within that space associated with the term (e.g. a comparison of humorous tattoos; see Figure 1). As a result, the term, the space, and the scenario are associated together; and, in the likelihood one memory is recalled, the other associated words and actions are more likely to be retrieved.

For COMPASS to be successful, personalization is essential. Students must internalize examples, terms and definitions and, to ensure this is possible, all descriptors are created with personalization in mind. When constructing our COMPASS scenarios in a familiar home, examples must be funny, appropriate, and easily relatable to every student despite age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, or family dynamic. These criteria prove challenging because it is easy to say “your friend walks to your door,” but eliminating the gender of that said friend for the duration of the lesson proves difficult. Furthermore, family dynamics are a concern because, if we want to reach all students, we must consider that many may not have a mom, dad, or sibling in the home. Instead, a cousin is utilized to try to reach as many students as possible.

The overall process combines familiarity with a humorous event to aid in memorization. Similar to recalling a funny joke, utilizing a humorous scenario increases the likelihood of recollection. On each day of our COMPASS activity, only five to six terms are covered. Limiting the number of terms each day ensures students are not overwhelmed with new vocabulary. When selecting terms for the pre-constructed COMPASS activities, we choose terms with high probability for testing on the diploma exam and those that would be simple to review.

Each student is required to write the words for the day on a sheet of paper in front of them. We have them study the words briefly to ensure they can visualize what the terms physically look like, and hopefully embed that visual recognition when utilizing the COMPASS strategy. We request they get comfortable, close their eyes, and visualize the day’s events as we read to them. Closing their eyes, and blocking out external distractions, is an important step in the process so students can concentrate on the mental image they create. Through the use of humor, word recognition, and repetition, each term is addressed by name, definition, and example in a unique manner. Using a familiar home in the process allows each student to engage and personalize the moment and the word, not just sit, read, and repeat for rote memorization. This method engages the learner, personalizes the descriptors, and forces each to internalize the terminology, not just memorize it.

Figure 1 illustrates an example from Day 1. Notice the use of repetition and pausing to ensure each student has time to hear, visualize, and internalize the term and definition.


Location - The Living Room

            Go into your living room and sit beside your friend on the couch. Imagine that couch (pause), picture your friend beside you (pause). The word JUXTAPOSITION is on your friend’s forehead. Picture the word JUXTAPOSITION on their forehead (pause). You take off your jackets to show off new tattoos. They are clearly JUXTAPOSED – when two things are placed beside one another to show contrast (pause). Your tattoos are clearly JUXTAPOSED as your friend got a Justin Bieber portrait while you got a skull tattoo. You wonder how you can be friends with this person because of just how different you are.

The word is JUXTAPOSITION on your friend’s forehead (pause).

 Figure 1.


Classroom Reception

Throughout the semester, we are intrigued by the positive feedback we receive from students about the COMPASS method. Our students are eager to participate in any strategies that might minimize their studying and maximize their success.

One grade 12 student explained she felt the COMPASS method limited her exam preparation and stated that “memorizing the words would have been more work” than using the Memory Palace method. Following the exam, another student explained why he felt the method improved his diploma mark. He explained that, while he was answering several questions on the exam, at first he “didn’t know the definitions of the word. But then [he] was able to retrace [his] steps in the house and get the right answer. [He was] sure [he] got the right answer in the end.” Our students felt more confident as they left their exams, and the marks received from the government weeks later confirmed their resolve.

Data analysis of exam items allows us to reflect on students’ performance in comparison to the province. Although our students usually perform above average on the entire examination itself, we are surprised at the discrepancies that exist on questions requiring terminology recall taught through COMPASS. Our students generally perform higher on all questions utilizing COMPASS, and in some cases they perform as much as 30% higher than provincial average. Additionally, these items show the highest discrepancies between student and provincial averages.

Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of the COMPASS method specifically, and the Memory Palace technique in general, is that it is not exclusive to English classes. Any subject area requiring memorization of specific terminology can utilize and benefit from the outlined procedure. In addition, any spatial area can be used to create a Memory Palace. As a result, even within one school, students can utilize different memory palaces in different subject areas (e.g. a street in Mathematics, the school itself for Social Studies, the inside of the family car for physics, etc.). Furthermore, because COMPASS is focused on personalization, it enhances a student’s ability to recall. As one student explained, “When something is personalized you can relate to it better than a standard memorization [technique]”. This process supports 21st century learners and the need to connect to their learning.

Educators in secondary schools understand their students are required to memorize a great deal of information to complete their high school courses and prepare for post-secondary. As a result, there are many applications for mnemonics in the classroom. Our experience with COMPASS proves students are eager to move from traditional methods of teaching and explore alternate ways to memorize information. The use of COMPASS is one such method.


Limitations and Considerations

Numerous studies explore the effectiveness of mnemonics, and many teachers have found ways to integrate the use of memory strategies in the classroom. A multitude of self-help books are also available to assist individuals who want to learn these strategies independently. Our development of COMPASS is simply one way to merge mnemonics and curriculum. The effectiveness of the Memory Palace strategy has been well-documented and researched; we now move forward in our initiative to find creative ways to integrate mnemonics and curriculum and rely on this research. Hodges (1982) indicates, “Many of our students do poorly in school because they use poor techniques to memorise the knowledge we ask them to learn” (p. 23). As 21st century educators, there is an important need for us to explore the area of mnemonics in greater depth and in all curriculum areas to help students achieve their highest level of success.


Looking Forward

The use of COMPASS in our classrooms prove the need to evolve in education, personalize all curriculum areas, and move forward with 21st century learning in a way that integrates successful practices of the past, the knowledge of psychology in our present, and the creativity that will propel us to the future. We believe mnemonics have a strong place in secondary education, and we encourage other educators to explore this area in more depth for the benefit of the classroom, not simply individual students.



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