Tuesday, March 13, 2012


This word is difficult to pronounce, but a useful concept. A mnemonic is a learning device to aid memory. For example, many of us use a simple mnemonic to help us remember the names of the five Great Lakes: HOMES, for Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.

60 years ago, I was studying at Oxford for my final exams, leading to my BA degree . I still have the workbook that I used to assist my final preparation, which succeeded in bringing me what I believe I actually deserved: a safe entry into the upper half of a Second class honors degree. Almost all students took courses to lead (if successful!) to an Honors degree.There were a few Firsts, many Seconds (informally divided into upper and lower levels), a similar number of Thirds--and for a few folk, some Fourths. This might be the reward for brilliant answers that didn't respond to the actual questions...

(Apart from total failure, there was the possibility of "Sections". This meant that a little more study, etc., could bring you a Pass degree. You could still add "B.A.(Oxon)" after your name--but not "B.A.(Hons.) (Oxon)".

My "major" was English Language and Literature. For most students, this involved just two university-wide exams: "Prelims" and Finals .As an ex-serviceman, I was exempt from Prelims. So, in the summer of 1952, I needed to pass about a dozen separate exams over less than a week--or have no degree.

My system was to choose words to start my mnemonics, including an initial letter, which I memorized. Usually, the initial letters of the key phrases would form a word. I found that "off color" phrases were easier to remember, but one mnemonic was more seemly: "THE BIBLE AMEN". On other occasions I would try to remember a whole sentence.

Of course, we were not given the questions in advance of sitting down to take the exam. I managed to commit to memory some generic facts likely to feature in the exam questions.

When I began my studies, I was astonished to learn that the course involved nothing written after 1820--except there was a voluntary exam on "modern" literature of the 19th Century. (Few took this extra exam, as one was not excused one of the other papers.) So, no Dickens, Wordsworth, or Thackeray. Even the "modern" paper omitted T.S.Eliot and Rupert Brooke. I could, however, enjoy Jane Austen and consider that "work".

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