It is often useful to memorize a set of items. Many times ordering is not important and we need to memorize a lot of sets. I already know a method for memorizing lists where we memorize an item for each number and then create crazy associations between the new items and our memorized list of items. This method is not so good when we want to memorize e.g.

DivisionA = { John, Robert, Alex, Arnold, Sarah }
DivisionB = { another 5 names }
DivisionC = { another 5 names }
DivisionX = { another 5 names }

This is only a possible example. The sets can change during time, so the memory technique should be flexible. There are a lot of real life examples where is it useful to memorize a set, e.g. a doctor could learn a set of side effects of certain drug. A historian could learn family members of certain king. A movie-expert would like to remember filmography of certain director. There are a lot of such examples when people desire to remember higher number of sets.

Another technique that I don't find much smart is suggested here as converting the set to the list and then memorizing the successors of individual items with spaced repetition. Though, converting to some kind of ordering or association with something else seems to be unavoidable. The bad part is actually the pure memorization.

The disadvantage of the method of loci is that we have to memorize many locations (prepare them in advance) before we can store items to discrete places in that locations. Maybe this technique could be improved in some way.

Which memory techniques are appropriate for this task? It should have long time retention, good recall, be dynamic (sets can change a little during time).

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    $\begingroup$ If I were forced to memorize it I would just utter: "John robs a leg urn old Sarah" for first one and capture the whole image under 'A'. $\endgroup$ Dec 10, 2012 at 2:23

2 Answers 2


The literature generally provides strong support for the use of self-testing in cases like this, particularly via the use of flash cards (Karpicke and Roediger, 2008). The efficacy of self-testing for facilitating learning of arbitrary or complex sets of items has been suggested to be driven largely by the combination of two effects: the generation effect (Slamecka and Graf, 1978) captures the tendency for active retrieval of memory (e.g. fill-in-the-blank) information to increase the probability of successful future recall, as well as the spacing effect (Donovan and Radosevich, 1999), which captures the tendency for learning at a moderate intensity over time to outperform learning all at once.


Donovan, J. J., & Radosevich, D. J. (1999). A meta-analytic review of the distribution of practice effect: Now you see it, now you don't. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 795-805.

Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science, 319(5865), 966–968. doi:10.1126/science.1152408

Slamecka, N. J., & Graf, P. (1978). The generation effect: Delineation of a phenomenon. Journal of experimental Psychology: Human learning and Memory, 4(6), 592-604.


Look up Memory Palaces. I taught my girlfriend all the a-typical antipsychotic drugs in about an hour (there were 10 or something. I don't remember.) It was her first time doing it and she still remembers the whole list, in order, 6 months later. Using that "palace," she can add all the drug side effects to each medication by filling the room she placed her item in.

The memory palace technique is perfect for people in science and medicine. For memorizing poetry word for word, I chunk a few words together and memorize the most significant word. It's much easier than filling a memory palace with a ton of words. You can also use this to receit speeches.

If you want a fun, quick read on this, dive into Moonwalking with Einstein.

It's a skill that takes practice and serious effort. And yes, memorizing a few Shakespeare poems has come in handy. Being asked unexpectedly if I brought a poem to a poetry reading, hands empty, was probably the smoothest moment of my life. It's like in Anchorman when Ron plays the jazz flute, except you can bring your jazz flute anywhere.

You'll always be entertained, too, if you memorize some good stuff. Just remember it again and you can experience it anywhere. When you're climbing uphill after a long bike ride, it's like you can turn on the TV.

Edit: Also good to learn memory techniques so you can remember all your map directions and not have to keep checking your phone to go somewhere new.

Double edit: Don't be discouraged by the hour figure. Any normal guy can remember a deck of cards in order after having 10 minutes to memorize it. It just takes practice and a diary to monitor your skill and become an expert.

Daniel Temmet, the math savant, went from normal to incredible by practicing memorization.

And if you memorize by route, just reading and re-reading until you get it in your head long enough to pass a test, you're doing it wrong.

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    $\begingroup$ 1) this does not appear to answer the OP's question. it seems he is aware of techniques like the method of loci (memory palace), but wants a technique that can be used for unordered lists. the MOL is typically used for ordered lists. 2) personal anecdotes can sometimes be informative, but they are not answers in and of themselves. in fact they should typically be avoided unless they add some relevant, factual information to the answer. 3) "look up memory palaces" is not an answer. even if memory palaces were relevant, a good answer requires that you describe how the technique works. $\endgroup$
    – Jeff
    Nov 23, 2012 at 4:58
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    $\begingroup$ He's talking about the PEG system. He doesn't say anything about the loci system I'm describing. $\endgroup$ Nov 23, 2012 at 5:00
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    $\begingroup$ My anecdote is giving my suggestion social proof which could make the difference between him spending effort to learn more or ignoring my suggestion. How can you discourage user-generated content? $\endgroup$ Nov 23, 2012 at 5:03
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    $\begingroup$ And sometimes people just want to feel important. Clearly I'm one of those people if I need to dribble on like this. Humor me and stop with all the downvoting. I'll add an explanation to my answer when I'm by a keyboard. $\endgroup$ Nov 23, 2012 at 5:05
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    $\begingroup$ I can assure you that it's nothing personal; downvoting is an important part of SE. Please don't be offended. $\endgroup$
    – Jeff
    Nov 23, 2012 at 5:13

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