What are Acronyms Again?

When I ask people how they would like to ‘be better’ and amazing number say they would like to improve their memory. In general this is an attention issue not a memory issue (see my post on Mindfulness for some help with this) but I will keep adding mini posts to help those who are similarly afflicted.

So what are acronyms again? I often think that people need a memory aids to remember what memory aids are! Acronyms are commonly used by students and teachers alike but they are often not nearly as effective as they could be because no one ever seems to teach how to create them in the first place.

Acronyms are easy for anyone who has written, probably in their formative years, an acrostic poem (although technically these are backronyms), as the principle is exactly the same: It is a word that has a ‘second layer’ that has more information. When I say it is a word, it doesn’t have to be a real one. Confused? Here are some examples:

Describe

Explain the consequences

Listen to the response

Agree options

Contract for success

Thank them

DELACT – A method of giving feedback (sorry to whoever invented this I can’t find a reference).

Situation

Task

Action

Result

STAR – The stages that need to be included when responding to questions in a competency based assessment.

So with this in mind what are they key components of an acronym:

  1. They need to be a relatively small amount of information to be retained (to be most effective)
  2. Each letter should be the first letter of the key word in the sentence/concept you want to retain
  3. The letter (and therefore the word they represent) need to not be easily substituted with other similar or related words or other words with the same first letter when the order is important – meaning should be clear.
  4. Each word or sentence that is represented by a letter needs to be fairly close in terms of relative importance (you aren’t throwing in letters just to make a funny word)

With these rules in mind how do the examples above do? Have a look now and evaluate them before reading on.

So what did you think? Let’s take DELACT, which isn’t bad. Once you understand the meaning behind it becomes clear that it is very important to remember to ‘Thank them’ at the end (i.e. it is as important as the others). It doesn’t matter that it isn’t a real word, in fact in some ways this may make it more memorable (you can’t substitute with another word with the same meaning). There are two letters that do concern me in this acronym – E: Explain the consequences. The reason for this is that the E is for ‘explain’, if you only remember the ‘E’ and therefore only the ‘Explain’ would you explain the reasons for your belief, or the explain the options or explain the theory of relativity? You get the idea. What would be a better letter? C. This is the more key concept, if you remember that the next stage is about Consequences you are more likely to remember that you need to explain them than visa versa. The next one that could cause concern is agree options. Why because the A leads the mind to Agree, in my mind at least I would be thinking about agreeing a way (singular) forward. This stage of the process is actually about creating options to choose from and then narrow down (Contract for success). So ‘O’ would be a better way forward, we then know that the stage is about creating option, there is a slight danger that we might think this is about presenting ultimatums but if we have our fundamental approach right this acronym should just be about remembering the recommended order of events. What are we left with ‘DCLOCT’. Now we know why that wouldn’t work – hard to remember because it is hard to pronounce. We can compromise with DELOCT.

This may seem like a lot of work for an acronym but there are some consequences I have experienced of getting it wrong (or not very right) such as:

1) The learner trying to remember the process, to remember the word, to remember the process: “I know we start be describing the Issue, and the Consequences, but that isn’t a word, I think we explain the consequences, that’s It! DELACT, so then we must  Listen, I think”. So this only really helps in that it makes the whole thing memorable (if confusing) but it not the speedy result that acronyms promise.

2) Substituting different word that confirms pre-existing beliefs, so A becomes acknowledge their feelings because I am a great believer in ‘that sort of thing’. All of a sudden we have very different approach I am acknowledging their feelings and then moving straight into contracting the outcome I want. I have gone from being very collaborative to dictatorial whilst superficially nodding and saying “Hmmm I understand”. This is in fact the exact opposite of what we were going for.

3) SHIFTY might be great and funny for remembering the neighbourhood watch code (very memorable because it fits) but you could spend a lot of time trying to rem,ember the last two eventually realising it was ‘That’s it, Your done’. You added it on the end just to make it fit. There is a balance between making it memorable and meaningless.

The above confusions are possible  no matter how good the acronym but I strongly believe that this can be significantly reduced by refining and using the best acronym possible (spend enough time on it and it will itself become very memorable). What you are aiming for is to improve the means of recalling something better that without the acronym. Even average acronyms can do this but poor acronyms can actually hinder recall.

So here is how to get your acronyms right – SKIM:

  • Small amount of info
  • Key words only
  • Importance of each word is similar
  • Meanings are clear/hard to Misinterpret

Ok so they aren’t the best sentences in the world but it obeys the rule. The truth is you are probably better off creating few acronyms with these rules in front of you and checking each one off. Once you have done this enough you won’t need the list anymore. Practice is the best memory aid.

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