How Audio & Visual Mnemonics Are Transforming How We Learn


Medical school is the best, worst learning environment.

Medical students around the country are completely overwhelmed with the sheer volume of information they need to master in just a short amount of time.

This burden of conquering vast amounts of information and accepting an inordinate amount of responsibility quickly causes all kinds of problems for even the most ambitious twentysomethings.

Common psychological and social issues like interpersonal relationship problems, sleep loss, reduced focus, short-term memory loss, depression, and even physically altering effects like headaches and malnutrition begin to take their toll.

People are on board that medical school needs to evolve. But no one knows what to do. Or where to begin.

But there must be a better way than flipping through flashcards for the thousandth time or locking yourself in the library for 10 hours a day, 7 days a week.

And that was the spark that lead two young students studying for Step 1 to try something a little different…

The Humble Origins of a Fast Growing Tech Start-up

Adeel Yang and Ron Robertson were like most second year med students cramming at the University of Arizona — completely frustrated and exhausted with trying to memorize so many mind-numbingly boring, arcane facts.

Before long, they started making up ridiculous, humorous stories as a way to lighten the mood and create more context around what they were learning. Soon these audio-visual mnemonics took on a life of their own. And the two friends knew they were on to something interesting.

Ron and Adeel started exploring ways they could use technology — specifically the cloud-based infrastructure and massive scale of the internet —  to bring their vision to the masses. And as with so many successful technology startups before them, they “scratched their own itch” and built something they wished existed when they needed it.

Fast forward to today, and Picmonic is a profitable, revenue generating start-up out of Arizona that’s transforming how medical students study for the USMLE Step 1. They’ve made a huge dent in the “test prep” market for med students, and were recently featured on Stanford Medicine’s Scope with other “21st century” study tools.

But the most exciting thing about Picmonic… is that it works. Students using Picmonic improved their memory retention (not just experience) by 162%.

Here’s how their revolutionary approach to helping students memorize and recall vast amounts of information can be applied to all styles of learning.

The Science Behind Picmonic

The key behind Picmonic’s success is their philosophy of evidence based learning, which can be summarized neatly in a few points:

  1. Pictures are better than words

  2. Mnemonics work for improving memory retention; visual mnemonics work even better

  3. Mnemonics help you apply information better

  4. Make new terms more meaningful by associating them with something familiar and unforgettable

  5. Organize your information and give it context to improve recall

These core points form the foundation of Picmonic’s products. They start by creating picture-word associations with original characters (like Pencil Villain for Penicillin). Next, they create light-hearted, humorous stories around the artwork, and include other audio/visual effects to bring these stories and characters to life.

Currently they have over 600 “cards” spanning over 4,000 facts in their library. Each card has in-depth topic overviews with links to additional resources like First Aid. Users can write down their personal notes, and share comments or suggestions with others.

In the upcoming Version 2 that’s launching soon, they’re expanding this “social” functionality to allow users to create and share their own stories and information. So while you’re currently able to focus on individual memorization, the new social features will mimic study groups and provide new perspectives on different topics.

Why Picmonic Matters

While Picmonic’s main product focuses on medicine, the learning system they’ve built can easily expand and apply to other industries. And their innovative approach provides a blueprint for the future of learning.

Students today aren’t using textbooks or lectures. Because, well… they don’t work.

 The purpose of medical school isn’t to see who can cram and regurgitate the most information. The purpose is to <em>master</em> this information and make this knowledge useful through analysis and application (à la Bloom’s taxonomy).

Despite academia’s slow adoption, the good news is that there are signs of life.

One of the most encouraging signs for the future of learning (not just med school) is that the students themselves — the people closest to the problem and forking the bill — are being proactive in seeking out new methods.

And if the solutions don’t already exist, then they’re brave and creative enough to invent their own.



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