Brain Hacks


A while back, I was corresponding with Dominic O'Brien about a future blog post. O'Brien is the eight-time World Memory Champion. Ironically, O'Brien forgot to send me an email attachments he'd promised.

Here's a guy who memorized 54 decks of shuffled cards. How was I going to remind him that he forgot something? And how did he forget it?

Then came my epiphany. To O'Brien, I was far less important than even one of the 2808 cards he memorized--not important enough for him to apply one of his go-to mnemonic devices. 

A number of studies show that mnemonic devices can speed up learning and long-term retention of information, even for students with disabilities. And sometimes they're fun. The following mnemonic methods are supported by research:

1. Acrostics are sentences that help students remember letters. To remember the elements of a plot, use. . .  

      Every           Exposition

      Ravenous   Rising Action

      Child           Climax

      Fruit            Falling Action

      Roll-ups      Resolution

Pro Tip: Use Spacefem's Mnemonic Generator.

2. Acronyms are words developed from the first letter of words to be recalled. To remember the great lakes, remember HOMES:

     H     Huron

     O     Ontario

     M     Michigan

     E     Erie

     S     Superior

3. Loci​ is a mental walk or visualizations to organize and remember information. It's sometimes referred to as a memory palace. "If you are memorizing a speech," writes Andrea McKay for, "it is helpful for the location to have a beginning, middle, and an end, perhaps similar to a route you have memorized on your way to work. You will 'store' parts of what you need to memorize throughout each space of the location you have chosen."

4. Pegwords help to remember numbers. First memorize this nonsense rhyme (see box below). 

To remember something like a phone number, "link these objects in a series using a story. For example: the number 654383 converts to Sticks-Hive-Door-Tree-Gate-Tree."

5. The Double Keyword Method links two distinct words that are unfamiliar to the students. Here is an example from Jeffrey Bakken and Cynthia Simpson:

Bakken, Jeffrey P., Simpson, Cynthia G., (2011)."Mnemonic Strategies: Success for the Young-Adult Learner." The Journal of Human Resource and Adult Learning, 79-85.

How to Hack Your Focus

David Rock, researcher and co-founder of the Neuroleadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work, found through his research that people are only deeply focused six hours a week. He recommends the following strategies to stay more focused:

1. Do creative work before starting mindless chores.

"Every decision we make tires the brain." So do the easy work later.

2. Practice concentration.

We get used to being distracted, says Rock. To break the habit, do work with all distractions eliminated for 5 minutes, then 10, and then build from there.

(Source: Nadia Goodman, Entrepreneur)

Teaching Strategies

Brain-Based Ways to Enhance Recall

Matt Miller, author of Ditch that Textbook (which ironically is a textbook), catalogues several brain-based learning strategies supported by research. Here are two:

1. Encourage students to recall concepts and facts-- a technique superior to rereading when reviewing a chapter. 

2. Let kids attempt to solve the problem before providing the solution. "When I remember how I figured it out," writes Miller, "that helps me remember the new content and gives me a new perspective on it."

Finally, the author of Ditch that Textbook reminds teachers, "Learning is stronger when it matters, when the abstract is made concrete and personal."

(Source: Ditch That Textbook)

Scaffolding Reading Instruction

Scaffolding in education means "structure," writes Jamie McKenzie (in his excellent article about scaffolding). "Without clear structure and precisely stated expectations, many students are vulnerable to a kind of educational 'wanderlust' that pulls them far afield."  

Stephanie Wrobleski, in TeachHub, recommends the following scaffolding for reading instruction: 

1. Provide pictures as a reference - "Present students with video clips, a montage of internet photographs or even original photographs to show them what the setting or other concept looks like."

2. Ask "What if . . ?" - "Pose a 'what if' question to students based on an incident, topic or theme in the story. Allow students to explore this idea from their own perspective before reading it from the character’s or author’s point of view."

3. Make provocative statements related to ideas in the text -ReadWriteThink has a well-designed Anticipation Guide handout that can be used to generate interest and discussions.

(Source: Stephanie Wrobleski, Teachhub)


The percentage of 4th graders who cannot read proficiently who will end up in jail or on welfare: 35%.

(Source: Jennifer Howard)

How much food, in dollars, the average family wastes each year: $2,000.

(Source: Wil Fulton, Thrillist)


"Love is giving someone the power to destroy you but trusting them not to." - Unknown (via Lifehack)

The percentage of time most high school kids say they feel tired, bored, or stressed: 75%


The amount of paper the average teacher uses in his or her classroom each year: 25,000 sheets.

(Source: Ben Johnson)

The amount of forest that will disappear in order to supply paper by the time you finish reading this paragraph: 20 football fields. 

(Source: Green Schools)

Tech Watch

What's in that Photo?

The WTF is That? chatbot, uses A.I. and crowdsourcing to identify objects in your photos.

How good is it? 

It can tell me that my photo has two men sitting on a bench, but doesn't recognize that one of the men is Martin Luther King, Jr. And I can't wait for it to identify trees!

(Source: Laughing Squid)


LinkBunch - Turn a bunch of links into one tiny link to share on social media or anywhere. 

MailBigFile - Send content to anyone--up to 2GB--for free.  

Converter:  Listen to Youtube on the Go

FTLV converts Youtube videos into a downloadable mp3 audio file so you can listen on your phone, iPod, or mp3 player.


STUDY: How Harmful is Yelling at Your Kids?

A two year study of middle class kids in ten public middle schools should disturb families--even loving families--that yell at their children. The authors report the following:

1) Harsh verbal discipline has a negative impact equivalent to physical discipline

2) When parent are otherwise warm and loving, that doesn't mitigate the damage either. 

The researchers report that problem behaviors are aggrandized by harsh verbal and physical abuse. Also, when parents say that they are spanking kids out of love, that doesn't mitigate the damage.

(Source: Hat tip to Katie Riley's who reported on this study: Wang, M.-T., & Kenny, S. (2014). Longitudinal Links between Fathers’ and Mothers’ Harsh Verbal Discipline and Adolescents’ Conduct Problems and Depressive Symptoms. Child Development, 85(3), 908–923.)

"Be yourself; everyone else is already taken."

- Oscar Wilde

Power Pose Research Critiqued

Dana Carney, co-author of the original research on power poses, has come out with a statement about why she thinks the research does not support the technique. Slate calls the original research "scientific overreach."

STUDY: Who Succeeds in College?

When compared to successful college students, learners who underperform significantly at the undergraduate level (called "divers") tend to. . . 

1. Cram for exams.

2. Procrastinate on assignments.

3. Possess superficial "get rich" goals.

"In contrast, students who exceed expectations (thrivers) express more philanthropic goals, are purpose-driven, and are willing to study more hours per week to obtain the higher GPA they expect." 

(Source: "Beattie & Laliberté (2016) "Thrivers and Divers: Using Non-Academic Measures to Predict College Success and Failure." Social Science Research Network, University of Toronto.)

Brain Feed

Inspiration to Work Harder

English teacher Adam Bailey sent me this 30-minute inspirational speech by Inky Johnson about loving the process when adversity hits. Johnson--an electrifying speaker--says that "The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender." 

Meditation Primer

Jason Kottke created a Beginners Guide to Meditation video. 


The video is narrated by Dan Harris, the author of 10% Happier.

Lightning Round!

Weekly Matsuo Basho

"There is nothing you can see that is not a flower; there is nothing you can think that is not the moon."


Where do cantaloupes go in the summertime? Johnny Cougar's Melon Camp.

(Source: Peter Rubin, Wired)

Where do cats go when they die? Purrgatory.

(Source: Rachael Krishna, Buzzfeed)

A man in a movie theater noticed what looked like a turtle sitting next to him. "Are you a turtle?" asked the man, surprised.


"What are you doing at the movies?"

The turtle replied, "Well, I liked the book."

(Source: Jokes4us)

Thank you for reading. Have a good week! 

Some of the links that appear on this page are affiliate links.


Our cool product recommendation for the week is TabLift, by Nbryte, which makes using any tablet, phablet, or phone on any uneven surface super-comfy. Flexible legs make it perfect for the couch or bed. 

Todd Finley

Edutopia Blogger and Asst. Editor || ECU Ed Professor || Founder of Todd's Brain at || Books: Dinkytown Braves and Rethinking Classroom Design.

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