I hate mnemonics. Maybe that’s a little bit extreme, or even inflammatory. After all, you can find entire study books dedicated to nursing mnemonics. Maybe I should say “I Hate Most Mnemonics,” or even “Mnemonics are Not Your Friend.”
Whatever. The truth remains that I generally don’t like mnemonics. I’ve seem them misused waaaaay too often by students. And teachers. And especially by NCLEX review books. With so many mnemonics getting passed around by reputable sources, nursing students can easily be fooled into believing that all they need is the right combination of helpful mnemonics in order to successfully think like a nurse. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.
With mnemonics, as with most things, moderation is key. Whenever you study, you have to use your brain…but mnemonics discourage you from using your brain when not used correctly. If you try to use mnemonics to memorize everything, then you won’t understand anything. And understanding is how you learn to think like a nurse. Instead of offering you a shortcut, mnemonics can actually make your nursing school experience more difficult when not used correctly.
Let’s compare two mnemonics so I can show you the difference:
Mnemonic Example #1: ROME (for ABG interpretation)
Respiratory Opposite, Metabolic Equal
Mnemonic Example #2: ACHES (for complications of Oral Contraceptives)
Chest pain, cough, and/or shortness of breath
Headaches, dizziness, weakness, or numbness
Eye problems (blurring or change in vision) and speech problems
Severe leg, calf, and/or thigh pain
Want to take a wild guess as to which mnemonic I like better?
ROME is short and sweet, which makes this acronym easy to remember. More importantly, the information that ROME helps you remember is actually useful for higher level thinking, such as application and analysis type questions. It reminds you how to differentiate between a respiratory or metabolic cause for abnormal ABG values. For these reasons, I use the ROME acronym almost every time that I interpret ABGs.
Contrast that to ACHES, which lists multiple symptoms for each letter. The acronym is long, complicated, and confusing. Plus, there’s nothing in the list that specifically and uniquely connects the information to Oral Contraceptives.
Let’s be honest here…even if you spend your limited study time memorizing every symptom on the ACHES list, do you really think that you’ll be able to remember this list 5 years from now? How about 6 months from now? What about by the end of your semester? Probably not. That’s because the ACHES acronym focuses on the knowledge level of learning, which is the lowest level according to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Needless to say, studying at the lowest level of learning won’t help you pass NCLEX.
A better way to learn the potential complications of Oral Contraceptives is to memorize one fact: blood clots are a possible complication for Oral Contraceptives. Then, by knowing your A&P, you can understand why a patient might experience most of the symptoms on the ACHES list.
Here’s how: if blood clots travel around the body, they’re most likely to get “stuck” and cause problems in the smallest blood vessels. Where are some of the smallest blood vessels in your body that could cause noticeable symptoms? The lungs, brain, and eyes. That takes care of the symptoms listed for “C,” “H,” and “E” in our ACHES mnemonic. In addition, we can remember that DVTs (which are associated with blood clots) occur in the calf, so that helps us remember “S.”
See how much easier it can be to take the time to understand the information instead of trying to memorize a random list of symptoms? Using this method will also increase the likelihood that you’ll remember the complications of oral contraceptives for the long-term. No need to cram for NCLEX when you study this way!
Mnemonics are often promoted as a great method to “help you remember” a list of symptoms, side effects, or interventions, but in reality it’s just another attempt to memorize a list of facts without understanding how those facts fit into the larger picture of nursing. And that is the exact opposite of how you need to study if you want to think like a nurse.
What are your favorite mnemonics for nursing? Which ones are you now wondering if you should stop using?
Nicole Whitworth is the founder of Your Nursing Tutor. She has a BSN and an MA in Clinical Psychology, and has been a professional nursing tutor for over 12+ years. Nicole specializes in getting nursing students through school confidently and calmly so that everything finally “clicks”. She is also the creator of the Silver Bullet Study System, an easy-to-follow study method that automatically trains your brain to become a nurse at the same time that you study for your normal nursing classes.