Australian Aboriginal techniques for memorization: Translation into a medical and allied health education setting

David Reser, Margaret Simmons, Esther Johns, Andrew Ghaly, Michelle Quayle, Aimee L. Dordevic, Marianne Tare, Adelle McArdle, Julie Willems, Tyson Yunkaporta

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BACKGROUND: Writing and digital storage have largely replaced organic memory for encoding and retrieval of information in the modern era, with a corresponding decrease in emphasis on memorization in Western education. In health professional training, however, there remains a large corpus of information for which memorization is the most efficient means of ensuring: A) that the trainee has the required information readily available; and B) that a foundation of knowledge is laid, upon which the medical trainee builds multiple, complex layers of detailed information during advanced training. The carefully staged progression in early- to late- years' medical training from broad concepts (e.g. gross anatomy and pharmacology) to in-depth, specialised disciplinary knowledge (e.g. surgical interventions and follow-on care post-operatively) has clear parallels to the progression of training and knowledge exposure that Australian Aboriginal youths undergo in their progression from childhood to adulthood to Tribal Elders. METHODS: As part of the Rural Health curriculum and the undergraduate Nutrition and Dietetics program in the Monash University Faculty of Medicine, Nursing, and Health Sciences, we tested Australian Aboriginal techniques of memorization for acquisition and recall of novel word lists by first-year medical students (N = 76). We also examined undergraduate student evaluations (N = 49) of the use of the Australian Aboriginal memory technique for classroom study of foundational biomedical knowledge (the tricarboxylic acid cycle) using qualitative and quantitative analytic methods drawing from Bloom's taxonomy for orders of thinking and learning. Acquisition and recall of word lists were assessed without memory training, or after training in either the memory palace technique or the Australian Aboriginal narrative technique. RESULTS: Both types of memory training improved the number of correctly recalled items and reduced the frequency of specific error types relative to untrained performance. The Australian Aboriginal method resulted in approximately a 3-fold greater probability of improvement to accurate recall of the entire word list (odds ratio = 2.82; 95% c.i. = 1.15-6.90), vs. the memory palace technique (odds ratio = 2.03; 95% c.i. = 0.81-5.06) or no training (odds ratio = 1.5; 95% c.i. = 0.54-4.59) among students who did not correctly recall all list items at baseline. Student responses to learning the Australian Aboriginal memory technique in the context of biomedical science education were overwhelmingly favourable, and students found both the training and the technique enjoyable, interesting, and more useful than rote memorization. Our data indicate that this method has genuine utility and efficacy for study of biomedical sciences and in the foundation years of medical training.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0251710
Number of pages17
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 18 May 2021


  • Memory
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander
  • Medical Education

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