Studying for Your Next Exam? Write a Song.

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Let’s pretend you hear the opening kick of “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five. As the piano slides into the first verse and you hear:

Find the concentrations of ions out and in;

Figure out the quotient, and take the log (base 10).”

You can’t believe your ears. The Nernst Equation—a fundamental concept in neurophysiology—is set to music—the dense scientific concepts are wrapped into eight concise lines and a chorus. This parody, and many like it, were used as supplemental study materials in undergraduate physiology courses. In a study published in Advances in Physiology Education, researchers asked students what makes an educational song (called “mnemonic devices”) particularly memorable or useful.

The students preferred the shortest songs, referred to as “jingles” when they were under 30 seconds. Although most of us aren’t studying for a physiology exam, many of us know jingles from television. Maybe you even remember the phone number to a long-defunct carpet installation company because their jingle was just that catchy.

Is it possible to teach complex scientific concepts to a catchy tune? Is it even worth a student’s time and energy? I should hope so. Most alphabet songs on YouTube last between 30 and 90 seconds. The Animaniacs’ “Wakko States and Capitals” song helped me and many others learn geography—in just two and a half minutes—in our most formative years, so why not in our years of higher education?

In the free-form section of the Advances study questionnaire, many students said they felt they had to memorize the entire song to make it worth learning. This finding opened up a new avenue of discussion for the researchers. Instead of memorization as a teaching device, it may be better to frame the exercise of listening to the songs with an emphasis on comprehension.

Ultimately, the authors believe that a blend of approaches using both memorization and comprehension might work best. For example, a professor could compose a relatively long song, but use a well-known repetitive verse or chorus line to drive home a particular concept. After all, I’ve found myself still tapping my foot to the Jackson Five and pondering the net flux of ions in a cellular membrane.

Salvatore Aiello is pursuing a combined MD/PhD degree at Rosalind Franklin University in Chicago. His research focuses on resuscitation and translating laboratory work into clinical practice. Outside of research, Aiello leads the Medical Humanities group on campus with the hopes of finding ways to better integrate the arts into the education of health care professionals.

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