Alpha, Bravo, Charlie…

California National Guard Soldiers compete in ...

California National Guard Soldiers compete in the 2011 Best Warrior Competition (Photo credit: Like us on Facebook at CAGuard)

My campus is located on a military base, so every morning I pass through the checkpoint at the gate, presenting my ID to the young MP on duty. It’s a busy checkpoint, and often one soldier is calling out license plate numbers to another as they verify the credentials of a temporary visitor. The soldiers communicate using the military alphabet for the letters on the plate, and it sounds, well, cool. I’ve learned a lot of military acronyms from my students, but I’d never tackled memorizing the military alphabet until now. In solidarity with my anatomy & physiology students, who are required to learn a boatload of challenging terms, I printed a list and made a plan. So far, so good.

I mentioned this project to my husband as we walked our dog, and he, fan of military TV shows (remember Combat?) and movies, already knew quite a few of the words. He immediately hijacked my project. The moment we got home, he googled his own list. He explained to me how the list has changed over the years, with the current list in use since 1957. Who knew? As we worked on learning the list, I was surprised and dismayed by how challenging it was to memorize something so simple.  Just when I was sure I had them all down pat, I’d lose one…or two.  “M” (Mike) and “N” (November) were inexplicably challenging, while “U” stubbornly insisted on being “umbrella” instead of the correct “uniform.” Aging does bad things to your synapses.


alphabet (Photo credit: Jim Davies)

Still, I kept returning to the list at odd moments, and, slowly but reassuringly, I mastered it. Feeling frisky, I decided to spell some words. And not just easy words, but words with multiple syllables. To my surprise, remembering the list was actually easier when I used it to spell other words…a lot easier…just the opposite of what I had predicted.  The words also became easier to remember as I practiced them in different places, reminding me of some research suggesting that we retain more when we learn new material in a variety of settings. (I’ll explore some of these ideas in a later post.)

On this first day of a new term, I offered my students a lot of tools and ideas to help them succeed.  The ones who will do best are those who have the determination to practice their memory work again and again until they’re sure they have it down pat…and then practice some more.  In this week’s issue of The Brilliant Report, Annie Murphy Paul admonishes us: “Don’t just learn—overlearn.”  She quotes Assistant Professor Alaa Ahmed of the University of Colorado-Boulder:

Practice Makes Progress

Practice Makes Progress (Photo credit: Mary_on_Flickr)

The message from this study is that in order to perform with less effort, keep on practicing, even after it seems the task has been learned. We have shown there is an advantage to continued practice beyond any visible changes in performance.”

As my eighth-grade English teacher so often reminded us, there is no royal road to Lima-Echo-Alpha-Romeo-November-India-November-Golf. (Apologies to Anthony Trollope.)

Tomorrow we’ll look at some strategies to help with memorization.


One comment on “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie…

  1. Brian says:

    I wonder if “continued practice beyond any visible changes in performance” is like a seed, or perhaps a storehouse that isn’t needed for immediate use but which appears later in the form of extra supply or extra staying power. Or is it related to the making of steel that is treated longer than thought necessary but is stronger thereby?

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