Using Visual Imagery to Improve Memory for College Exams

By Ve’Jhon Johnson and MaryJane Lukas

Your freshman year of college is such an exciting time in your life where you have an opportunity for a fresh start socially, individually and academically. You will be living on your own for the first time in a different environment with complete control over your own life. Just like you will have to adapt to this new environment, you will have to adapt to other parts of college, the academics. So exciting!

Adapting to college academics is not as scary or boring as it sounds. There are actually fun memory techniques you can use to make studying less overwhelming. This is where we come in to help. If you stick with us, you’ll be acing those exams immediately like the rockstar you are!

So, you may be asking yourself, “why do I need to learn new ways to study when I’ve been studying the same way for the past 18 years?” Well, this is because college is a whole new ball game with harder exams that cover more material than you’re used to. Human memory is not perfect and if your go-to habit in high school was to cram the night before, college will be a rude awakening for you.

One general technique that can be used to improve memory is visual imagery. This is a memory technique in which we construct mental images when learning new information in order to better recall the information later. (1) There are two types of visual imagery, the pegword technique and the method of loci, that college students such as yourself can use while studying. These techniques have their advantages and disadvantages and after trying both you will be able to find the one that works best for you.

Pegword technique:

The pegword technique involves imagery similar to the method of loci but rather than visualizing images in different locations, you associate them with concrete words. These concrete words help to trigger your memory and enable you to think of what you are searching for in your mind.

Research behind the pegword technique shows that it is very useful in recall. When we pair items or things to be remembered with certain peg words, they serve as retrieval cues in a sense.This is especially useful as a student when you are tasked with remembering and being able to recap large amounts of information at a time. In fact, the pegword technique was nearly designed to help students to better remember numerical information especially in a particular sequence (2)

However, it is not simply sequences that the pegword technique helps to simplify but also lists or even items we are thinking of at a particular time. According to Lorayne and Lucas in their novel The Memory Book, the pegword technique is good for filing away phone numbers, data, figures and phrases (3) Essentially we can enhance our mind with these shortcuts and even increase our efficiency in terms of retrieval.  

Here is a brief layout of how the Pegword technique works:

  • Associate items to be remembered with concrete words
  • Pair each with a pegword
  • Create vivid image of things to be remembered with the object represented by the word
By Ve’Jhon Johnson

Example (Rhyming):

  1. One is a bun
  2. Two is a shoe
  3. Three is a tree
  4. Four is a door
  5. Five is a hive
  6. Six are sticks
  7. Seven is heaven
  8. Eight is a gate
  9. Nine is a line
  10. Ten is a hen

So for example, you may have a list of things to pick up from the store and associating them with the pegword system may help you to remember them when you’re at the store. i.e picture whatever the first thing you have to get being associated with a bun and the second thing having some connection between shoes, and so forth.

If you have to remember the phone number: 784-3671, the number could become Heaven-Gate-Door-Tree-Sticks-Heaven-Bun if you use the pegword technique. With the rhyming scheme, it becomes easier to remember this number thus enabling you to recall it, but in today’s tech savvy world, who even remembers telephone numbers? None the less, you can still see the simplicity in which the pegword technique allows you to operate with.

Method of Loci:

The Method of Loci (MoL) is another memory technique that is known as a memory journey. This technique uses spatial memory to visualize familiar information about one’s environment, in order to recall information quickly and efficiently (4). The method was actually a device adopted in ancient Roman and Greek times when a poet named Simonides remembered all of the attendees of his speech by visualizing a banquet hall.

In contemporary times, memory contest champions use this technique to recall long lists of words or digits. MoL works because it allows you to remember things by imagining a physical space and placing things to be remembered in the different areas of the space in your mind (4). As a student you can use it by taking a specific theory that you have to memorize and placing its different components in the areas of a familiar physical space that you imagine in your head. When you need to recall that information, you then imagine the physical space and take a mental walk through it so you can pass and remember each component of the theory.

Take a mental walk through the apartment to remember the recipe. By: MaryJane Lukas

MoL has also been found to improve longer-term retention of self-affirming memories in patients with recurrent depression (4). This means that depression patients who used MoL for happier memories were able to experience an increase in mood (4). Students can also use this technique to take a mental breather from studying to take a mental walk on the beach. Other research has shown that MoL is more effective in studying passages presented in an oral rather than a written form (5). So when you use MoL, try taking your mental walk and verbalize your steps in order to help it stick in your head even more!

The method of loci and the peg word system have been found to be superior methods to use when the order of words remembered was important to that person (6). Both of these methods involve visual imagery and work in similar ways. As a student giving your brain these mental shortcuts could prove to be valuable in the long run and even allow you to recall even more on the day of that big exam. However when you start college, you should try out different studying techniques to find the one that works the best for you. Although we do highly recommend the pegword technique or the method of loci, but we’re not biased or anything.


  1. Marks, D. F. (1973). Visual imagery differences and eye movements in the recall of pictures. Perception & Psychophysics, 14(3), 407-412.
  2. Greene, G. (1999). Mnemonic Multiplication Fact Instruction for Students With Learning Disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 14(3).
  3. Lorayne, H., & Lucas, J. (1996). The Memory Book. New York: Ballantine Books.
  4. Werner-Seidler, A., & Dalgleish, T. (2016). The Method of Loci Improves Longer-Term Retention of Self-Affirming Memories and Facilitates Access to Mood-Repairing Memories in Recurrent Depression. Clinical Psychological Science, 4(6), 1065-1072.
  5. Moè, A., & Beni, R. D. (2004). Stressing the efficacy of the Loci method: oral presentation and the subject-generation of the Loci pathway with expository passages. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19(1), 95-106.
  6. Atay, D., & Ozbulgan, C. (2007). Memory strategy instruction, contextual learning and ESP vocabulary recall. English for Specific Purposes, 26(1), 39-51.


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