What a Cue Can Do For You

By David Peoples and Madeline Voelker 

Welcome to your first year of college. If you are like me, you are probably wondering how in the world you are going to remember everything you need to know for exams, quizzes, and assignments. Well, the first thing you should know is that remembering is actually a complicated process of re-accessing information that has been stored in your brain. (1) When your brain recalls information it is reconstructing the event by drawing various elements together from different parts of your brain to effectively re-experience the neural activity generated in response to the situation you experienced. (1) Thus, in a sense, your brain is neurally reliving the experience. (1) This probably sounds very technical and complicated. But that is where cued recall comes in to save the day. Cued recall is exactly what the name implies: recollection that is cued. But what does that mean? Put simply, a cue is something that both triggers and assists in the recollection of a memory. (1) But what constitutes a cue? And how can they help in college? Well, anything can be a cue, but we are focusing on those that are directly applicable to your college experience. Therefore, the cues we are focusing on are: taste, location, sound, and written.

First we will take a look at taste. Taste has the potential to be a very useful cue, particularly when studying. You may be wondering why we have included a picture from the Pixar movie Ratatouille. In the scene shown above, Anton Ego takes a bite of the titular Ratatouille. Upon tasting the food, he is immediately transported back to his childhood and relives the memory of his mother making him the same dish. This scene illustrates how taste works as a cue for memory. By presenting the brain with sensation that was experienced during the encoding of a memory, it triggers the memory’s recollection. (2) Taking this idea and applying it to studying, if you experience a particular taste while you study, it will be related to the memories you are creating. Your cue could be anything.

Utilitarianism and Mtn Dew: a popular pairing. Not quite as well known as Pepsi and Molecular Biology, but still a good choice

From your favorite beverage to your favorite crunchy snack (not recommended), your cue should be personal. However, as a word of warning, you should look for something that can be consumed during the test taking process. In terms of practicality, gum is a popular choice. In fact, St. Lawrence University performed a study where they tested the correlation between gum chewing and higher grades. (3) They found that grades did improve when gum was chewed during studying and again when being tested, particularly “during recall and memory tasks”. (3)

Location, location, location! Jokes aside, location can be an effective cue as well. Godden and Baddeley performed a famous study in 1975 with groups of divers. (4) The divers were outfitted with SCUBA apparatus and one group dove underwater, while another stayed on land. (4) Each group was presented with information to learn and were later tested on it. (4) Upon testing, it was found that information learned while underwater was best recalled underwater and vice versa. (4) Applying this to college, a practical way to make us of this fact, is by sitting in the same seat during lectures as you do when taking exams. This way, you are turning your innocent desk into powerful cue for memory retention and recollection. In the unforeseeable case of someone sitting in your spot, kindly inform them that they are interfering with your recollection process by separating you from the location of your memory encoding.


When it comes to examining where sound retrieval cues are most common in one’s everyday life, you don’t have to look any further than advertising. Musical jingles have been a staple of modern ads for years, and for good reason; that ear-worm of a tune, whether it’s the theme for Menard’s, McDonald’s, or Meow Mix, acts as a sound retrieval cue. When you hear a commercial for a Kit Kat bar, the image of that bright red packaging and unmistakably designed chocolate bar snapping in fourths is brought to mind. There have been few studies examining advertising jingles as retrieval cues, but one study did find that faster ad themes with lyrics make one more likely to retrieve information about that brand, and faster as well (5).

Speaking more broadly, music of any kind can act as a powerful sound cue. When in a relationship, many couples have a “song” that is special to them and is representative of their relationship (e.g., “My partner and I had our first kiss while listening to ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ by Elvis, so that’s our song.”). If couples break up, listening to that song can be painful, because it acts as a retrieval cue for memories relating to that prior relationship (e.g., “I can’t listen to ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ anymore, it reminds me of all the good times I had with my partner before they dumped me.”).


A written retrieval cue is simple to understand, as it is just what it sounds like: a written word or phrase that aids in retrieving a certain memory. Written retrieval cues are not just common, but they are incredibly useful when it comes to studying. Notes in and of themselves act as retrieval cues to when you first learned and were writing down the information, especially if you review notes you took (or even someone else’s) enough times. (6) Once you get to the exam, the questions on the test act as retrieval cues too, bringing back memories of the information you studied. In regards to note-taking and the written cues therein, visual retrieval cues can help you remember the information more clearly and faster; for example, drawing a diagram with shorter, smaller written cues (see Fig. 2). (6) These two types of cues aid in improving the retrieval of information.

So now you know the power of effective cues. With this new skill in your tool belt, exams and tests will no longer strike fear into your heart… well, maybe a little.


1. http://www.human-memory.net/processes_recall.html

2. http://www.readfast.co.uk/what-factors-affect-memory-recall/

3. http://sites.psu.edu/siowa15/2015/09/17/does-chewing-gum-while-studying-help-you-remember/

4. http://www.niu.edu/user/tj0dgw1/classes/411/GoddenBaddeley1975.pdf

(5) Stewart, K., Cicchirillo, V., & Cunningham, I. (2016). Sing with Me: The Effect of Tempo and Lyrical Cues on Consumer’s Brand Information Retrieval. AMA Winter Educators’ Conference Proceedings, 27C-50.

(6) DeZure, D., Kaplan, M., & Deerman, M. A. (2001). Research on student notetaking: Implications for faculty and graduate student instructors. CRLT Occasional Papers, 16.

One Reply to “What a Cue Can Do For You”

  1. Thank you for your blog post. I found it helpful to learn about the different types of cues that can be used for studying. I also appreciated the concrete examples you gave, especially the section on location. I will have to try these out.

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