I Can Only Imagine—Using Visual Imagery to Get That A

By Michelle Knepp

Congratulations! You’ve made it to college!  A whole new adventure stretches in front of you.  New friends, fun times, and oh yeah, that dreaded word, TESTS.  You have probably developed some system of studying while in high school.  Maybe that has worked well for you, OR maybe it hasn’t.  One of the challenges new college students face is the AMOUNT of information they are asked to learn in a short time.  How are you going to learn all that information and RETAIN it for the test?  Researchers have learned that HOW information is learned and put into our long-term memory is very important!  This is called ENCODING.  Using VISUAL IMAGES to get information into our long-term memory can be a real benefit when trying to RETRIEVE that information later.  When we retrieve information, we are taking it out of our long-term memory and putting it into our working memory (1).  This can is very helpful at test time!

One method using visual imagery that has been proven to work is called The Method of Loci or as I prefer, The Memory Palace.  This involves putting things that you want to remember at different locations in a mental image of a certain spatial layout. (1)  Researcher’s have shown that this can be helpful for college students learning complex concepts such as how insulin works in the treatment of diabetic disease.  The students used familiar locations on their college campus to place the information they wanted to retain.  This method helped to put meaning and structure into material that would otherwise be hard to conceptualize.  It also helped the students pay more attention to the material being learned. (2)  You too can do this using familiar places around campus! Place information that you want to remember at specific places around campus that you walk past often.  After you’ve done this walk through the route in your mind, and see if the images of the places helps you to remember the information.


Other methods using visual imagery that can aid in learning and retaining information is the Pegword Technique and Keyword Method.  Research has shown that using these techniques together can be beneficial in remembering for longer lenghts of time. (3)  These are especially helpful when learning foreign language vocabulary, science facts, places on a map, or definitions.  The Pegword works like this: Make a list of nouns like one-bun, two-shoe, three-tree. (1) The rhyming makes the words easier to remember.  Than make a mental image of the thing you want to remember and pair it with the pegword.  So you would picture the thing you want to remember sitting on a bun, or smashing it with a shoe.  The keyword method is especially helpful when learning the meaning of words.  Use what a word sounds like to visualize something memorable that will help you later remember the definiton.

The Final method we will look at is that of Paired Associate Learning.  This involves having a list of paired word. One group of people were asked to silently repeat to themselves the pairs presented.  Another group were told to think of images of the words.  When tested later, the group who created the images, remembered twice as many words as the other group. (1)  Research shows that visually remembering the words, results in much better recall of the words when tested later.  Research has also shown that the kind of words used can make a difference.  Animate words are easier to form a mental image of and therefore easeir to remember than words that are inanimate.  One study that was done used random paired Swahili words with animated and  inanimate English words.  The animate words used the names of animals like dog, horse, and cat.  The inanimate words used pieces of furniture like couch or chair.  (5)  Paired Associate Learning has also been affective in helping those students with special challenges of learning.  If college students who have certain kinds of learning disabilites are given instruction in Paired Associate learning techniques, this can greatly aid in their ability to learn new information and retain it for later recall. (6)

Using Visual Imagery can greatly enhance your understanding of the material you are learning, as well as help you get the information into your long term memory, and then be able to convert it to working memory when you need it, like at test time!  Some of these techniques like Memory Palace, Pegword and Keyword methods, do take effort and practice.  Paired Associative Learning is a simpler memory task to use.  Starting college can be exciting and intimidating at the same time.  I hope these visual imagery methods give you some ideas for developing healthy and effective study habits, and get that A on the test!


  1. Goldstein, E.B. (4th Edition) Cognitive Psychology P. 180, 202,291,292
  2. Queshi, A. Rizvi, F., Anjum, S., Shahid, A., Manzoor, H., (2014) The Method of Loci as a Mnemonic device to facilitate Learning in Endocrinology leads to improvement in student performance as Measured by Assesments, Advances in Physisiogy Education. Vol. 38 (2) 140-144.
  3. Carney, R.N., Levin, J.R. (2011) Delayed Mnemonic Benefits for a Combined Pegword-Keyword Strategy, Time after Time, Rhyme after Rhyme. Applied Cognivite Psychology, Vol 25 204-211 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1663
  4. Mastropien, M.A., Scruggs, T.E., ( March 1998) Enhancing School Success with Mnemonic Strategies. Intervention in School and Clinic, Vol 33 201-208.
  5. VanArsdall, J.E., Nairne, J.S. Pandeirada, J.N.S., Cogdill, M. (July 2015) , Adaptive Memory: Animacy Effects persist in Paired Associate Learning. Vol 23, P. 657-663.
  6. Cooper, J.T., Lingo, A.S., Whitney, T., Slaton, D.B. (2011), The Effects of Instruction in a Paired Associate Learning Strategy as as Intervention for College Students With Learning Disabilites, Journal of Post Secondary Education and Disability, Vol 24 n2 133-145.

One Reply to “I Can Only Imagine—Using Visual Imagery to Get That A”

  1. Good read and easy to understand along the way. I like the way you broke down the concepts into real situations and gave potential ways to benefit ones self that was practical.

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