Color plays a major role in memory and learning. It’s why brand logos are so vivid—the red and yellow of McDonald’s is meant to grab your attention and stick in your head all day.
According to a review of research studies, color can help with encoding (committing something to memory) and retrieval (the ability to remember that thing later, like on a test). In fact, color has been used to help people with dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease overcome challenges with learning and short-term memory. For example, a small 2018 study conducted in France found that children with dyslexia who used a green overlay on their computer screens read faster and spent less time fixating on words to understand them.
Another study found that warm colors, such as yellow, orange, and red, appeared to have a more significant impact on attention than cool or neutral colors, such as brown or gray. This is likely due to these colors’ effect on our arousal, or physical alertness. Think about the use of red in stop signs and traffic lights, or the orange of road hazards and construction work.
The next time you’re preparing for an upcoming exam, consider color coding your work to make it more memorable. One attention-grabbing technique is known as the “stoplight method.”
The stoplight method for studying
Color code your notes using red, yellow, and green markers to indicate your level of comfort with the material. For example:
You’re lost. These are areas where you need to ask your professor or teaching assistant for some help.
You’ve almost got it. You need to review this info a couple more times to feel confident.
You’re a pro. You’re confident on this topic.
Another clever way to use this method is by making three piles of flash cards. Color code the cards based on the stoplight scheme, circulating the red cards the most.
More color-coding study strategies
- Use colors to organize information by topic, theory, and/or perspective. For example, important author names and dates get one color, main themes from their works get another, and key plot points a third.
- Indicate how one concept relates to another by highlighting them in the same color. For example, if you’re writing a paper on feminism in pop culture for your gender studies class, use color coding to trace how second-wave feminists’ ideas have trickled down.
All learners are different, so if color coding isn’t your thing, try one of these other tried-and-true study methods to find what works for you. Then go crush that exam.
Dzulkifli, M. A., & Mustafar, M. F. (2013, March). The influence of colour on memory performance: A review. Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, 20(2), 3–9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3743993/#b21-mjms-20-2-003
Razuk, M., Perrin-Fievez, F., Gerard, C. L., Peyre, H., et al. (2018, December). Effect of colored filters on reading capabilities in dyslexic children. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 83, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2018.07.006