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Does Writing with a Different Color Really Help You Remember?

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 17 Aug 2023

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Red, green, and blue pens on a white notebook
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I was a note-taker in college. Not necessarily a note-reader, as in a person who would go back and studiously pore over the loose scrawl filling my spiral-bound pages, but even if I never looked at it again, I did find that writing something down helped me remember it.

Maybe the more accurate statement is that writing helped me focus. If I forced myself to listen well, I was more likely to remember the information later on. But does the color of the pen matter?

Some people claim that writing notes in different colors improves memory retention. Before you bring a 12-pack of gel pens to your next 8 a.m. lecture, here’s what you need to know.

Does Writing with a Different Color Really Help You Remember?

Paper Notes vs. Computer Notes

The classic debate. Okay, maybe it’s not a debate. A study ten years ago found that longhand notetaking led to deeper processing than typing on a laptop. It’s been a constant refrain since then, with even Microsoft publishing articles about the benefits of taking notes by hand.

The common objections to paper notes are usually that:

  • It’s slower
  • It’s harder to reference later on
  • It’s hard to file electronically

The last two are overcome easily enough with the billion apps that can scan and digitize notes, and I’d argue that the slowness can be a good thing. Having to think about the key phrase or information to write down is often a more useful exercise than essentially building a transcript of the lecture audio.

Yet turns out that you can do one better than the college-ruled notebook and black ink pen. Color prompts the memory, and incorporating this into your note-taking can have positive results.

Why Color Helps You Remember Things

Evidence supports that adding a splash of color increases our attention and improves long-term recall. The hypothesis is that colors arouse us — they make us more interested, more emotional, and more fixated on whatever the subject matter is.

Picture this: You walk into a room with plain white walls and simple wooden furniture, then you walk into another room that’s full-on Barbiecore pink. Which one are you more likely to remember?

You may already know the basics of color theory and psychological associations. Blue is calming and trustworthy; red is a warning sign or urgent. There’s a reason so many financial companies have blue logos and that danger signs are in bright red.

But that’s about emotion — how does it lead to memory? The more connections you make in your brain, the more likely something is to stick. Scientifically speaking, we make memories by forming neural pathways in the brain. Those memories strengthen with emotional or sensory input. A one-dimensional memory that’s too commonplace or expected is more likely to get displaced. You likely don’t remember what you had for lunch on some random Monday last year, but you do remember a special holiday meal.

Experimenting with Colorful Note-Taking

Most studies on this topic follow the same basic formula: Give some students a list of things to memorize in boring black-and-white, then give different students things to memorize in color. One such study found that ESL students memorized phrases better when they viewed them on yellow paper. A 2011 study involving medical students using colorful body painting to learn anatomy did not find statistical significance that the colors improved retention, but the study authors did note that the medical students were more enthusiastic when they could paint with colors, because duh. Every med school lesson should involve finger painting your partner’s lats.

But when it comes to long-term retention, say, maybe a few weeks out, it’s hard to prove that color alone was responsible for any boost in memory. First of all, it’s nearly impossible to isolate the variable. A student could have done any amount of studying in those weeks to strengthen their memory, and it’s hard to attribute any high test scores to using color.

What seems to stand out is the intentionality behind the use of color. If you highlight every word in the textbook in bright orange, it may not be meaningful. If you highlight certain key vocabulary words, having intentionally chosen them in the context of a larger lesson, that highlighting could make more of a difference.

Options for Adding Color

It doesn’t have to be a highlighter. Consider adding color to your note-taking routine with:

  • a colored pen
  • colored paper
  • bright sticky notes
  • whiteboard markers
  • colored chalk

The emotional connection to the color matters, so there’s room to be creative — wearing lucky green socks to chemistry lectures or solving math problems on a yellow legal pad may help with retention.

Try It: Think with Color

The next time you have to remember something important, give it a colorful association. Go beyond just using a colorful pen or a sticky note and really think about the word in terms of its color.

For example, if you’re learning French, you might write nager on a blue notecard. You can think nager means swimming, swimming in the water, water is blue. Remembering the word and its meaning in the context of the color could save you the next time you’re looking to swim laps at a public pool in Bordeaux. 

Even this website has a slightly colorful background. Coincidence? I think not.

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. His favorite color is blue — thank you for asking.

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