Home > Attention, Education, Memory > “Ohhh, ‘Cue!'”: Cue-Dependent Forgetting and Study Techniques

“Ohhh, ‘Cue!'”: Cue-Dependent Forgetting and Study Techniques

Picture yourself in a classroom taking a history quiz. You don’t consider yourself a history buff of course, but you feel as if you studied well enough. You breeze through the questions, until you come across one that stumps you a bit: “Which U.S. President served the shortest term?”. You have to know this, of course, because you remember looking over it yesterday. The weight of familiarity is killing you, as you rack your brain and sort through the order of United States Presidents you thought you had memorized. When you studied, you paired the President’s last names along with common words that sounded similar–Lincoln and Linkedin, Kennedy and candy– you thought you pretty much had it down. Your heart thumps as you begin to look around the room, hoping something will strike your memory and soon your attention is drawn to how weird your teacher’s hair looks today. Hair, hair, Harrison! Suddenly you have it, William Henry Harrison was the President who served the shortest term.

Ok, let’s try that scenario again: you find yourself looking around the room for something to spark that lightbulb in your mind, but nothing seems to do the trick. Your professor is bald and always has been. You simply just can’t remember the name you were looking for and accept defeat. You stare daggers at their head as you leave that question blank and go onto the next one.

What made these two scenarios so different? The second scenario describes a cognitive psychology term called “cue-dependent forgetting” where a person is unable to remember information in the absence of a retrieval cue (Chandler & Gargano, 1995). A retrieval cue in this case is something that signals or prompts the memory of something that you associated with it (Chandler and Gargano, 1995). In the previously described scenario, the retrieval cues were the common words that sounded similar to the President’s names. This is why, when the retrieval cue for Harrison (“hair”), was forgotten, you were unable to answer the question. Pairing items as a form of studying may seem like an efficient way to quickly memorize material, but as seen in the example, it isn’t always reliable. Why does cue-dependent forgetting happen? And are there ways to prevent it from having a negative effect on test performance? These questions can be understood with a quick summary of how memory works.

Memory is the process of storing information in your mind and the ability to draw upon it later. When we learn something, this information gets stored, or in other words, encoded into our memory (Oberauer, 2019). Once this information has been encoded, we ideally should be able to retrieve it at a later time. However, this is not always the case. The information we encode and then later retrieve is susceptible to being, as one would say, “lost” in one’s mind and may seem hard to access. Accessible memories are memories that can be retrieved with relative ease. Cue-dependent forgetting occurs because the cue that the information was paired with is unable to be accessed (Chandler & Gargano, 1995). When the cue is present, the information can be recalled with ease but when the cue is absent, it becomes more difficult to access the memory associated with it; you may even be prone to forgetting the information you needed in the first place (Chandler & Gargano, 1995).When you can’t remember the cue, how are you going to be able to remember the memory associated with it?

Forgetting happens when encoded information no longer becomes accessible. One of the many things responsible for forgetting is referred to as interference or “blocking”. Blocking is when the encoding of new information prevents the recall of older information (Chandler and Gargano, 1995). For example, if you were to move to a new house and use a rhyming scheme to remember your new address (“It is sweet living on Main Street”), you may forget the rhyming scheme you used for your old address. This idea has to do with how attention is of limited capacity (Oberauer, 2019). It is difficult to multitask successfully. So much occurs in our day to day lives, that it is hard to pay enough attention to multiple things at once. If things aren’t paid attention to, how can they be stored in memory? This can also provide a reason as to why old information that is not used frequently can be forgotten– it is so we can focus on the more relevant information. For example, if you used the cue “candy” to remember President Kennedy, but later used the cue “candy” to remember something else, you would have incredible difficulty remembering the old use for the cue if you were given another history test about the U.S. Presidents.

Blocking can also be the result of priming. Priming is when experience with one thing impacts how you perceive things encountered later (Chandler & Gargano, 1995). For example, prior exposure to the word apple allows related stimulus, such as the word banana to be more easily accessed in one’s mind if you were asked to name a fruit; this is an example of facilitation. However, if you were primed with the word apple, and then later asked to name a vegetable, you would experience interference. Interference in this case refers to the inability to quickly access information stored in the mind. In the case of cue-dependent forgetting, sometimes a prime can be used as a cue and can either interfere or provide access to memories we store. Priming and cues can be used in tandem to help access information when necessary; however, one must be cautious as to when and how they are used in case it may negatively impact the accessibility of information.

Being aware of how cue-dependent forgetting occurs is the first step in developing better habits to remember information. This doesn’t mean that we have to disregard using cues for memorization and learning, in fact, greater knowledge of how cue-dependency operates can allow us to use cues to our advantage, because as you may have seen from prior experience, they can be pretty useful.

Sometimes, the cue a person uses to remember information may through a subconscious action (Smith, 1984). Imagine you spend most of your time studying for your exams in your room, and you find yourself answering practice questions quite successfully. However, when exam time comes and you’re in a classroom, you find it difficult to access the information that seemed to come to you so easily before. You didn’t deliberately make your room a retrieval cue for the test information, but don’t fret, there is a way to alter how we may be location dependent when using cues.

For example, there was a study focused on cue-dependent forgetting and how even the location a person studies in can provide as a cue for information (Smith, 1984). In the study, participants were taught two different techniques to curb cue-dependent forgetting. Oftentimes, we can’t study in the room we’re going to eventually be tested in, this is why the first technique involved having the participants in the study recall the room they learned in during the test (Smith, 1984). This action forced them to recall potential cues they may have indirectly associated with that room. The second technique involved having participants develop different learning cues in each room they studied in. These techniques were shown to increase participant’s scores from the baseline, however, we must remember what was referenced before: attention is in limited capacity, so it is best to try and limit the amount of cues you’re using when employing these techniques to avoid forgetting. In Smith’s (1984) study, participants had better scores when they were limited to one room rather than three different rooms. Cue-dependency can be used to your advantage if you understand its limits. Our minds can hold a wealth of information if you store it in efficient ways.

You may be saying to yourself, “I use cues and remember things just fine.” It is hard to disagree when there are so many popular cues used to help students remember relevant information: ROY G. BIV can help you remember the order of the colors of a rainbow. King Henry Died By Drinking Chocolate Milk can facilitate in remembering the order of the standard units of measurement for science classes. These cute little acronyms are often referred to as mnemonics. Mnemonics are devices compiled of letters or words to assist in the memory of something (Mäntylä and Nilsson, 1988). Each letter or word in a mnemonic can provide as a cue for the information needed, and there is scientific research that shows how much the use of mnemonic devices can help in recalling information. The research by Mäntylä and Nilsson (1988) emphasizes how participants remember information more when they use a cue that is self-generated and meaningful. Although the mnemonics referenced above were not generated by yourself, they are still meaningful in the way that they resemble a name or form a funny sentence. As you’ve probably experienced, these mnemonics are probably easier to remember than a random jumble of letters. This calls back to the idea that attention is important in processing memory. As people, we pay attention to information we find meaningful because it fulfills our preconceived ideas and expectations of what is important (Oberauer, 2019). When attention is paid to information, it is more likely to be processed in our memories. As you can see, cue-dependent forgetting can have less of an impact when using meaningful mnemonics, or for better success, try generating them yourself and using words or phrases that are personally meaningful.

In the study by Hyde and Jenkins (1973), participants were asked to study a list of 18 unrelated words. They were then asked to either: rate the pleasantness of each word or observe whether or not the word had the letter “e” in it. The first condition has the participants think about the meaning of the word, while the second condition has the participants think about the appearance, or surface features of the word. Those in the” pleasantness” conditions were able to remember about 12 words in a recall task, while participants who studied the letters only remembered about 7 words. This shows that when you want to remember something, or have it be accessed easier, you should encode the memory by assigning meaning to it.

Forgetting information you studied can be extremely frustrating while taking an exam, especially when you were confident in your study techniques. It is important to remember that cue-dependent forgetting can occur very easily. Keeping the information more accessible by developing a small set of unique cues such as mnemonics can provide assistance is preventing the possibility of you forgetting what you studied. It is also important to study frequently, but to space out the studying when you do so. Use meaningful cues to remember to be able to access the memory more easily. There’s a reason people use cues to remember things, they are extremely helpful! It is when you are intentional with the cues you use and how you use them, that you can use cue-dependency to your advantage.


Chandler, C. & Gargano, G (1995). Item-specific interference caused by cue-dependent forgetting. Memory and Cognition, 23, 701-708. doi: https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03200923

Hyde, T. & Jenkins, J. (1973). Recall for words as a function of semantic, graphic, and syntactic orienting tasks. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 12, 471-480. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0022-5371(73)80027-1

Oberauer, K (2019). Working memory and attention– A conceptual analysis. Journal of Cognition, 2, 36. doi: http://doi.org/10.5334/joc.58

Pasötter, B. & Bäuml, K-H (2007). The crucial role of post cue encoding in directed forgetting and context-dependent forgetting. Journal of Experimental Psychology Learning and Memory Conditions, 33, 977-982. doi:10.1037/0278-7393.33.5.977

Smith, S (1984). A comparison of two techniques for reducing context-dependent forgetting. Memory and Cognition, 12, 477-482. doi:https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03198309






  1. December 5th, 2019 at 15:05 | #1

    Hi Lisa, I thought your post was really interesting and especially relevant with finales coming up. I really liked how you touched upon the cognitive principle of encoding-retrieval specificity in the context of cue-dependent forgetting. I remember reading about a study in the class textbook where participants were asked to either study under water or above water material and then take a test on the material either under water or above water. The results showed that those who studied (i.e., encoded) and took the test (i.e., retrieved) in the same location did better on the test than those who took the test in a different location. The textbook also talked about how our memory is context and mood dependent which definitely ties in with memory being cue-dependent which just goes to show that retrieving a memory and more precisely studying is not as easy as we think it is and it is almost nearly impossible to replicate the exact conditions in which we learned/studied materials for an upcoming exam.

  2. laugus22
    December 7th, 2019 at 00:34 | #2

    Hey Lisa! I really enjoyed reading your post, which reminded me about the importance of study habits. The start of your blog post describes a very similar experience I had when I took the AP US History exam. I really enjoyed how you mentioned that location cues and how Smith’s study explains how limiting the amount of cues used can help with better retrieval of the information. This also compliments Tulving & Pearlstone (1966), which shows that participants remembered words from the studied list better with cues versus free recall showing that cues are important in memory. The last two paragraphs of your blog post provide very helpful tips on how to study. This post was super helpful especially with finals coming around the corner.

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