Academic journal article Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia

Memory-Context Effects of Screen Color in Multiple-Choice and Fill-In Tests

Academic journal article Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia

Memory-Context Effects of Screen Color in Multiple-Choice and Fill-In Tests

Article excerpt

In this experimental study, 44 undergraduates completed five computer-based instructional lessons and either two multiple-choice tests or two fill-in-the-blank tests. Color-coded borders were displayed during the lesson, adjacent to the screen text and illustrations. In the experimental condition, corresponding border colors were shown at posttest. In the control condition, border colors in the posttest were mismatched with those used in the lesson. Participants were not informed of this color manipulation. Based on Tulving and Thomson's (1973) encoding specificity principle, the experimental group should remember significantly more content. Conversely, Murnane, Phelps, and Malmberg's (1999) ICE theory predicted that color-coding will have little effect on memory retrieval, since participants did not explicitly and actively integrate the topics with the color-coding scheme. Results generally favor ICE theory, however, the effects of practice/feedback varied by test format and color condition. A topic-color test measured the number of topic-color associations that were implicitly encoded and remembered. Gender and format differences were detected.


An instructional designer assigns different color index tab colors to correspond with different modules in a binder. Another designer uses different border colors in a quick reference guide to cue users to different categories of information quickly. An instructor uses different background colors or "skins" for different slide decks pertaining to different content. A multimedia designer assigns different border colors to different web-based training modules to vary the look and feel enough, so that the learner realizes he/she is studying something new and distinct from the other modules. Another assigns different background colors to different types of information within a single screen to differentiate the various types of information (e.g., instructions, definitions, procedures, and tips). Each of these is an example of color-coding in educational settings.

Color-coding is a common technique used by designers of web sites (Clariana, 2004), user interfaces (Kludt & Dyre, 2001; Post, Geiselman, & Goodyear, 1999), and print materials (Dwyer & Moore, 1994; Dwyer & Moore, 2001; Lamberski & Dwyer, 1983; Moore & Dwyer, 1997). Color-coding can be used to make individual topics more distinct. Color affords the observer a way of distinguishing objects (Gibson, 1966), so while the color-coding may or may not have any relationship to the content, it can still signal the structure of the content and give it individuality. Individuality helps to make things more memorable.

Color-coding is also used in noneducational settings to differentiate content and to make content easier to remember. For example, in the 1920s, the U.S. Army developed a color-coding scheme for different types of hazardous materials (ANSI Color Codes, 2000). On U.S. inter-state highways, the colors used in different signs correspond with different classifications of signs (MUTCD, 2003). Most motorists do not necessarily memorize this topic-color scheme; rather, they automatically form the topic-color associations over time after repeated exposure. When motorists see a yellow sign, they expect to see traffic information (such as "Yield" or "Merge") and, conversely, do not expect to see a notice regarding construction or speed limits. The color hue quickly establishes the context for the content of the sign. This is what cognitive psychologists call a memory-context effect (MCE). The MCE, in this case, is the result of paired associations between different color hues (context color) and their corresponding sign classifications (topics/content).

Although cognitive research involving paired-associate learning suggests that context cues can have powerful memory-context effects on memory (Baddeley, 1999; Elio & Reutener, 1978; Godden & Baddeley, 1975, 1980; Murnane & Phelps, 1993, 1994, 1995; Murnane, Phelps, & Malmberg, 1999; Pellegrino & Salzberg, 1975), there is little empirical guidance for how such cues can be used to improve learning in realistic instructional settings. …

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