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Pink wooden pegs

Hang your study notes on the peg-word memory aid

We’ve all been in this situation before. You’ve raced to the supermarket only to realise you’ve left the shopping list sitting on the kitchen bench. The memory of what you’ve written is still lingering and you need a quick way to memorise which groceries you came to pick up before you forget. Thankfully, there’s a memory aid that’s perfect for the job: the peg-word method.

To explain the ins-and-outs of how this memory aid works and how to utilise it to improve your memory, we spoke with Dr Stefanie Sharman, Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology at Deakin University.

What is the peg-word method?                                   

So what exactly is the peg-word method? The name sounds slightly ambiguous, but once you learn how it’s used, you’ll realise it makes a lot of sense – and that it’s also an incredibly effective memory aid. That’s especially true if you’re in the throws of studying for an exam. The peg-word method can be used to memorise important terms and their meanings, dates and even people.

‘It utilises an external “skeleton” for the to-be-remembered information – the peg words act as a structure to help you remember particular items,’ Dr Sharman explains. So, essentially, you’re hanging information you need to recall on these pegs which allows it to be retrieved quickly and easily.

Initially, to use this method, you will have to remember the peg words. Luckily it’s fairly straightforward:

  1. one = bun
  2. two = shoe
  3. three = tree
  4. four = door
  5. five = hive
  6. six = sticks
  7. seven = heaven
  8. eight = gate
  9. nine = vine
  10. ten = hen

Once you’ve got that trained to memory, the next step is to create associations between the information you need to remember and the item linked with the corresponding number. Explaining this, Dr Sharman says: ‘if the first item is milk, then you need to visualise the milk and a bun together.

‘Here, the more unusual you can make your image, the more likely you are to remember it. In this case you could imagine a bun drinking a glass of milk,’ she explains.

'It utilises an external “skeleton” for the to-be-remembered information – the peg words act as a structure to help you remember particular items.'

Dr Stefanie Sharman,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Why is it a useful memory aid?

The peg-word method can prove helpful in a few different scenarios, however, Dr Sharman explains it is most useful when it comes to remembering lists. ‘The benefits of the peg-word method is that you can recall a number of items quite easily in order.

‘It’s also easy to access an item from a particular position in the list without having to go through the list in turn (as with the ),’ she continues. ‘With the peg-words, you can think of the number item that you want, e.g., six and then think of the item that is associated with sticks.’

Another handy way to use this memory aid in everyday life is to memorise important numbers, like phone numbers or dates. Say, for instance, you need to remember that William Shakespeare was born in the year 1564: that number converts to bun-hive-sticks-door. You can then imagine a story to help you remember the series. Make it as absurd as you can, so it’s easy to remember. For example, the story could be:

William Shakespeare put a bun in a beehive to coat it in honey, but he didn’t like how sticky it became so he threw it at a door.

But, why stop at memorising shopping lists and phone numbers? If you can get a good grasp on this technique you could even enter the Australian Memory Championship.

Are there downfalls of the peg-word method?

There is, unfortunately, a downside that comes with the continued use of this mnemonic.  After practicing this method multiple times and in close succession, Dr Sharman warns to be mindful that ‘items from previous lists may begin to interfere with the recall of the current list.’ It also won’t be much help if you have more than 10 things to remember, so if you need a trolley full of groceries you might just be better off to go back home and get your list.

Keep forgetting things? Find out about other memory aids and how they can help.

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Dr Stefanie Sharman
Dr Stefanie Sharman

Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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