There isn’t a student under the sun who hasn’t faced down an exam like a sweaty cowboy in a gunfight, hand hovering over their holstered weapon, fierce and ready to draw, only to discover in the trembling heat of the moment that *click* the chambers are empty and you’re in deep doo-doo.

I get it, I've been there. While you may have studied, and studied hard, something happened in that exam that left your high-caliber intellectual weaponry devoid of bullets. We all want to learn as efficiently as possible but if re-reading, highlighting, and summarizing the textbook isn’t enough, then what should we be doing?

I'll tell you exactly what: active recall.

What is active recall?

Active recall is when you actively stimulate your memory for a piece of information.

Imagine reviewing medical facts for your physiology test. You have all the terms written on flashcards, and now you’re going through them. As you turn over a new card, you see the question and that moment—when you try to remember the answer "from scratch" before checking it—is active recall.

In other words, it's retrieval practice: it's when your brain goes into its vast scaffolded storehouse of information and looks for that one specific fact or answer.

Active recall is NOT recognition

Active recall is not recognition
Active recall is not recognizing the right answer or passively reviewing text.

Active recall vs. recognition

When you recognize a piece of information, it might feel like you know it ... but you don't; at least not well enough to recall it from scratch and use it to asnwer, for example, an exam question. This is why multiple-choice tests don't work well for studying. Students recognize the correct answer in a list of answers and it lulls them into a false sense of knowing the information, when all they're really doing is recognizing it.

The bottom line is that you only really understand and know a piece of information when you can recall it completely from memory. That's active recall.

Active recall vs. passive review

Passive review is when you read (and re-read) your textbook, highlighting the important information, and making study notes. All of these are excellent exercises for engaging with and reframing the information you're studying ... but while they help you understand the data, they don't necessarily help you memorize it.

Try it: after a two-hour study session of passive review, try to give a lecture on everything you covered. You probably can't.

This is why, in addition to this work, it's excellent practice to exercise your powers of active recall to establish those deep neural pathways that are essential for permanent memory.

Why does active recall matter?

So, why should you harness active recall as a key study method? Because active recall gets A's, my friend. And it's absolutely essential for deep, yet efficient learning.

Using active recall is one of the most effective ways to study.

Active recall is much more effective than either recognition or passive review at consolidating information in your long-term memory. It’s the quickest and most effective way to study—either for factual or problem-solving tests. It’s also more effective than other forms of studying, like note-taking and concept mapping (although these can also be useful study techniques).

[Psssst! Have you seen Brainscape's Official YouTube channel? You'll find tons of videos on study, productivity, and self-development tips and hacks!]

The cognitive science behind active recall

The more we practice retrieving information from our memory, the better we get at it. In fact, it's the retrieval practice that actually helps us learn the information.

In Karpicke and Roediger's study—The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning—it was essentially found that what matters most for recalling information is how much (and often) you test yourself on it using active recall. In other words, trying to remember information from scratch helps you learn that information—and permanently remember it—quicker.

Also, you should use active recall at frequent intervals to remember older information you've learned (so that it stays remembered) and not just on trying to bank new information. If this piques your curiosity, check out 'How we learn: the secret to all learning & human development'.

In a follow-up study, researchers found that retrieval (active recall) was more effective than concept mapping or elaborative study for remembering information. Further research has continued to support these findings.

How can you use active recall to learn quicker?

I'm so glad you asked because this is really what Brainscape's study app is all about! (We'll talk about that in a bit.) There are a three key ways you can harness the power of active recall to help you remember information more efficiently:

1. The SQ3R method

The SQ3R method is an effective way to learn the material you've read in a piece of text, for example, a chapter of your history textbook. The method has five steps:

  • Survey: survey or skim the material to get an idea of what it is about.
  • Question: create some questions that you have and that you think the text might answer.
  • Read: Then actively read the text, trying to answer the questions you created.
  • Retrieve: This is the active recall part. Recall from memory the information you learned. Use your own words to formulate the material. Do it either orally or in writing.
  • Review: Once you finish that, repeat back to yourself what the point of the material was, and summarize what you learned.

If you like the idea of actually remembering what you read, check out our Academy article: 'How to read a textbook⁠—and remember what you’ve read'.

2. The Feynman technique

We here at Brainscape are such proponents of the Feynman technique that we wrote this article about it: 'Use the Feynman Technique to make knowledge STICK'. But the short and sweet of it all is this: the best way to learn something is to teach it.

You don’t actually have to teach other people; all you have to do is explain your subject aloud—to your cat, a potted plant, or an imaginary sixth grader—from scratch, as though the student you're explaining it to knows nothing about the topic (this forces you to explain it in simple terms, even if your subject is complex).

If you can do this, you know your subject very well!

3. (Brainscape) digital flashcards

Okay now, this is our jam. Flashcards, particularly digital, are one of the most useful tools for active recall and, therefore, efficient, effective studying. On the one side of a flashcard, there is a question, which prompts you to actively recall the answer from memory. Only once you've answered it do you turn the card over to reveal the answer.

It's elegantly simple ... but Brainscape's flashcards have taken it further by marrying active recall with two other cognitive learning principles: spaced-repetition and metacognition. Together, these three form the perfect trifecta to optimized learning.

The schience of brainscape active recall
Brainscape pairs active recall with spaced repetition and metacognition to make the most effective study tool ever.

Use active recall to study for your next exam

So now you should appreciate just how simple, yet powerful active recall is as a means for permanently banking information in your brain folds. It's why Brainscape's learning algorithm is grounded in it!

So, if you have your sights set on improving your grades, passing an important exam, mastering a foreign language, or any other kind of learning—be it for high school, university, medical school, a career certification, or just out of general interest—use active recall.

Armed with this learning technique, you'll be able to quickly dispense of your next learning challenge, so that you can ride away into the sunset, victorious.

[More reading: Check out our huge guide to effective studying for more great tips on getting that A ... and avoid these common mistakes students make.]

Sources

Butler, A. C. (2010). Repeated testing produces superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 36(5), 1118. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019902

Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 331(6018), 772-775. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1199327

Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science, 319(5865), 966-968. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1152408

McDaniel, M. A., Howard, D. C., & Einstein, G. O. (2009). The read-recite-review study strategy: Effective and portable. Psychological Science, 20(4), 516-522. https://doi.org/10.1111%2Fj.1467-9280.2009.02325.x

Nilson, L.(2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. Jossey-Bass.