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 the 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.
We’ve all been there. While you may have studied, and studied hard, something happened in that exam to leave your high caliber intellectual weaponry devoid of bullets. You’ve spent hours studying for your exam but the big day finally arrived, and your mind failed you.
We all want to use our time to learn as efficiently as possible (and not blank on the big day). If rereading, summarizing, and highlighting isn’t enough, then what should we be doing?
Allow me to introduce a simple hack that will improve your learning process: 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 you know that on the other side is the answer.
That moment—when you try to remember the answer before checking it—is active recall. It's retrieval practice; it's when your brain goes into its vast scaffolded storehouse of information and looks for that one specific piece of data.
What active recall is not
Active recall vs. recognition
Contrast this with doing a multiple-choice test (which doesn't work well for studying). Because all the answers are in front of you, you don’t get that moment of blank-faced concentration while you find the data in your brain; there's no retrieval practice. You simply look at the answers and choose the one which seems right. This isn’t active recall, it’s recognition.
Active recall vs. passive review
Active recall is also not the same as re-reading or highlighting. Re-reading is when you go back through your notes. Maybe you skim them or maybe you go back through them in depth. But you’re not reaching back into that bank of knowledge you have stuffed in your brain to retrieve the information, so it’s not active recall. Re-reading and highlighting are forms of passive review.
Why does retrieval practice matter? Active learning gets As
Active recall matters to you because it’s the key to real learning and getting incredible grades.
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 more active review, like note-taking and concept mapping (although these can also be useful study techniques).
The cognitive science behind active recall
Why is active recall so effective? Basically, 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.
Karpicke and Roediger did the classic research on this. Their famous study is a bit complex, but they basically found that what matters for recalling information is how much you test yourself on it using active recall. It also demonstrates that you should use active recall on everything you’re trying to remember, not just the stuff you think you haven’t mastered yet.
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.
The take away is this: retrieving information using active recall helps you remember it. It’s much better than simply recognizing an answer, re-reading information, note-taking, or concept mapping.
How do I use active recall?
Great, active recall will help you avoid getting to the test and completely blanking. But how exactly do you use it to study?
There are a few ways, but here are 3 that work.
1. SQ3R method
The SQ3R method is used to remember what you read in a piece of text: maybe a chapter of your history textbook. The method has five steps, in order: survey, question, read, retrieve, and review.
- 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.
Research finds that this is an effective way to learn material.
2. Feynman technique
We love the Feynman technique so much that we’ve written a whole post on it. The principle is very simple: the best way to learn something is to teach it.
You don’t actually have to teach other people, you can even simply explain the material to your coffee cup or the wall. What’s important is that you try to break down the material and use your own words to explain it.
This is our favorite way to use active recall: flashcards. Flashcards are extremely effective study tools. You’ve known this since you were in Grade 9 when you saw Lucy using her color-coded flashcards to get an A in every class. But now you know why they’re so great: active recall.
Brainscape's mobile and online flashcards use active recall because you have to remember the answer rather than just recognizing it or reading it. Then, you have to rate yourself on how well you knew the answer; this is metacognition. Finally, our algorithm uses spaced repetition to repeat the cards that you don’t know very well often, so you can master them. It’ll also repeat the ones you think you do know—just not as often. This bases the frequency of repetition on how well you know it. That way, your ability to recall is reinforced over and over again.
It’s elegantly simple and it works. The result is the fastest way to learn all your materials.
How not to blank on your exam: use active recall
Active recall just means reaching back into your brain for information. It’s not complicated.
But this simple tool is powerful: it’s the most effective way to learn and remember. If you’re looking to be a top student, pass an important exam, master a foreign language, or you’re doing any other kind of learning, you need to use active recall.
What will you get? Quicker, more effective studying, better knowledge retention, and the ability to remember the information learned. It’ll translate into you knocking your exam flat on its back and walking away into the bloodshot sunset.
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.