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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-calibre 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 studying.

What is the active recall study technique?

Active recall studying is when you actively stimulate your memory for a piece of information. For example:

Who was the first president of the United States?

What is the capital of Argentina?

Where in the body is the basal ganglia located?

As I ask you each of these questions, your brain runs a lightning-quick search of its memory banks for the answers. It's performing this action "from scratch" with just the question as a prompt. This is active recall and it is a much more powerful way to teach your brain to remember information than passive study techniques like reading and highlighting text.

(Another word for active recall studying is retrieval practice: when your brain goes into its vast scaffolded storehouse of information and looks for that one specific fact or answer.)

Answers: George Washington, Buenos Aires, and the brain

Active recall is NOT recognition

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

Importantly, active recall is NOT recognition. The reason it's so important to distinguish between the two is because "recognition" gives students a false sense of knowledge and memory.

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 answer 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 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 why active recall studying is such a powerful technique for learning.

Active recall studying vs. passive review

Passive review is when you read (and re-read) your textbook, highlight the important information, and make 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 ingrain 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 master the active recall study technique? Because active recall gets A's, my friend. And it's essential for deep, efficient learning.

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

Active recall studying 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 are useful study techniques).

To better understand what's going on when you study using active recall, let's take a look under the hood of your brain...

[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 an active recall study technique. 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 for banking 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.

Three step active recall techniques to learn quicker

So, how can you harness 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 studying 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 three other cognitive learning principles: spaced-repetition, metacognition, and interleaving practice. Together, these are the perfect artillery to optimize learning.

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

Use the active recall study technique 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.]

We'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic, so please join the discussion.


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.