Test Yourself! How Active Recall Helps You Learn Faster

Modified on by julia

Here at Brainscape, one of our primary tenets for learning is active recall.  We’ve long realized that multiple-choice tests do not foster true learning, and we’ve push toward solutions that involve much deeper mental activity on the part of the learner.

That’s why Brainscape‘s adaptive flashcards system prompts you to think of the answer to each question before you flip the card over and view the correct answer. We favor this over multiple choice and matching methods that simply prompt you to choose the answer from a limited number of options.

After all, just because you can pick the right answer out of say, four options, does that really mean that you knew it? You might, but let’s face it: actively recalling the answer without seeing it on a list is a much better test of your learning.

Active Recall for Active Learning

Because I’m such a fan of active recall as a study method, I was thrilled when I found a post by Dr. Bill, “Memory Medic” entitled “Tests Produce Learning”.  In this post, Dr. Bill argues that testing is crucial for consolidating information into long-term memory. He cites a study done by Karpicke and Roediger (2008) that exhibited the benefits of retrieval as a study method.  Participants in this study learned a series of foreign language word pairs; half of them repeatedly studied each pair, while the other half dropped the pairs from the list once they had recalled them successfully. Then, some participants were tested on the entire list, whereas others were tested only on the pairs that had not been dropped.

Interestingly, the initial learning of these pairs was not affected by the strategy used; i.e., it did not matter whether or not the participants dropped the items that they were able to recall. On the other hand, participants who had been tested on all of the word pairs did significantly better than those who had only been tested on the non-dropped items, regardless of how they had studied initially. In short, the study method was not important for their performance, but the testing made all the difference.

The Value of Self-Testing

So what does this mean for you? Well, regardless of how you study for a test, it’s important to test yourself on all of the information – and ideally, you should do this several times, after each study session.  If you use flashcards, you might like to put the ones aside that you already know, so that you can focus on the ones that you’re struggling with.  (And if you’re a Brainscape user, you already know that our confidence-based repetition methodology does something like this for you.)  But this study suggests that once you’re feeling reasonably comfortable these more difficult cards, you should go back through all of them again, formally testing yourself (i.e., not looking at the answers without actively recalling them first).

How does this work? Dr. Bill suggests that every time we recall something, our memory of it is re-consolidated; the more we re-consolidate the same information, the better we remember it! So next time you’re preparing for a big test or just trying to learn some new information, remember to test yourself along the way.  The end result will be well worth it!


Karpicke, J.D. & Roedinger, H.L. III. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science, 319, 966-968.

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