This article is all about active recall techniques. Including the 9 best techniques for active recall, which I have stumbled upon during my studying journey.
I experimented have experimented with techniques for years and found these to be the most effective when it comes to preparing for an exam.
But first, it’s important to understand what exactly active recall is and how to do it for maximum effectiveness.
What is Active Recall?
Active recall is when you recall information purely from memory without the help of external sources. Examples of this include recalling information without looking at your notes, textbook, or lecture slides using techniques like flashcards and practice problems.
While active recall is essentially just recalling information from memory. You can get an even better understanding by learning about its opposite, recognition.
Active recall is the opposite of recognition. In contrast to active recall, recognition is passive and does not require the same level of cognitive effort. This is because it involves recognizing what you would have otherwise actively recalled.
An example of this is when you reread through a textbook and think to yourself “yea I know all of this”. Then come exam time you are not able to actually recall it from memory.
This is one of the problems with passive recognition tactics such as these. You can very easily trick yourself into thinking you have learned something when you haven’t.
Active recall keeps us honest with ourselves because we avoid these illusions of learning by practicing it. Beyond this, It is also just a much more effective strategy in general for memorization.
There are numerous studies demonstrating that recognizing an answer via cued recall is inferior to actively pulling it from memory.1
How do you do active recall?
Active recall might seem simple on the surface, but you need to make sure that you are actually doing it correctly. There is a spectrum that ranges from recognition to full active recall.
To get the full benefit of active recall try not to cue up information before recalling it by looking at your learning materials. This makes your learning more passive. You want to be recalling the information from long-term memory rather than working memory. While both are effective, long-term recall will create long-lasting memories of the material because the recall takes more effort.
Now that we know what active recall is and why we should use it, I will show you some of the best ways to go about doing it.
9 Proven Active Recall Techniques to Ace Your Exam
1. Do a Brain Dump
One of the simplest approaches to using active recall is just opening a document in your word processor of choice and writing down what you know on a topic. This is called a brain dump.
I think the best way to use this is by explaining processes in detail. For example, if you wanted to know the process of programmed cell death, you could memorize processes this way. All you need to do is explain all of the steps in detail without looking at your notes.
This approach is really about getting down those details that are hard to remember but still being able to relate those details to other elements of the process they are a part of.
After you do this you can check your answer and find areas that you missed or couldn’t recall. This allows you to use even more detailed oriented approaches to active recall such as practice questions and flashcards. You can target very specific pieces of information that you couldn’t recall in this way.
2. Create Mind Maps
By creating a mind map you can get a bigger picture view of the topic you need to revise. This is similar to a brain dump but using a mind map instead of writing.
There is a difference between doing a regular mindmap and this approach. The mindmap needs to be created from memory. Don’t look at your notes before or during this technique. Otherwise, you will be recalling the information from working memory rather than long-term memory.
This can be very effectively paired with the previous technique of doing a brain dump. Start with the mindmap to get the big-picture view of the topic and identify which areas are less clear. Then you can move into a deeper level of detail by writing about individual subtopics from memory.
3. Teaching Others or an Imaginary Student
A great way to actively recall lots of material in a short period of time is by speaking. The average speaking speed is about 140-170 words per minute, this is likely much faster than you can type.
This is a similar approach to a brain dump where you write about everything you can recall about a topic. The difference here is that this is a bit more off the cuff and you can elaborate further on your explanations either with questions from others or spontaneously on your own.
You can do this out loud to yourself but I highly recommend doing this in a study group and allowing the group members to ask you questions. This allows you to not only get the benefit of teaching others but also includes naturally related practice questions that help you elaborate on the topic further.
If you want to know how to most effectively run one of these study groups, check out my article on the best way to study in a group.
4. Use Flashcards
Creating flashcards is probably the most detail-oriented you can be with your revision. They have their pros and cons for this reason. On the one hand, they are very good at memorizing specific facts and details but it’s also worth keeping in mind that they are less effective if you don’t already have the bigger picture figured out.
If you just rely on flashcards this can leave you not exactly seeing how the different pieces of information relate to one another or the structure behind the information.
So I recommend polishing up your knowledge with flashcards in the later stages of your revision to get their full benefits. They are a great tool for targeting specific pieces of information you are worried you might forget.
Speaking of tools, if you want to know what the best tool for flashcards is, I would recommend using Anki. This app is trusted by students worldwide for its effective implementation of active recall and spaced repetition.
I have an entire in-depth guide on how to create the best quality Anki cards for higher retention if you are interested in this topic.
5. Do Practice Tests
Practice tests are great for getting exam-specific knowledge and forming a natural hierarchy of what information should be prioritized.
You can find these through online past exam banks or generally online. They don’t even have to be from your university. They are just generally good practice material as well.
You might be tempted to just grind out tons of past exams. But keep in mind that each past exam can actually be used for much more than just going through it and answering its questions once. For instance, you can note the prioritized information on the exams and use other techniques on this list to target and learn this information.
But another great approach to get more out of your past exams is actually involved in getting the most out of the individual questions. This is what the next active recall technique is all about.
6. Do Practice Problems
Practice problems are helpful because they naturally tend to prioritize important information that you should know about.
If your textbook or course materials have these then you should do them just because this is some pretty low-hanging fruit that can yield significant benefits. This is especially true if the professor has provided you with these because they are directly telling you what material is important this way.
However, you can also make your own practice problems. Making and doing practice problems yourself (especially hard ones) can be a very beneficial use of active recall. In order to make a good question you need to be able to recall certain facts and work with the material. This makes practice question generation a high-quality active recall technique.
How to get more from practice problems
But when it comes to practice problems in general most students are not getting the most out of them. Here are a couple of interesting ways to get more out of your practice problems. This can also apply to individual questions on past exams.
Variable replacement method:
The first method to get more out of your practice problems is something I call the variable replacement method. This is when you take the format of the question and insert different terms into it to get more questions.
What makes x correct method:
This is helpful when you are studying with multiple-choice practice questions. If you have many options available as the answer you can change the question so that another answer from the original one is correct.
This is helpful because professors often still use terms that are relevant or important for their incorrect answers on multiple-choice questions. You can cover significantly more content By doing this without discarding those incorrect answers that still highlight important information.
7. Stop and Recite and Elaborate While Reading
This technique is simple but effective. The best part about this technique is that you can practice active recall while you learn rather than after. This makes later active recall sessions easier and provides better encoding of the information compared to regular reading.
All you have to do is, every now and then pause and recite what you have learned and how it relates to the other material. Don’t forget this second step. Reciting has value on its own but the real benefit comes from relating the material to what you have already learned is really what makes this technique shine.
This is called elaborative encoding. This is when you take an idea and add more complexity by relating it to existing knowledge. Research indicates that this significantly improves memory performance.2
One limitation here is that you are cueing up the information before you recall it because you are in the middle of reading. However, this technique is still effective, it just needs to be complimented with other active recall techniques.
8. Write Questions During Class
Another technique that can be done very simply is writing questions on what you think is important to remember in addition to your notes. This gives you a set of questions to do after class.
The forgetting curve explains why this is important. The research on how we forget information indicates that we forget information very rapidly soon after learning it.3 Significant losses occur even within hours of learning.
This is where this technique can be handy.
Doing these questions right after class will strengthen your new memories and prevent them from decaying as rapidly.
You are effectively resetting the forgetting curve with this technique.
9. Think Before Checking the Answer
This is perhaps the smallest technique on this list but it’s also part of a larger mindset that comes with using active recall. If you are presented with an opportunity to either look at an answer or think of the answer yourself first, always choose the second option. This is a very easy and effective way to practice active recall as you learn.
You can (and you should) take this a step further by trying to anticipate what will be coming next in your material as you read. While this isn’t an “answer” per se, the process is the same. This active recall technique primes your brain for the correct answer because you already have a foundation to work off of.
While you might be wrong a lot of the time with this technique, it doesn’t matter. You will still see the benefits.
Active recall is a great way to improve long-term memory retention and perform better on exams. By recalling information from memory without the aid of external sources or prompts, you can test your understanding and identify areas that need still revision or other techniques.
You should incorporate some of these techniques into your study routine. This way you can improve your learning and retention of material to ace that upcoming exam.
- Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266
- Qureshi, A., Rizvi, F., Syed, A., Shahid, A., & Manzoor, H. (2014). The method of loci as a mnemonic device to facilitate learning in endocrinology leads to improvement in student performance as measured by assessments. Advances in Physiology Education, 38(2), 140–144. https://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00092.2013
- Murre, J. M. J., & Dros, J. (2015). Replication and Analysis of Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve. PLOS ONE, 10(7), e0120644. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0120644
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