Active recall — if you’re a student, you’ve probably heard the term floating around.
It’s one of the most talked about study techniques out there — and for good reason.
Regularly practicing active recall is shown to be one of the best ways to remember what you’ve studied.
So, what is active recall?
In other words, it’s the process of searching your brain to find an answer.
Examples of active recall:
- When you’re answering questions on an exam or during a test
- When someone asks you what you had for lunch yesterday and you have to think about it
- When your partner asks you if you even remember what day is it, and you rack your brain trying to remember whether its an anniversary or birthday
Now, why is this such a recommended study technique?
When compared with simply rereading a chapter or rewatching a lecture over and over again, the challenge of recalling an answer helps you ultimately remember the answer better.
Active recall triggers the “testing effect” — the theory that when you retrieve information from memory, that information holds better in your long-term memory.
Read more: Check out our guide to How to Study.
How do you use active recall?
Here are 7 practical ways to apply active recall when studying.
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Flashcards are the king of active recall: you’re shown a question, and have to produce the answer.
If you use a lot of graphs or diagrams in your study, a fun thing to do is to include a diagram, without labels on the question side.
If possible, avoid multiple choice questions. When you show the answer along with the question, you’re not using active recall to find it. You’re simply recognizing the answer, which is significantly easier.
Tip: If you’re interested in digital flashcards with built-in spaced repetition, check out GoodNotes Study Sets.
2) Write questions when note-taking
Here’s a simple way to set future you up for success — when taking notes, write questions that refer to your notes.
When you’re revising, your notes will prompt you to actively think, instead of only passively reading your notes.
If you’re using the Cornell note-taking method, you can slot your questions in the left column of your notes.
3) Stop and summarize
A lot of what we consider studying is very passive: watching lectures, reading textbooks, highlighting notes, etc.
An easy way to put on your active recall hat is to stop and summarize. Take a step back once in a while to think about what you’re taking in, and actively try to summarize it.
To make this simple, once again, the Cornell note taking method is your friend. These notes have a section just for summaries at the bottom, making it easier to prompt yourself to pause when studying.
You can download a free template for Cornell notes here.
4) Incorporate practice questions and past exams
Practice questions and past exams are another opportunity to put your brain to the test, and help commit things to memory.
Remember, the objective isn’t to get everything right — it’s to get your brain used to the process of retrieving that information (sometimes, it can even help to get answers wrong).
You can often find problem sets in textbooks, with answers at the back. Many professors will also provide past exams or tests with the answers for you to study from.
What if you can’t find any practice tests or problem sets?
- Your school is likely not the only one that has a course like this. Take a search online to see if you can find the past exams for similar courses at other schools.
- There are several online communities where you can find crowdsourced problem sets and study notes, like the GoodNotes Community.
5) Pre-test before you start revision
Along the same vein as above, pre-tests before revision have been shown to help you intake more information during the actual study session.
You can also take advantage of problem sets and practice questions before you start your study session.
Or, if you’ve written questions in your notes (Tip #2), this will be a piece of cake. Simply go through the questions you’ve written down, and try to answer them.
For a quick solution, you can also take a moment to run through (aka. actively recall) what you remember about the topic at hand.
6) Teach a friend (who knows nothing about the subject)
Teaching is one of the best ways to learn. So find a friend and try to explain what you’re studying.
By doing so, you’re actively accessing and consolidating all the information you know, to produce a simplified version.
Encourage them to poke holes in your explanation and ask more questions about things they don’t quite understand. During this, you’re forced to think outside of the box and answer questions ad hoc.
Alternatively, if none of your friends are interested, don’t worry. Imaginary friends work for this exercise too.
The point is to rework what you know and communicate it in a way that someone else (who is unfamiliar with underlying concepts or jargon)) can also understand.
7) Stop relying on Google
When we don’t remember something, our first instinct is to Google it.
If this happens when studying, try this: instead of immediately reaching for the answer, first try to guess it.
Get into the practice of using Google to double check your guess.
Going forward, when you’re unsure of something you’ve previously learned, employ active recall to remember it first.
After all, a forgotten term or concept is probably something you’ve learned before. The answer is somewhere in the depths of your brain — you’ve just got to fish it out.
Play an active role in your learning
Active recall requires making an effort to remember something you’ve learned once before.
The act of doing so helps you remember even better in the long-term.
That’s why active recall is such an important study method.
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