What Is Active Recall and How to Use It to Improve Your Studying?

Active recall is a learning principle and study method that trains the brain to remember and retrieve information. There is a lot to learn on any given school day, so we have to stay on top of things by continuing to learn while retaining massive amounts of information.

For students, learning requires more than just sitting in your study corner and reading your textbooks; it also takes a lot more than writing notes (although those help a lot!). Take charge of your learning by actively engaging with the skills and information. You can do this through a technique called active recall.

Related reading: How to Stay Focused When Studying?

The active recall method

The active recall method is a process by which a person learns by trying to remember what they’ve learned. You need this ability whether you’re preparing for an exam or just simply trying to master a skill or a subject matter.

As the term suggests, it is an active process, where you challenge your brain to remember information that you’ve read from a book or heard in a lecture. While note-taking and reading have their own merits, you might want to step it up as you prepare for exams. You can devote long hours to studying but have a mental block on the day of an exam. Active recall helps the brain by training it to remember a vast amount of important information.

The importance of active recall 

Active recall is important because it engages the brain. The brain is just like any muscle. You need to keep using it and challenging it to keep it in its best condition. When you’re using active recall, you’re engaging multiple parts of the brain when you acquire, process, store, and retrieve information. This allows real learning to take place.

Because students have to take multiple classes in a semester, they have to be able to manage their time well and make the most out of every study session. While reading, highlighting and listening to lectures make us feel like we understand the content, what happens afterward?

Relying on these methods alone will leave you scratching your head on the day of exams, especially if you’re asked critical thinking and application-related questions. Active recall is best used alongside other study techniques like note-taking, mind mapping, retrieval practice, and spaced repetition.  

Active recall is also relatively easy to implement and incorporate into your existing study routine. If you’re used to the reading and note-taking method, you can add active recall by testing yourself.

Try this:

  1. Read one page of a book.
  2. Close your eyes and try to recall as much information from that page as you can.
  3. Write down everything that you recalled.  
  4. Reread the chapter and look out for information that you might have missed.
  5. Revisit the notes you made and revise accordingly.

Active recall is an efficient learning tool that any student or busy person can try. If done consistently and repeatedly, it can strengthen one’s ability to remember information, and help them make connections between concepts. All the information will be consolidated in the long-term memory. With continued practice, the recall process will become a lot easier.

Active recall and retrieval practice 

Just like any other skill, the more you practice active recall, the better you get at recalling information. At some point, recalling information will happen faster. This is helpful when you’re working under time pressure.

It’s one thing to be able to recall information, but it’s another to be able to access the right one. This is where retrieval practice comes in. It is the process by which the brain goes into its massive file cabinet of information (which has been accumulating for a long time) to find the specific information that you need.

Imagine that you’re taking your final exam for the semester. Active recall will help you remember the information that you have studied to prepare for the exam while retrieval practice will help you remember specific concepts that were discussed during the first part of the term.

Active recall and spaced repetition 

Spaced repetition is a study technique that suggests that the brain remembers better when there are intervals between study sessions. When we take breaks, our brain can process information allows connections between neurons for form.

You can think of spaced repetition as the opposite of cramming. When you cram, you spend a long time not studying and then proceed to study an entire semester’s worth of content in one day for an exam the following day. Spaced repetition involves following a schedule and going through the same material a few times a week.

Active recall happens when you study after intervals. During these breaks, the brain forgets some of the information that you initially learned. As you review and/or test yourself, you actively try to remember the things that you initially learned. This is a more exhaustive process compared to rereading because it keeps the brain active.

Active recall strategies 

You can train your brain to recall information by testing yourself consistently. These can be done whether you’re alone or with your study buddies. Active recall can be quite demanding cognitively because you are meant to recall information every so often. If you do it often, you will be able to master content soon enough, and it will become easier to remember the information that you need.

Below are some strategies that students can use for active recall. Some can be used in conjunction with other strategies. It all depends on your learning style and preferences.

  • Flashcards – this is probably the most widely known method and one that’s been practiced for a long time. Write a keyword on one side and the definition on the opposite side. Prepare an entire deck of flashcards for each subject. When you review, look at the keyword, then try to remember what it means, then check the back to see if you’re correct. This thinking process between reading the keyword and reading the back part helps train your memory to remember answers, and not simply recognize them. These days, students have the option to use either physical or online flashcards. The advantage of using online flashcards is that it’s paperless, and you can keep flashcards for various subjects in one place.
  • Learning by teaching – another active recall method is to teach what you’ve learned. As you are teaching the lesson, the brain is actively trying to recall all the information that you learned. You can do this with a group of friends—take turns “teaching” topics to each other. You can step it up by asking each other questions at the end of each teaching session. You can also do this by yourself. If you are studying by yourself, you can record yourself while discussing topics that you’re studying. Break down the concepts using your own words.  
  • Notes after reading – read a chapter of a book, then close the book and make notes. Normally, you would take notes as you’re reading or as you’re listening to a lecture. Shake things up a bit. Take notes after learning an entire chapter and try to put it in your own words. Connect concepts and memorize key terminology to jog your memory.
  • Ask questions – instead of taking notes while you’re studying or writing a lecturer’s words verbatim, why don’t you start by asking questions? If you’re in a lecture and the teacher is speaking about an information-heavy topic, listen to the lecture and write down any topic-specific question you might have. After the lecture, try to answer these questions. Let your follow-up study session be guided by your questions.
  • Practice testing – testing is one of the key aspects of active recall. Answer the practice tests at the end of each chapter of a textbook or prepare a list of study questions that you will answer after reviewing.   
  • Create your own – to test your full understanding of a lesson, try to apply what you learned by creating your project related to the topic. For example, if you learned about the psychoanalysts like Freud, create an essay or a sample treatment plan that details how a Freudian psychotherapist would treat a case in these modern times. Doing this demands some level of mastery of concepts and terminology. Try to get as detailed as possible with your explanations. Use relevant terms and concepts.

Why you should try it

Active recall is a deceivingly simple and quick study method. There are different ways to go about it too! More people need to know of it because not only is it easy, but it can benefit a person in the long run. It’s not about how much time you spend buried in books, it’s about effective studying. The more hours you spend studying will not help if you aren’t able to recall what you’ve learned on the day of the exam.  

When we talk about studying, actual learning needs to take place—learning cannot be achieved by reading and memorizing what is written in a book alone. You have to engage with the information and retain this knowledge and have the tools to retrieve the information when it’s needed, which is what active recall does. 

Final thoughts 

Although the active recall is more cognitively challenging, it can expand your brain’s capacity to learn and retain massive amounts of information. It’s similar to training for a competition. When preparing for a match, you have to make sure that your body is in the best condition.

Doing passive or light exercises (even if done every day) might not do much to help you prepare for this important event. In this case, the “training” is learning through active recall, and “competition” is an exam. To make sure that your brain can perform at its best, you need to engage it, challenge it, and test it.