What is Active Recall
Active Recall simply means making an effort to retrieve information from your brain. It is a science-backed study technique that helps you remember better in long term and is much more effective than just passively reading and re-reading to remember something.
Exerting your brain in pursuit of the answer is proven to be a much more effective and efficient way to learn and remember stuff than just throwing information repeatedly at your brain and hoping something sticks.
The Science Behind Active Recall
Our brain tends to understand concepts and remember facts like we tend to remember the path to our favorite café or the secret shortcut to our home.
It likes to map things out, and follow the same route when retrieving that specific information.
Neurons in your brain form new pathways as you learn something new. The brain strengthens and enhances these pathways (by myelination) if you make it walk the same path often.
You can picture it like your brain being a governor of your memory city, having the responsibility to manage its real estate efficiently.
Being bombarded by around 74 GB of information daily, it has to be very selective of which information will be committed to the long-term map of your memory’s cityscape.
So, the information which isn’t well connected to the main city or doesn’t get enough traffic is simply taken down to make space for new information.
Like us, our brain also prefers to travel on well-kept roads. So, when you force your brain to recollect an answer using active recall, it prompts your brain to enhance and reinforce the pathway to that information.
If you do it often, your brain considers that information as important and makes more pathways leading to that information. This enhances your recall and understanding of that particular topic.
How to Use Active Recall While Studying
Classic Cover Testing
The sheer simplicity of this method is what makes it so effective.
In the classic cover testing method, you pause briefly after completing a topic, cover the notes or close the book and quiz yourself on your what you’ve just read.
Simply talk to yourself about it and try to explain what you’ve just learned in your own words.
Ask questions like:
- What have I just learned?
- How does it relates to what I already know?
- How can the examiner frame questions on this topic?
- What are the key things I need to absorb?
Simplicity often wields enormous power.
The main advantage of this method is that you don’t need to do anything significantly different than what you were already doing.
It fits effortlessly in the workflow of a normal studying session, yet you bag the benefits of active recall and deeper understanding.
And you don’t even need to be on your desk, studying to use this tactic. This can be done when you’re brushing your teeth, walking your dog or waiting in line for your coffee.
This can be done when you’re brushing your teeth, walking your dog or waiting in line for your coffee. Just think of a topic and start explaining it to yourself in your downtime.
Make note of the subtopics you found difficult to recall in and give them a quick review when you get the chance
Once you get into the the habit of doing this, you’ll realize you’re in a much better touch with your comprehension and
The frustrating phenomenon of “I read all day but don’t remember anything” won’t cloud your grades anymore.
Make Recall Questions When Making Notes
Remember, the idea of active recall is to promote retrieval of information from your brain, like you have to do in your exams.
A cool way of integrating this into your study routine is to simultaneously make recall questions when you’re taking notes.
You can do this in the left column of your notes if you’re following the Cornell note-taking system, or write the list separately at the beginning or the end of your notes.
Just go through the list of these questions you’ve created when you want to revise
This will prompt your brain to actively think and recall the answer instead of the ineffective spoon-feeding of passive reading you were doing before.
Using Flashcards is one of the best ways of incorporating active recall into your study routine. Medicine and Law students across the globe swear by it — and for a good reason!
If done right, they can pave your path to perfect grades while keeping all the extra stress of studying at bay.
The concept behind flashcards is pretty simple:
- You’re shown a question on the face of each card.
- You try your best to answer it.
- Then you flip the card to reveal the answer.
If you couldn’t recall the correct answer or struggled a lot to retrieve it, then you probably need to visit that topic again.
Arguably, the best thing about flashcards is that they can be seamlessly combined with the technique of Spaced Repetition. Many great apps in the market let you do that, the most popular being Anki & Quizlet.
Here’s a Beginner’s Guide on How to Use Anki.
The only catch with Flashcards is that they can be a little time-consuming to make. But you can choose from many pre-made decks people share on online communities if you’re in a crunch:
- Best MCAT Anki Decks
Though making your own decks is considered best if you have enough time. Here’s the Ultimate Guide to Make Better Flashcards but these pointers will give you a great headstart:
- Understand the topic first before making flashcards for it.
- Avoid making too many questions on one flashcard.
- Add pictures, graphs, and mnemonics on the answer side for better recall.
Pros of Active Recall
It almost cuts your studying time in half.
When you’re studying inefficiently by reading and re-reading the same information, you’ll have to commit to longer study times if you want to keep up with your grades.
But why would you spend all your day burying your face in textbooks when you can spare a few good hours to learn efficiently and do whatever you want to do with the rest of the time you save?
Use the tactics discussed further in this article to ace your exams while studying less than you used to.
It helps you retain information for much longer.
Our retention is kind of directly proportional to the participation and effort we put into the process of learning.
When you’re actively invested in your learning by making an effort to recall and understand information, it prompts your brain to focus and internalize that information better.
You make deeper connections, and you relate to that information on a much broader scale. This helps your brain to commit that information to your long-term memory.
Cons of Active Recall
You won’t feel like you’re having great a time when your brain struggles to recall or make sense of new information.
But learning is supposed to be an effort. Anything that’s worth anything is supposed to be an effort.
It may feel unfamiliar or even weird when you’re starting with it.
If you’re accustomed to the passive way of studying and your attention span has taken a hit from scrolling through reels all day, your brain would practically revolt against your advances for forcing it to work.
It would take a few weeks till your brain makes peace with the new way of studying.