Active Recall is an evidence-based study technique that is hinged on the principle of retrieval, remembering and recovering information as you study. This means you are actively stimulating your memory during learning and not just reviewing passively.

It focuses on retrieving instead of the generic information feeding our brains are used to. This will often involve testing/ quizzing yourself on the material you’re trying to commit to memory. And this testing can take place at every stage of the revision process as you’ll soon find out.

Research has proven active recall as the quickest and most efficient way to study. But why does it work? Well, we know for one that it helps to organize your memory cues and increase their connections to the information you’re going after. It also strengthens the brain’s ability to retain information over long periods of time.

How can you apply this strategy in your own studies? By actively reading and actively recalling.

ACTIVE READING: This is trying to engage the study material as much as possible while still learning it.

●Read and summarise: Review each slide/ concept/ page separately. Then make side notes or summaries of the important information without looking. It doesn’t have to be neat or even coherent. This note is only to trigger your memory as you reach for the whole information.

●Memory Boost: Pinpoint and highlight important information. Draw little diagrams; write out the mnemonics you’ve created by the side to remind yourself. Rewrite lists or groups of information till you don’t have to look anymore.

ACTIVE RECALL: This is when you actually spend time trying to remember the material you’ve learnt.

1. Explain the concept: With your book closed, go over the information and keep asking yourself why and how. This is called elaboration or teaching back. Try to do this on the first day you learn the information so that you can better integrate the knowledge.

Say it out loud, write it out, type it out, draw mind maps or do a brain dump (say or write everything you remember from that topic) from memory. This can also mean teaching others the information in order to consolidate it in memory.

2. Check back to see what you got wrong, skipped or mixed up: This is when you fill in the spaces in your knowledge and re-solidify the concept in memory. Think carefully about why you couldn’t explain what and work specifically on that.

3. Recall again what you’ve learnt: Here you further recognize the remaining gaps you need to confirm. This can go on for a few more times. This process takes a lot of active brain power and can be quite difficult and discouraging. That’s the point of active recall. Do not give up or skip till you fully know it.

There’s absolutely no need for perfect recall. It is in fact proven that multiple unsuccessful retrieval attempts will enhance subsequent learning. Moreover, your brain gets used to the need to retrieve the information and it does so faster each new time.

4. Quiz yourself at any point of your studying process:

■Pre-test: This is when you attempt questions on the topic when you have studied little or nothing at all. Here the hypercorrection effect is in place i.e. when you get it wrong (which will be very often), the information will stick better when you go back.

■Feynman’s Technique: Pretend to teach the concept you’re about to learn to a 5-year old. Clarify what exactly you are learning and be able to explain in plain language. You can also write out questions for later review as you study actively.

■Flashcards/ Questions: Do loads and loads of practice questions and test your knowledge to see if there are any more gaps in your knowledge. If it is a standardized test (e.g USMLE or PLAB), then invest in a good recommended question bank and practice over and over again.

Repeated active recall over a period of time is called SPACED REPETITION (done more effectively with a retrospective time-table). In the next blog post, I’ll explain how spaced repetition works and we’ll see how we can incorporate it in our studying.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever used active recall in your reading.

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4 Responses

  1. Ukan mart says:

    Yes and it was an awesome experience
    Thanks for sharing
    I got value
    Anticipating the blog for spaced repetition

  2. Jolie says:

    Thanks dear. Helpful information.

  1. 3 May 2021

    […] you should go through the post on active recall if you haven’t. This will help you maximise spaced repetition as you learn to review […]

  2. 30 August 2021

    […] Remember to be flexible with your study and organisation techniques. Don’t hold on too much to one method or another. If what you’re currently doing is not working, do your research and switch it out for a more effective study technique. […]

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