Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Study smarter not harder- Active recall, the foolproof method to ace any test

 If I ask an average student about their preferred study strategy the answer most likely would be Highlighting, summarising, and re-reading. Making aesthetically pleasing notes in a myriad of colours may be appealing to many but is passively re-reading already familiar content an effective study strategy?

Two of the most effective study strategies I have come across are active recall and spaced repetition. In this post, I will be talking about the science behind this method. I’ll cover spaced repetition in another post.


Cramming vs active recall :

As medical students, we have had our fair share of cramming the night before exams and we are more than familiar with how fast our brain sieves that information. Active recall is centred around the idea that active retrieval of information is an integral part of learning and that combined with spaced repetition at regular intervals is a match made in heaven and is a more efficient strategy to remember both factual and non-factual data.

What is active recall :

We usually believe that we need to test ourselves after we have learnt the information completely but in reality actively recalling and compelling yourself to retrieve the information already in your brain, through testing yourself at each stage of learning is a much more effective strategy. By doing so you are not only improving your ability to retain the information but also help in forming new neuronal connections and strengthen them. Learning involves forming new synaptic connections and the strength of these synapses depends on the number of stimuli received during a learning process. These connections may strengthen or weaken with time depending on how often they are stimulated. That is where the role of spaced repetition comes in.

Active recall vs recognition:

Contrast this with doing a multiple-choice test that involves looking at four options and choosing the one which fits best. This isn’t active recall, it’s recognition. In this scenario, there are four options in front of you and you simply recognise the correct option. There is no period of focused concentration to retrieve information actively from what you have learnt.

Evidence to support active recall:

Over the past decade various studies have been conducted.Active recall has been found to be efficient across a wide range of practice formats,kinds of materials,learner ages,retention intervals and has broad applicability.It is not particularly time intensive relative to other techniques and can be implemented with minimal training.
In short you can make your study more efficient  with little effort.

Active recall strategy:

Well now that we have understood the power and potential of active recall, how do we do it? Is there any single method to ace this strategy?

Well, any method in which you use your cognitive power actively is going to be helpful. The key is to actively involve the brains cognitive function. Coming to specific strategies, here are a few which I personally found to be helpful.

  1. Closed book method: 

This method is helpful for students who are in the habit of making notes and summaries. Now that you have finished reading and understanding a topic, close your book and try to recall whatever you have studied instead of passively copying the information.It is a simple but highly effective strategy to enhance knowledge retention.

2. Strategies for active recall without note-taking

  • Questions 

I belong to this group of students. I do not make extensive notes. Instead while reading a topic, I simultaneously make questions for myself on google docs. and then I try to actively recall and answer those questions. I colour code my questions based on how difficult it was for me to recall that particular topic .This method is somewhat similar to the Cornell Note Taking Method. Despite my best efforts, if I fail to answer the question then I go back to my textbook /study material and find the answer to it.

Here is a small example of the strategy I use.

The questions marked red are the ones I have a hard time remembering the answers to.

  • Flashcards

Flashcards may be the good old handwritten ones or you can choose from several apps available.

I have personally used Anki which is based on the principle of spaced repetition and active recall during my neet pg preparation days, especially for factual information.

In a flashcard, you have questions on one side and answers on the flip side.

I find making questions for myself more time-efficient than flashcards.

There is a quote that is often attributed to Albert Einstein :

“If you cannot explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough”

Imagine you have read a complex topic, now you have to break it down into the simplest form so that even a beginner can understand. By doing this you are taking back your understanding of the topic to the fundamentals thereby building a solid foundation. Once the foundation is strong you can master more complex subjects not only with more confidence but improved efficiency as well.

So all said, active recall is an evidence-backed efficient way to study without overburdening yourself and burning out.

I hope you found the post useful .

More about spaced repetition in the next post.

Happy studying.


  1. Replies
    1. He was the one who got me hooked to this method a few years back and it has worked wonders for me .


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