Active recall is my favorite of all study techniques. It’s no way as comfortable as passively reading or rewriting notes but there’s no way I’d survive as well as I have without it!
Reading about how it works can be frustrating. There aren’t that many tangible examples and it can be tricky to work out how to apply it to your area of study.
That’s where this article comes in, we’ll cover:
- 7 powerful active recall strategies
- How to use it with spaced repetition
- Top tips from other students
If that all seems a bit too simplistic, don’t worry. This article will go in depth on each!
Ready to get started?
Active Recall Strategies
Many students understand the science behind active recall but some struggle when it comes to application.
The followings methods aren’t difficult though. But they do require some effort!
1. Practice Testing
Practice testing is perhaps the most powerful active recall technique of all. It involves getting hold of past exam papers (an important tip I share in my guide on how to succeed in A-levels) or practicing with online question banks or books.
Unlike the other methods in this list, practice tests are the closest thing you can get to sitting an actual exam. Attempting as many questions as possible, it’s designed to test what you already know so you know better where to focus your efforts.
Here are a few tips on how to approach practice testing:
- Go outside your comfort zone: attempt questions beyond your reach and forget about the outcome. Try to rationalize an answer.
- Make a note of every question you get wrong: add the answer or concept to your notes and revisit these questions later.
- Practice all types of questions: open-format, multiple choice, labelling or diagrams. Approaching concepts from many different angles will help cement your understanding.
Use testing as a strategy to find the concepts you don’t know or don’t really understand. Then make a list of these things and tackle them one-by-one.
Watch your grades sky rocket as a result.
2. Concepts/Mind Maps
Think of concepts as starting with a ‘seed word’. Write a syllabus point down and then expand on it with your knowledge. Write down everything you can think of that is related to that concept and don’t stop until you’ve exhausted all your ideas.
Then check what you’ve written with a good reference resource. See what you missed and what you included. Then close the reference and begin the process again.
Another cool way to do this is with a mind map and a whiteboard (or any other drawing device, like a tablet). Instead of a list, create ‘branches’. Then go until you can’t add anymore before checking back with the primary material.
3. Memory Palace
I’ve mentioned the memory palace method before in my article on how to memorize a textbook. It’s a great way to remember long lists of things or interrelated concepts. Things like historical events, processes or problem-solving formulas.
It works by connecting an item to a familiar place. The more interesting you make this connection, the more memorable it becomes. It’s called a ‘palace’ because the idea is you ‘walk through’ the palace looking at these things and their connections in a specific order.
This is what Sketchy (a cool resource used by med students) is based on. It uses cartoon characters in images to tell a story. Then each part of this story resembles a fact.
The technique is also called ‘mind palace’ or ‘method of Loci’. This video explains it really well…
4. Read Actively
Obviously reading makes up a large part of studying. It’s one of the most efficient ways to get information. Most students don’t know how to apply reading to active recall however.
The best way to do it is to use the ‘SQ3R’ method. This stands for survey, question, read, recite and review.
Start by picking a book or text and skim the headings, titles, images and introductory and closing paragraphs. Then note down some quick questions. Here are some key ones:
- What is this chapter/text about?
- Why is it important?
- What questions is it trying to answer?
After coming up with a list of questions begin reading the text with these in mind. Search actively for the answers and think about how well they clarify the point.
The next step involves stepping away from the source and reciting back to yourself what you just learned. Think about the questions you listed and the answers you extracted. It doesn’t have to be exact.
Finish up by reviewing what you noted down and thinking about whether you recalled the information correctly. If you didn’t, search out the things you weren’t clear on. Repeat the process.
5. Active Note Taking
You can apply active recall to note taking in a similar way to SQ3R method. Instead of writing sentences, ask questions instead. Make notes of the answers too but keep them short.
Once you’ve finished taking notes separate the questions up. Have a list of them in a place separate to the answers. I like to do this on two separate spreadsheets for example.
Go through the questions and see what you can answer clearly and correctly. For everything you can’t, review the original answer.
Here’s a bit more on how this can work…
Flashcards are my favorite active recall strategy but you have to make use of good ones.
A few things to remember when it comes to using them:
- Have only a single fact for each card
- Use images or pictures to help recall
- Shuffle or mix them up so they test you on different concepts (this is called ‘interleaving’)
A lot of students like to use electronic flashcard apps like Anki to help with active recall. It’s a tool I refer to a lot in other articles on this site.
You can save time on making your own flashcards by using those created by others.
Amazon has lots of flashcard sets for different subjects, while digital platforms like Quizlet and Anki have many publicly created ‘decks’ also.
A simple Google search for the subject you’re studying with the platform (Anki, Quizlet, Brainscape etc.) of your choice should locate good pre-made decks.
7. Study Groups
Implementing active recall strategies like practice testing and concepts or mind maps can be even more useful when done in a group.
Firing questions at classmates or colleagues and then discussing the answers helps make things a lot more memorable. As can actively mind mapping subjects with other people’s contributions to better scope each of the topics out.
One of the best active recall strategies that you should definitely try in a group is the Feynman Technique. This is basically ‘teaching’ a subject or concept to a friend without any help from your notes.
Get stuck and you can both discover what information is unclear or missing. Sail through and you’ve just proven to yourself you really know a topic.
Bonus: Active Daydreaming
Active daydreaming is what I call ‘teaching yourself back’. All those empty moments of the day; taking a shower, going to the bathroom, cooking etc, you use to put active recall into play.
You think through the material and try to replay it back to yourself in your mind.
Active Recall Tips
Now I’ve shown you some important active recall strategies, here are some useful tips:
- Distraction free environment: experiment with these techniques in an environment where you can’t be interrupted or disturbed. It’s important you maintain a strong focus. Put your phone away and unplug from social media.
- Deliberate practice: think of an effective active recall study session like a seriously hard gym workout. If you didn’t feel resistance or your ‘brain sweating’ then you’re simply not doing it right. You’re going to be going back and reviewing things you missed on the regular.
Active Recall: Reddit’s Tips
Reddit is a goldmine when it comes to other students sharing their active recall tips. Here’s a few good pointers I thought could be useful to include:
Even when I’m learning very challenging courses, I always start solving problems when I understand 80% of the material (not 100%; knowledge comes naturally from solving problems).u/JWChang
For diagrams or things that are difficult to parse into Anki, I tend to make my own “quizzes” where I have, for example, the name of a chemical functional group on one side and then I quiz myself to draw it from memory.u/cheekyuser
For subjects where I suck too much to teach my friends, I do practice questions first or write condensed notes so that I can figure out what’s important enough to memorize.u/amiibola
Can I Use Active Recall With Any Subject?
Yes and you absolutely should. It’s one of the few science-backed study principles that exists.
Just check out the Wikipedia entry on active recall if you’re interested in the evidence.
How Can I Use Active Recall In Medical School?
I go into this in more detail in my article How To Study Medicine More Effectively.
In brief, these are the active recall techniques that are most applicable to med school:
- Flashcards (specifically Zanki)
- Study Groups
- Concepts/Mind Maps
- Memory Palace (specifically Sketchy Med)
Do I Have To Use Active Recall With Spaced Repetition?
You don’t have to but active recall works best when it’s paired with spaced repetition. This is one of the fundamental research points explored in the book Make It Stick, an excellent guide to evidence-based learning techniques.
The fact that flashcard apps like Anki have an algorithm that links both active recall (flashcard) and spaced repetition (showing a card to you at different time intervals) is one of the reasons it’s so powerful.
Final Thoughts: Active Recall Strategies
Active recall strategies are something all students can get to grips with to study smarter not harder.
Remember; if it feels frustrating and difficult to get to grips with then you’re probably doing it right.
Make a habit of going to the uncomfortable places and you’ll reap the rewards!
Image Credit: @alexisrbrown at Unsplash
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.