Active recall is, simply put, the practice of testing your knowledge. When you take a test or attempt to remember a concept or fact, you're engaging in active recall. It turns out that active recall is an extremely effective learning technique—actively recalling information helps you commit it to memory far better than passive review methods3, such as simply reading a textbook or watching a documentary.
For example, can you remember a time when you read an interesting non-fiction book, only to forget its contents a few months later? This is passive review in action. To truly retain the information, it's much more effective to quiz yourself on the material instead of merely re-reading it. As an example, consider medical students who use flashcards to learn vast amounts of information; this active recall strategy helps them commit complex concepts to memory more effectively5.
Why Does Active Recall Work?
Numerous studies have proven the effectiveness of active recall as a study method. One such study, conducted by Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt, found that students who used active recall significantly outperformed those who merely re-read the material4. Another study by Dunlosky et al. ranked various study techniques and found that active recall was one of the most effective methods for enhancing learning2.
Why does active recall work so well? One explanation is the concept of "desirable difficulties," coined by psychologist Robert Bjork1. Desirable difficulties are learning tasks that require effort and challenge, ultimately resulting in improved long-term retention. Active recall, by its nature, involves effortful retrieval, which strengthens your memory and makes your brain more resistant to forgetting6.
Active recall also benefits from the "testing effect." Research has shown that taking a test on learned material, even without feedback, can improve long-term retention compared to simply studying7. The testing effect reinforces the idea that the act of recalling information can enhance learning, making active recall a powerful study tool.
Active Recall Strategies
To incorporate active recall into your study routine, consider these strategies:
Create flashcards: Write questions or terms on one side and answers or explanations on the other. Regularly review and shuffle the flashcards to reinforce your memory. Even better, use a website like Harken to do this all digitally, and with the added benefit of spaced reptition!
Form study groups: Engage in group discussions and quiz each other to practice active recall collaboratively.
Self-test: After reading some material or watching a lecture, pause and test yourself by writing down key points, concepts, or definitions from memory. To make this easier, you can use Harken's Chrome Extension—the extension lets you quiz yourself on content from any article on the internet, by using AI to generate questions with a single click.
In conclusion, active recall is an effective studying method because it incorporates desirable difficulties and the testing effect, both of which strengthen memory retention. By engaging in active recall, you're challenging yourself to retrieve information, ultimately creating stronger neural pathways and long-lasting memories. So, the next time you're studying for an exam or trying to remember a new concept, put down the textbook, and start quizzing yourself—you'll be glad you did.
Bjork, R. A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe & A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 185–205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.
Karpicke, J. D. (2017). Retrieval-based learning: A decade of progress. In J. H. Byrne (Series Ed.) & J. Dunlosky & S. K. Tauber (Vol. Eds.), Learning and memory: A comprehensive reference: Cognitive psychology of memory, Vol. 2 (pp. 487–514). Oxford: Academic Press.
Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 331(6018), 772-775.
Larsen, D. P., Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L. (2009). Test-enhanced learning in medical education. Medical Education, 43(10), 959-966.
Roediger, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 20-27.
Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249-255.