Active recall, an underdog in modern learning.

It is not uncommon to see students, be it on social media or in classes you participate in highlighting, sticking and re-reading their fancy, aesthetically pleasing notes. That’s the most intuitive way to learn, right? Its also not uncommon to see many of these same students complaining of how difficult studying is, and how much they hate school… Perhaps School isn’t the problem.

In the 2019/20 academic year, I was a student in year 11, brooding about life and subject choices, stressing about mocks and somewhat dreading the future. I also averaged C’s or 4’s in tests I had done previously; I just didn’t know how to study. Luckily an A* friend of mine introduced me to some learning concepts and techniques that changed my academic game from then till present. Active recall is the central one.

So what is “active recall” then?

To paraphrase the words of psychological Professor John Dunlosky, active recall is simply systematic practice testing. Meaning you test yourself on topics that you learn about, without looking at the answers and forcing yourself to recall information. Some of us, (myself included) are liable to feeling quite “empty-headed” at times. this is not a bad thing, it just means you may have to put in a wee bit more effort, due to the increased effort, it is feasible that you may benefit from this method even more so than your fresh-minded counterparts. A simple way to put the workings behind this principle is that each time you recall information, its connection becomes stronger and thus, easier to recall again. This could be likened to the process of bodybuilding, in which muscle fibres break under pressure and heal back stronger and larger than before.

A study conducted by Karpicke and Blunt (2011) show that compared to basic studying (rereading, highlighting etc), repeated studying and mind-mapping, recall techniques are the most effective for information retention. Repeated studying and mind-mapping came next.

When I started using active recall, my grades and level of understanding averagely went up, from C’s in some subjects to As and even A*s (apart from chemistry, which went from a C3 to C1 and accounting and economics which were averaged A(*) ). I do believe there are some things certain people aren’t built for, and somethings that we are. I believe this helps a lot with the things in-between.

In what ways can active recall techniques be implemented?

Most textbooks come with a “test yourself” section which can also come in handy for using pre-made questions, but sometimes its best to set your own. I recommend sites like Quizlet and Anki, they are both free to use self-testing applications. Anki is arguably more efficient with its algorithms and testing basis, but there are few community sets, meaning you would have to make your own from scratch (not great for last-minute revision). Quizlet is good too and it is very easy to find premade question sets on GCSE and A Level topics (for the motivated, but lazy ones of us). Another recall technique I am quite fond of is making mind-maps and then trying to recreate said mind-map without looking. This is great for essay subjects like literature, psychology and sociology etc.

A lot of the ideas in this video can be found online, but I found this particular video which sums it up and goes into even greater detail. Happy Studying!