Active Recall: What It Is, How It Works, and More

In this guide, you'll learn all about using the active recall study method and learning through self-testing.

Active Recall: What It Is, How it Works, and More

“Avoid passive review, and always turn towards active recall for reviewing and learning information.”

Cal Newport

84% of college students rely on rereading as a study strategy, despite researchers ranking it as one of the least effective study methods in existence. A well-understood, research-backed alternative is the active recall study method, which flips the traditional “study first, test later” learning model on its head.

If you’ve spent any amount of time exploring the study skills online sphere, you’ll have seen dozens of videos raving about the vast benefits of active recalling. A quick search on YouTube yields endless results such as:

Is all the attention on this study method warranted? Or is it simply a fad that’s about to die? 

In this article, I’ll be using an evidence-based approach to find out just that.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

What is the active recall study method?

Active recall is a study method that involves informational retrieval and repeated testing to improve retention, memorization, and comprehension. It’s commonly used in a self-directed manner through flashcards or self-generated questions. In scientific literature, active recalling is commonly referred to as “practice testing” or “retrieval practice”.

The method is most commonly used by college students to study for exams. Yet, it has a wide range of applications in other fields as well. There’s increasing evidence in favor of active recalling, and most people can stand to benefit from improved memorization capabilities in one way or another.

What does the research say about active recall?

Searching for the keyword “active recall” on academic research databases yields surprisingly little results. One of the only studies mentioning active recall is a 2016 study that used digital flashcards and spaced repetition to boost active recall in a language learning mobile app. A second large-scale study that has mentioned active recall is this 1948 study which found that recognition outperformed recall and that using active recall is only effective when used after recognition.

However, using only two studies conducted more than 70 years apart as evidence is not exactly conclusive. Active recall as a concept has many interchangeable and connected terms in scientific literature, and if you want to really dig deep into the evidence, you have to search further.

Searching for “practice testing”, essentially the same as active recall, already yielded dozens of studies. “Retrieval practice” and “testing effect”, more names name used for the same concept, yielded even more results. These secondary terms are not directly equitable to active recall. Yet, they are still based on the same concept as active recalling, which is using practice tests for information retrieval.

Here are some of the most noteworthy meta-analysis researches conducted on active recall:

  • 1991 meta-analysis study on frequent classroom testing analyzed 35 studies. It compared taking frequent tests (active recall) to a control group that took considerably fewer tests. The results showed that frequent testing was more effective than infrequent testing (d = 0.23 standard deviations).
  • 2012 meta-analysis study analyzing several hundred studies found that using practice tests for learning results in moderate to large learning benefits (d = 0.55 to d = 0.88).
  • 2017 meta-analysis study involving 118 studies also showed that retrieval practice is an effective learning strategy (d = 0.51).
  • 2015 meta-analysis study found that the benefits of repeated testing may disappear when learning complex materials (with complexity being defined by the level of element interactivity). However, this finding was counterargued by another 2015 study in direct response. 

As it appears, research on using active recall as a study technique has shown largely positive results. Now, let’s examine why that’s the case: why is the active recall strategy effective?

How does active recall benefit the learning process?

According to various studies, these are the biggest benefits of the active recall study method:

What are the best active recall strategies for students?

If you want to integrate the active recall method into your learning process, consider using some of the following strategies in this chapter. All these strategies are designed for self-directed learning and they work the best when studying by yourself in a comfortable study space.

These are the strategies that I have personally found to be the most helpful when using active recall.

Practice testing

Practice testing is integral to the active recall method and it’s by far the best way to study for exams. It’s no coincidence that most of the highest-achieving students in the world have an extraordinarily strong ability to test themselves. Practice testing is often what sets the high-achievers apart from the average students.

Self-testing helps you remember, retain, and comprehend topics quicker, and it’s fantastic at getting you prepared for difficult exams. If you master practice testing, no exam questions will ever surprise you again, as you’ll have gone over all potential exam questions again and again by the time the exam period rolls around.

Now, you might be left wondering – where do you get the practice test questions from?

The best way is to generate the study questions yourself. This will be discussed in the next strategy.

But, there are also a couple of ways you can gather study questions without having to create them yourself:

  • Check the summaries and end-of-chapter sections of your textbooks for any questions.
  • Go through any materials provided by the lecturer and find all questions.
  • Google your topic and try to find prewritten study questions from publicly available online sources.

Sooner or later, though, you will want to start generating your own study questions.

Self-generated questions

Creating your own study questions and practice testing them with spaced repetition is the #1 best study technique I’m aware of (and I’d like to believe I’m aware of most, if not all major ones). While this strategy is more cognitively challenging than rereading materials or answering prewritten questions, it’s also much more rewarding.

Not only does creating your own self-generated study questions help your brain in knowledge retention, but it also boosts the elaborative rehearsal process which forms connections between pre-existing bits of information in your memory. When you’re creating your own questions, you’re an active participant in the review process, instead of a passive consumer of someone else’s content. The difference between the two cannot be overstated.

Now, as for how you should create your own study questions, I have found the best way to be Cornell note-taking. Taking Cornell notes of your learning material is one of the most natural ways of forming self-generated questions. If you’re unfamiliar with Cornell notes, consider that Cornell notes are unique in that the note-taking process involves generating large quantities of study questions. These study questions are perfect for practice testing and that is why the two techniques complement each other beautifully. Taking class notes is not a necessary step of using the active recall method, but Cornell notes can be incredibly helpful to the process.

Flashcards

If you’re familiar with the Leitner system, you’ll know the power of flashcards. While creating flashcards can be time-intensive, the pay-off is incredible. Flashcards help you fully engage with the active recall method, and increase your brain’s ability to retain, comprehend, and apply information found in books to exams.

As evidence of the value of flashcards, consider this study from 2016. The study aimed to evaluate the effectiveness of using flashcards and it involved more than 600 psychology course students. The results showed that students who used flashcard-based studying performed significantly better on exams than students who did not use flashcards.

Other studies such as this 2009 research also give us an idea of how to use flashcards effectively. This study recommends using spaced practice together with flashcards to achieve the best results. By spacing out flashcard review sessions, students were able to increase their studying efficacy by 33 percent.

In conclusion, I can recommend the active recall method to all college students. It’s an effective strategy as a stand-alone method, but when combined with other techniques such as spaced practice it becomes so good you can’t ignore it.

To use the active recall study method, you’ll need to dedicate your full cognitive abilities to the task. But, the vast rewards make it more than worth going the extra mile.