Why Most People Are using Active Recall All Wrong (how to make sure you are efficient and effective)16 min read

Published by Zach on

Most people aren’t using active recall correctly. And this is a big problem because active recall is the best study technique there is. Period. Proper utilization of active recall changed me from a mid-B student to an A-student, and this improvement happened during medical school. If I had learned about using active recall correctly earlier, like in college or even High School, I would have not only learned more, but I would have scored higher on all of my exams.

In this post, I’ll share my mistakes and what fixes you can make to ensure you are efficient and effective when using active recall.

What is Active Recall

Let’s start with what’s not active recall. Active recall is not reading, re-reading, highlighting, underlining, watching, listening, or repeating. Do those things sound very “active” to you? They don’t to me. They sound way more passive. Watching this video, or reading a page in a book, doesn’t take much mental effort. It takes such little mental effort; in fact, you can probably, and maybe are, do other things while you are watching this video. Perhaps you are on your phone, walking, or texting your friends.

Real active recall is tough. It makes your brain work, and you can feel your brain working harder. You know how when you sit down for your exams in school, you are focused on only the exam? If there is too much noise or a student’s phone goes off, the teacher freaks out. The teacher freaks out because she knows every student’s entire focus is on the test. Any distraction, any subtraction of brain power, will hinder the students. Why? Because the students are trying to pull information out of their brains, and that’s not easy. That’s active recall.

Good active recall examples are practice questions, flashcards, debates, or exams.

The Research

Why do people talk about active recall so much? Well, researching how people study isn’t easy; academic researchers often can’t draw conclusions from studying data because there is no clear answer. Some students do better with specific strategies, and some do better with others. However, active recall, it seems, is a clear answer. The evidence seems to agree that students that do active recall get higher grades than those who don’t

I’ll give you three quick references, three cool studies that show you why you should care about using active recall correctly:

  • Study 1: Unsuccessful attempts to retrieve information from memory is accompanied by enhanced learning. In one study, two groups studied fictional history questions, one group was given the question with no answer and was asked to come up with an answer, and the other group the question and the answer and twice the amount of time to study. Amazingly, the “test” group scored similarly to the “regular” group, with half of the time spent studying.1
  • Study 2: In another study, two groups were made, and participants from each group were asked to try and remember as many people’s names as possible in a simulated “party” scenario. One group was made to study using active recall and testing, while the other group was shown the names multiple times and asked to remember them. The active recall group recalled 11.5 names (57%) on average, while the other group recalled 5.8 names (29%) on average. They were meant to try and remember 20 names, which means the active recall scored about 20% higher, that’s two letter grades than the passive reading group.2
  • Study 3: Finally, one review article, “Improving Students’ Learning,” looked at several study strategies, including active recall, summarization, highlighting, rereading, and self-explanation. They reviewed over 100 articles and came to the conclusion that the best two study strategies are Practice Testing, a form of active recall, and distributed practice, another form of active recall. Guess what they said were the worst study strategies? Summarizing, highlighting, and rereading are all forms of passive recall.3

I hope I’ve convinced you that active recall is excellent, but in these studies, the researchers constantly paid attention and ensured the participants were using active recall correctly. We can’t have a personal coach whenever we want to study; we need to figure out how to learn on our own properly.

Let’s get into it.

1. Mindset

The first significant shift to using active recall correctly is paying attention to your brain. Yes, your big old brain, the most calorie-hungry organ in your entire body.

Active recall should feel tough. You should be able to tell just by how hard the work your doing feels on your brain that you are using active recall as opposed to passive learning. Reading this post is easy; it doesn’t require much effort, but thinking about 13 * 27 makes you think a little; you probably can’t even read this post while doing that multiplication in your head because 13*27 requires a decent mental effort.

So, as before, let’s identify things that are definitely active recall:

  • Practice Testing
  • Flashcards

And things that are definitely not active recall

  • Reading
  • Highlighting
  • Underlining
  • Watching
  • Listening

Importantly, you can fall into the trap of letting practice testing or flaschards become passive learning if you don’t have a true attempt at an answer. For the practice questions, write down or think through an answer; I prefer writing it down on my iPad before you check the answer. For flashcards, you must come up with a guess in your head before you flip over and see the answer. It seems obvious, but just blasting through questions so you can see the answer because you think you can learn it better after you know the answer is the wrong way to go about it.

As mentioned before, studies show that even attempting an answer helps with learning in a real way.1,3 It is easier to fall into this trap with flashcards because you can look at one side and think, “I don’t know, let’s see the answer,” But don’t! Stop right there. Before you flip, you must have an attempt, in your head, at the answer; what do you think it is? Can you reason out a guess?

Just flipping and seeing the answer is much easier, but warning bells should be going off at that feeling; remember, I said pay attention to that feeling of your brain working hard; just seeing the answer isn’t working our brain. So we are not truly using active recall when we do that.

Bottom Line: Active recall is challenging; it should feel tough; that is where the real learning happens. Make sure you are working your brain and attempting answers before showing yourself the answer to questions.

2. Understand First

Understand the topic before you test yourself on the topic. Again, a straightforward point, but something I see people skipping over and over again.

Unfortunately, I can’t teach you how to understand something. With the bazillion things you could be learning about multiplied by the bazillion ways people learn, there is no way I could give them tools to understand anything.

I do what I describe in my 0 notes post; I preview the topic the day before I learn it by understanding all the terms and getting a basic concept of what’s going on. I usually read a chapter in a textbook or watch an online video to ensure I grasp the concept. Then, I show up to a lecture or whatever formal education place will teach me that topic to confirm my understanding is solidified. Only then do I begin to integrate active recall.

Bottom Line: Understand the topic before you do any kind of self-testing.

3. Sleep on It

Why do I wait at least one day before beginning my active recall practice of the material? Studies show that a good’s night sleep has the magical ability to solidify memories in our brain.5 Not only that, in one brilliant study, it was shown that our brain is also adapting and coming up with new solutions and connections while floating away in dreamland.

In this experiment, subjects were taught a complicated algorithm for solving a math problem. Secretly, however, there was a much easier way to solve that problem, which none of the subjects discovered during training. One group of subjects was tested again 12 hours later from morning to night, so with no sleep, and another group of subjects was also tested 12 hours later, but from night to morning, so with a night’s sleep. The group that slept discovered this new “easier” solution at twice the rate of the group that didn’t sleep. Isn’t that amazing?4

That’s why, before I begin my active recall practice, I sleep on what I learned. I want my brain to consolidate the ideas and information before beginning my active recall practice.

Bottom Line: have a good night’s sleep after you first learn the topic before you begin trying active recall.

4. Practice Questions and Flashcards are #1

Practice questions and flashcards are the best and most evidence-based ways to use active recall.

If you could only pick one, practice questions edge out flashcards. When I would talk to my friends in medical school, anecdotally, there was a strong correlation between the number of practice questions they completed and their test scores.

If you have the luxury, I will do flashcards before trying practice problems. The good thing about flashcards is they be automatically spaced out with an application like Anki, so you never fall off the forgetting curve.

Otherwise, integrate practice questions as soon as you can.

Some good techniques you can try out:

  • Mind Map: This is a great way to test out your understanding of a topic from scratch; draw a circle in the center with the main topic, then remove branches coming out of that circle breaking up the main topic into many other smaller topics, making it as detailed as you possibly can without looking at any notes or anything. Later, when you’ve exhausted your brain of everything, go to your textbook or PowerPoint slides and fill in what you missed; this is an excellent way to evaluate your overall understanding of a topic.
  • Memory Palaces / Mnemonic devices: great ways to memorize chunks of seemingly unconnected information. For example, if you need to remember apple, cow, and red, picture a place you are very familiar with, like your home, and place the objects in that house in certain places. Then, in your mind, walk through your house, and you should “see” an apple, a cow, and the color red wherever you placed them in your memory palace. Other good mnemonic devices include chunking, acrostics, and acronyms.
  • SQ3R Method: I have never used this method, but many people swear by it. Simply, it’s a survey (read the text like a magazine, looking at section titles and pictures), question (ask yourself general questions about the text and see if you can come up with answers), read (read the chapter and come up with questions for yourself as you read), recite (try and summarize what you have just read in your head without looking at the text), review (go through your questions and summaries again, are you missing anything? what seems difficult, re-review that).
  • Study Groups: have your friends ask you questions or come up with questions to ask your friends. I limit study groups to three members unless I am just trying to waste time. If I use study groups, it’s at the end of my studying when I am ready for the test.

Bottom line: the best active recall is practice questions and flashcards

5. Plan Your Studying

Yes, active recall sounds great, but how do you actually do it? What practice questions will you be using? What flashcards? What topics will you be covering?

Just saying, “I’ll use active recall to review biology,” is a sure-fire way not to do anything.

Where and what are the practice questions you can review? Are they in a textbook? Does the teacher provide questions? Are there some online? Which ones should you do? Does the teacher recommend specific practice questions? Which ones are the most relevant for what you are learning, for what might be on the exam?

Then, I would think about how much time you have. If, for example, you have two classes a week, I might organize it like this:

  • The night before class 1: preview and understand topics for class 1
  • Night after class 1: use active recall (focusing on flashcards) to solidify class 1 information
  • The second night after class 1: use active recall (focusing on practice questions) to solidify class 1 information
  • Repeat that for class 2. Days may overlap, but that’s ok.

How many practice questions are there? If there are 30, maybe I’ll do ten on the night after class 1 and 20 on the second night after class 1.

Importantly, I plan on the Sunday before every week what I will be doing to get my active recall practice in.

Bottom Line: Plan as precisely as possible what you will be studying at least one week before studying.

6. Capture Your Incorrects

Ok, so you are blasting through practice questions and flashcards like crazy; your brain is working hard, and you can feel it. How can we level active recall up? Simply create new flashcards or questions that focus on our incorrect questions.

I like to create questions about the exact piece of information I got wrong instead of just relearning the real question.

For example, if I got this question wrong, “The disease that manifests in a defect in the CFTR gene on chromosome 7 has an inheritance pattern of?”

A. Autosominal Dominant

B. Autosomal Recessive

C. X-linked dominant

D. X-linked Recessive.

There are two reasons I could get this question wrong: I don’t know what disease the CFTR gene is referring to, or I don’t know the inheritance pattern of cystic fibrosis. Let’s say I don’t know the inheritance pattern of cystic fibrosis. It would be silly to create a flashcard that asks both of those questions; a much better-targeted question would be, “Cystic Fibrosis inheritance pattern is ____.”

So, I’d create that question, then make sure to review that question over the next couple of days.

This is a fantastic multiplier for test scores because it uniquely fills in the gaps in your knowledge. It makes studying using active recall as efficient and effective as possible.

Bottom Line: Create flashcards from questions you got wrong. Only study the specific piece of information you got wrong.

7. Prioritize Broader Topics > Your Incorrects > then Specific Topics

I learned this lesson in medical school because I didn’t have enough time to study everything. What is the most vital information to learn? For my first few tests, I just tried to memorize as many random facts as possible. Doing that was all wrong, I was misusing flashcards and Anki entirely because I didn’t actually understand what I was learning. I got to test day and was sadly surprised when it wasn’t just asked to recite the facts and instead had to actually understand the information to answer the questions.

Those questions were tough. They required a deep understanding of the topic to connect to those facts. The deep understanding I didn’t have and, so, I scored my lowest ever on a medical school exam.

At that point, I realized I needed to switch it up and learn that actually understanding is extremely important. So, of course, step one of this post is essential where I talk about understanding, but, furthermore, make sure you are using active recall to test yourself on broader topics before the specific topics.

Usually, in textbooks, the practice questions are formatted in this way. The easier and broader questions are first, and then the more difficult questions are later. Follow this format, answer the more straightforward questions first to solidify your understanding of the topic before testing yourself on the more complex, specific, and random pieces of information.

I know, for example, it’s more important to test myself on the physiology of the heart, that is, the way it works under normal “healthy” conditions, than the various pathologies of the heart under “sick” conditions. If I don’t understand how the heart works in normal conditions, how can I begin to understand the specific nuances of the thousands of different things that can affect the heart?

Then, when it comes close to test day, I know to prioritize questions about general understanding, but before I learn random specific facts, I should focus on questions I got wrong. Again, we want to be as efficient and effective as possible; what better way than to focus on your pain points? These gaps in your knowledge have the most significant potential for change. Therefore, these things to study have the most significant potential increase in score on exam day.

Bottom line: Test yourself on the broader, easier, and higher-yield topics before moving on to the issues you most frequently get wrong, before finally moving on to more specific topics.

8. Use Spaced Repetition for Long-Term Retention

Finally, the last topic to getting the most out of active recall is spacing out your active recall usage. Remember that paper I talked about that ranked practice testing as the highest yield form of studying? Well, I didn’t mention that another studying strategy tied it for the highest yield studying strategy, and that strategy was distributed practice.

And all distributed practice is testing yourself at various points in time. So, instead of doing a flashcard one day and then never doing it again, you repeat that flashcard every couple of days to make sure the knowledge is solidified in your brain.

I cover this idea of spaced repetition in many other posts, but we tend to forget tons of information immediately after learning. Some studies indicate as much as 50% in 20 minutes.6,7 The only way to avoid this loss of retention is to test ourselves at certain intervals, so we don’t forget that information.

Anki, computerized flashcards, is an amazing resource for combining the magic of active recall with spaced repetition.

Bottom Line: Space out your active recall sessions of the same information, so you don’t forget that information over time. Anki is an excellent resource for this.

Overall, active recall is what the best students worldwide use for a reason. Avoid passive learning and watch your grades increase.

Thanks for reading!


Work Cited:

  1. https://psycnet-apa-org.proxy1.lib.tju.edu/record/2009-09620-017
  2. Morris, P.E., Fritz, C.O., Jackson, L., Nichol, E. and Roberts, E. (2005), Strategies for learning proper names: expanding retrieval practice, meaning and imagery. Appl. Cognit. Psychol., 19: 779-798. doi:10.1002/acp.1115
  3. Dunlosky J, Rawson KA, Marsh EJ, Nathan MJ, Willingham DT. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychol Sci Public Interest. 2013;14(1):4‐58. doi:10.1177/1529100612453266
  4. Wagner, U., Gais, S., Haider, H., Verleger, R. & Born, J. Sleep inspires insight. Nature 427, 352–355 (2004).
  5. Stickgold, R. Sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Nature 437, 1272–1278 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature04286
  6. Murre JM, Dros J. Replication and Analysis of Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve. PLoS One. 2015;10(7):e0120644. Published 2015 Jul 6. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0120644
  7. Roozendaal B, McGaugh JL. Memory modulation. Behav Neurosci. 2011;125(6):797‐824. doi:10.1037/a0026187


Tosca · November 25, 2022 at 12:35 pm

Thank you so much Zach!! Can’t tell you how much your study advice has helped me!! Big fan of your newsletter as well!
All my best 🙂

anna · January 14, 2023 at 10:07 pm

you’re awesome Zach, loved this article!

    Zach · February 14, 2023 at 7:05 pm

    You’re awesome!

Active Vs Passive Learning - · February 15, 2023 at 7:27 am

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