What is active recall? Breaking down the neuroscience of the famous study tip.

There is no doubt if you have ever Googled “best study techniques”, you will have been bombarded by people talking about active recall

But what does active recall actually mean? What is the testing effect? And how will it make you better at remembering stuff?

Today, let’s talk about the neuroscience of active recall.

What is active recall and the testing effect?

It is highly likely that someone on the internet (probably Ali Abdahl) has already told you to use active recall to enhance your exam grades.

Active recall is a process of learning.

Often, students like to re-read course materials, highlight or summarise class notes when preparing for exams.

However, none of these are truly effective ways to get material into your brain.

Active recall means asking yourself questions, testing yourself and prompting you to think about the concepts on your own.

Testing yourself encourages your brain to recall information from the dark corners of your mind.

And essentially, this process of testing allows you to practice exactly what you need to do in an exam, recall information.

Compare to other study methods…

Studies have shown time and time again that active recall leads to better learning and retention of information compared to any other study technique.

This review by Roediger and Butler, shows how researchers since 1909 have shown that active recall out-performs all other study methods.

Even Artistotle mentioned that “Exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory.”

Six classic studies by Gates, Jones, Spitzer, Tulvig, Glover and Carrier and Pashler demonstrate how students (from school-aged to college) are able to perform better, recall more information and forget less by intermittent re-testing before a final exam.

They concluded that active recall provides a much better basis for remembering information than other forms of passive studying.

More recently, Wilkland-Hornqvist and researchers examined 83 undergraduate students in a cognitive psychology class.

The students were split into two groups: one that re-read the cognitive psychology information after initial learning, and a second group that was tested on the material six different times (with feedback).

After this, a final test showed that students who were previously tested on the material scored significantly better than those who simply re-read the information.

On top of this, the researchers found that a person’s general working memory ability (how well you can hold information in your mind short-term) didn’t change the beneficial effects of active recall during study.

This study by Karpicke & Blunt examined students’ learning across three different study methods: re-reading, concept mapping and retrieval.

While those who produced concept maps did perform better than those who simply re-read their notes, students who used active recall methods performed up to 50% better in the final test! (Time to throw away your mind maps).

This study by Karpicke & Roediger showed that you can even get these benefits by testing yourself only on things you couldn’t initially recall correctly.

They taught college students lists of foreign word pairs.

Different groups participated in different re-test conditions. Some were re-tested on all word-pairs, whereas other students had words dropped from their subsequent practice tests when they were correctly recalled.

Interestingly, there wasn’t any difference between the different conditions.

Repeated studying of material didn’t improve performance later on.

So how does it work?

In 2015, Broek and other researchers reviewed studies of active recall to uncover how the testing effect actually helps to improve memory.

They found that active recall is thought to improve learning through several different mechanisms.

Firstly, testing yourself and retrieving information is thought to change semantic networks in your brain (connections between meaningful stored information).

By activating these pathways when testing yourself, you are strengthening their connections by creating additional associations (as you are re-thinking of this information in a new context).

On top of this, testing yourself can also promote more streamlined thinking.

Practicing to answer a certain question with a specific target response, allows other irrelevant information to be set aside (that time you talked with your class mate about how it would be funny if ethanol was created when we did anaerobic exercise? Gone! You don’t need that information for the exam).

Further, instead of the textbook or class notes ‘cueing’ your remembering of the content, you are practicing using the question as a cue for your brain to remember the information.

Exactly what you need to do in an exam!

Overall, it seems that active recall helps to strengthen memory representations (and get rid of irrelevant stuff!).

How to Use Active Recall: What you Should Do

Think about it, at the end of the day, you are studying for an exam. You are studying to retrieve answers from your brain when you are presented with a question.

You are not studying to retrieve answers from your brain while reading class notes.

Stop re-reading your notes. Get rid of your mind maps.

Start actually studying for an exam!

Roediger and Butler (2011) have some suggestions on how to implement these methods.

Feedback enhances the testing effect

While you can still gain benefits from simply attempting to retrieve the information, feedback can further improve performance! Knowing what is right and wrong can help you to correct your responses or maintain ones that are already right.

Slowly increase time-lengths between testing.

Testing yourself every 30 minutes everyday will not necessarily improve the amount of exam information you retain.

The best way to use the testing effect is to first, check something is correctly ‘encoded’ (memorised) by testing yourself shortly after initial learning.

This might be a quiz after reading a textbook chapter.

Then, give yourself another test the next day.

After that, test again in another 3 days.

Studies show that consistent, shorter intervals between testing don’t actually further improve test performance. You can slowly give yourself longer and longer intervals between testing, and you will still see the benefits.

Lastly, as suggested by Karpicke & Roediger

Don’t waste your time testing information you’ve already recalled correctly.

Once you know it, you know it.

Don’t waste your time on already learned content. Focus on testing yourself on things you don’t know.

Time to be smart with your study session!

Check out exactly how I use actually use active recall when I study

click here for 3 study techniques to use active recall

Work smarter not harder.

While active recall may help improve the benefits you get from a study session, this is just one thing you can do to help increase your exam scores.

Check out my thoughts on what is actually the best studying technique here (you won’t believe what it is).

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