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Active Recall: To Learn, Is To Retrieve

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

Greetings Visionaries,

I hope you are safe and well, blessed and highly favoured, and healthy, most important of all!

Today, we will explore effective learning, which can ultimately enable you, and those around you to strengthen your information retention, neurological pathways and your comprehension of extensive and strenuous concepts. This will, in turn, empower your understanding of an array of topics from university work, speeches, difficult issues and much more!

In essence, to learn is to retrieve. However, learning is deeply misunderstood by the general population of our society. Empirical research into how we learn and remember and retain information shows that much of what we take for gospel turns out to be mostly wasted effort, as well as time. Even college and medical students - whose main job is learning and applying - rely on study techniques far from optimal. We occupy most of our hours submitting ourselves to the study techniques of highlighting, rereading and summarising. These inferior methods of retaining information are not the slightest effective; they exclude the active recalling of information and ultimately encourage no adaptations neurologically to help us keep and later recall and apply knowledge.

What is active recall?

Active recall involves retrieving information from memory by essentially testing yourself at every stage of the revision process. The very act of retrieving information and data from our long-term memory strengthens our ability to retain information and improves connections in our brains between different concepts. Retrieving new knowledge or skill from memory is a potent tool for learning and durable retention. This is, in fact, true for anything: the brain is asked to remember and call up again in the future - points, complicated concepts, problem-solving techniques as well as motor skills.

Research from 2013, which analyses hundreds of separate studies about effective revision techniques, conclude that testing, or active recall, is a technique that has ‘high utility’ and can be implemented effectively with minimal training.

“Based on the evidence…we rate practice testing as having high utility. Testing effects have been demonstrated across an impressive range of practice-test formats, kinds of material, learner ages, outcome measures, and retention intervals. Thus, practice testing has broad applicability”.

In that study, the researchers split students into four groups, with each student tasked with learning the same material before being tested on what they learnt. However, each group was given different instructions and parameters for learning the content.

- The first group would read the material only once.

- The second group would read the material four times.

- The third group would read the material than were told to make a mind map.

- The fourth group would read the material once, then recall as much as possible.

In both the verbatim test – when asked to recall facts – and the inference test – when asked to identify concepts – the active recall group significantly outperformed the other groups.

After careful consideration, it seems that actively recalling information proves to be a highly effective and applicable method of studying, whether it be school, interviews, speeches or research. Active recall inevitably improves your retention and recalling of information to a great extent, with minimal effort and time taken.

The Forgetting Curve

So, what is the reasoning as to why active recall is so successful? Well, it can be shown through the forgetting curve. The forgetting curve is a phenomenon that argues that over time we forget things at an exponential rate. The method of active recall alongside spaced repetition (spaced intervals of study sessions, which we may discuss in the future) allows you to take advantage of the forgetting curve. The essence of continuous testing and recalling consequently interrupts the forgetting curve and enables you to retain and recall information at a much faster rate. In essence, the idea behind spaced repetition is that you allow your brain to forget some of the data to ensure that the active recall process is mentally taxing. The psychology literature suggests that the more challenging your brain has to retrieve information, the more likely it is to encode that information.

Active Recall Strategies

So, how do I apply active recall? What strategies can I use to improve the efficiency at which I learn? Well, there is a range of active recall techniques in which you can use. However, more specifically, I use several active recall methods, but the following paragraphs will consist of some of the many effective strategies that I have found useful personally.

Closed-book concept maps

Although a large mass of society utilises note-taking as a study method, an alternative would be to make closed book concept maps. What is a closed-book concept map? Well, instead of taking notes without actively recalling information, instead attempt to remember as much information before learning about the topic, which requires a more significant deal of cognitive effort. After completing this, you will then look at your resource and examine what you have observed and repeat at suitable times. This will improve your retention of the information and enable you to understand what you find difficult to retain and recall and ultimately focus your efforts upon those topics.

Although this may sound counter-intuitive, to attempt to make notes before learning, however, allows the hypercorrection effect to take place. The hypercorrection effect refers to the finding that high-confidence errors are more likely to be corrected after feedback than are low-confidence errors. In other words, any incorrect pre convinced ideas towards any information will therefore be updated and be retained for longer as a result of feedback and incorrectness. I, too, use this technique for various situations, whether it be processes, exams, concepts, and theses. This ultimately allowed me to memorise an extensive range of essays, each with references, which I could draw upon in the exam.

An alternative to taking notes: Write Questions

Once again, it may seem unnatural and somewhat peculiar to stop taking notes; however, you can construct questions based on the material as an alternative to this. Despite evidence showing that note-taking is not an effective technique, this method has been adapted to cater to those who prefer note-taking and those who endeavour to carry out active recall.

This technique is somewhat similar to note-taking; however, instead of writing the notes directly from the resource, you form questions from what you have just learnt during your studying. This produces a list of questions; instead of passively rereading or highlighting the information, we’re forced to actively engage in a cognitive effort to retrieve the knowledge to answer the questions. This strengthens connections between our brains and improves our ability to recall that information in later periods.

Thank you

Thank you, visionaries, for taking the time to read this blog. We pray that this one day will aid you throughout your endeavours. I, too, try to improve upon my efficiency and enhance my productivity alongside concentration and durability, and hopefully, this also will aid you to do the following.

Kind regards,


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