The words “active recall” sound a bit technical, a bit scientific, a bit mysterious. Yet, these two little words are the basis for one of the most impressive and valuable study tools you have at your disposal.
Let’s first take a quick look at the book definition of active recall. Then we’ll take a look at active recall in practical terms and solve the mystery behind why using active recall lets you successfully realize your educational goals.
What is Active Recall?
According to Wikipedia:
“Active recall is a principle of efficient learning, which claims the need to actively stimulate memory during the learning process. It contrasts with passive review, in which the learning material is processed passively (e.g. by reading, watching, etc.).
For example, reading a text about George Washington, with no further action, is a passive review. Answering the question "Who was the first US President?", is active recall.
Active recall is very efficient in consolidating long-term memory.”
Plain and Simple: Active Recall vs. Passive Review
The above definition of active recall concludes you’ll be more effective in learning your material if you work with your information interactively, rather than just passively. Simply put, active recall works because it’s based on the principle idea that in order to learn and remember your material, you need to stimulate your brain to recall the material from your long-term memory. So how do you do this? The answer is practice testing.
Practice testing uses active recall to help you learn and remember the material you are studying. By repeatedly asking yourself a question and then challenging your brain to independently retrieve the answer, this interactive brain exercise moves information from your short-term memory into your long-term memory.
Once the information is stored in your long-term memory, that’s when you can successfully recall that information at some future time (like on a test). If you only passively review your material (like simply reading it), the information won’t get moved into your long-term memory, so you won’t be able to remember this information as easily, if at all, in the future.
Research Supports Effectiveness of Active Recall
How can we be sure active recall really is an efficient way of moving information into a student’s long-term memory? One of the studies most often cited supporting the effectiveness of active recall is called “The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning”. The study was conducted by Jeffrey D. Karpicke (Department of Psychological Sciences, Purdue University) and Henry L. Roediger, III (Department of Psychology, Washington University in St. Louis) and the results were published in the February 15, 2008 edition of Science Magazine.
In the study, a group of college students were each given the same 40 foreign language vocabulary word pairs (Swahili-English) to learn. After studying the 40 word pairs, all students were tested on all 40 word pairs. Once a student recalled a word pair correctly just once, that word pair was treated in one of four ways for that student:
- For some students, the correctly recalled word pair remained in the original list of 40 word pairs. The student continued to study and be tested on all 40 word pairs
- For some students, the correctly recalled word pair was dropped from the original list of 40 word pairs. The student no longer studied that word pair, but continued to be tested on it
- For some students, the correctly recalled word pair remained in the original list of 40 word pairs. The student continued to study that word pair, but was no longer tested on it
- For some students, the correctly recalled word pair was dropped from the original list of 40 word pairs. The student no longer studied and was no longer tested on that word pair
After the above rounds of studying and testing were completed, students were dismissed and then returned one week later for a final test. Like on the very first test, all students were once again tested on all 40 word pairs. So what were the results of the final test?
Study Results Prove Why You Should Use Active Recall
The results of the final test on all 40 word pairs showed the following dramatic results:
- The students who were tested on the original list of all 40 word pairs throughout the entire testing process (#1 and #2 above) were able to recall approximately 80% of the answers correctly
- Whereas, the students who were not tested on the original list of all 40 words pairs throughout the entire testing process (#3 and #4 above) were only able to recall approximately 34% of the answers correctly
Based on the methodology used throughout this study and the outcome of the final test results, the researchers were able to conclude it is the process of repeated testing (ie: active recall) and not repeated studying (ie: passive review) that is the decisive factor for promoting correct recall from a student’s long-term memory.
The results of the study are impressive – about 80% correct recall for students who were tested on every word pair on every test vs. only about 34% correct recall for students who were not tested on every word pair on every test (even if the student continued to study the word pair).
Practice Makes Perfect
The more you practice active recall using the information you are trying to learn and memorize, the greater percentage of that information you will remember on a long-term basis and be able to retrieve from your memory in the future.
Specifically, the research clearly shows:
- By interactively quizzing yourself on the material you need to learn, this repeated active recall exercise helps move information from your short-term into your long-term memory
- Then, by continuing to do practice tests over time and repeatedly retrieving that information from your long-term memory, you’ll ultimately achieve the ability to effectively recall this information when you need it the most at some future time
Constant practice testing is the power behind the proven learning technique of active recall. So keep quizzing yourself and good luck with your studies knowing you are using this effective study method to achieve your academic goals!