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What is Active Recall and Spaced Repetition?

Below are the two single best methods for studying in existence. We talk about why these methods are so good and how you can put them into practice. These may seem like hard concepts to grasp, however, when used wisely they will result in a massive jump in exam scores.

Introduction

In this article, you will learn:

  • What active recall is
  • What spaced repetition is
  • Practical methods which use active recall and spaced repetition
  • General study and revision tips

What is Active Recall?

Active recall is a fancy way of saying that you should be trying to retrieve things from your brain. This means that after you learn something you should repeat what you just learned.

Active recall methods require effort. They require you to reproduce what you learned without using cues. 

However, when trying the remember something, you don’t need to be instantly successful. Even unsuccessful attempts to retrieve information has been shown to enhance learning (though appropriate feedback of what when wrong is necessary). 

Undergoing constant tests can be discouraging, however, just remember that it’s part of the learning process.

Active recall is the process of trying to remember something that is already in your brain; essentially retrieving a piece of information that is stored in your memory.

So don’t be discouraged if you do badly in tests.

Tests (e.g. quizzes or past papers) use active recall. However, testing can still be passive if they are presented with high amounts of cues like is done in multiple-choice tests. These testing methods are less effective. 

person writing on brown wooden table near white ceramic mug
Answering practice questions is a great way of using active recall.

What Does the Science Say?

The authors of this 2019 study go on to describe how spaced repetition and active recall are both examples of a category called “desirable difficulties”. These are memorising strategies that are initially slow and effortful at the time learning but are better for long-term memory retention.

Students often do not realise that these difficult strategies contribute more to learning than easier methods like re-reading the text. 

In this 2014 study, the authors describe some of the evidence behind active recall. 

Two groups were given questions to read and understand. They found that even though the second group had more than double the study time, they ended up performing just as well as the first group. 

This is because the first group used active recall while the second group didn’t. 

Therefore, active recall is superior as it can achieve the same results in less than half the time.

Another experiment split up a group of people at a party. Half were asked to remember names normally while the other half were asked to repeat the names after hearing them (thereby using active recall). 

The group who used active recall remembered over 11 names while the other group only remembered less than 6 names. 

This again shows how much better active recall is.

Practical Example

Here’s an example of how you can use active recall in real life. 

Let’s say you take notes during your class. 

When you go home and review what you did in that lesson, are you just going to re-read the notes?

Of course not!

So, what do you do?

You should add questions to the end of your notes. The questions don’t need any answers as they will be there in the notes above. 

Then when you next re-visit the top, you try answering the questions.

This ensures you are using active recall and being efficient with your learning. 

Answering questions is one way of using active recall

Answering questions takes a lot more effort than just reading.

You may feel that it takes too much effort and that you aren’t getting enough done. But trust me, once you put this into practice you will go away knowing the entire topic off by heart.

Below I have listed some other ways that you can put active recall into practice.

  • Past papers – The single best way of revising in my opinion. These not only test your knowledge but are specific to the exam you want to take. The downside is that one’s specific to the exam you do may not always be available.
  • Questions – The next best thing after past paper. They may be at the end of the chapter in a textbook or online question banks. Do them!
  • Anki – a great tool for if you need to memorise a list of tedious things. If you aren’t sure how to use Anki then click here for my step by step guide!
  • Questions after taking notes – This is as mentioned in the example above. If you ever make notes then you should put questions at the end of them. When you come to review the notes you should look at the questions you have made rather than the notes themselves.

Infographic

What is Spaced Repetition?

Spaced repetition sounds complicated but all it is is the process of spacing out when you revise. If you learn about the pumping system of the heart one day, then the next day you should revisit it, then one week after that, then the week after that.

When something is learned you start forgetting it straight away. Initially you forget it very quickly, however, if you revive/recall the information the next day, your level of forgetfulness decreases.

This is all based on a fancy thing called the forgetting curve. We won’t go into detail about it now.

Spaced repetition is where you space out your study sessions at increasing intervals. For example, studying on day 1, day 7 and then day 30.

This is how you space out your revision

I have listed some other ways that you can put all this into practice.

Anki – does the spaced repetition for you

Retrospective revision timetable – Don’t know what this is? Watch this excellent video by Ali Abdaal which explains the concept brilliantly. This is ideal for things that can’t be done in Anki like essays, problem-based topics (like maths).

Putting Active Recall and Spaced Repetition Together

The real gem in all of this is putting both active recall and spaced repetition together.

This requires a bit of planning however we believe if you follow our advice carefully you will succeed no matter what the subject.

So how do you put them both together?

Let’s say you have reviewed your notes on Monday (by trying to answer the questions you made and therefore using active recall). You should schedule a revision session of these notes in about a week. After a week you look at your questions, and then you schedule a revision session in 3 weeks.

Every time you review your questions you increase the time between your sessions.

You could instead block out a single day of the week to review your content (e.g. Sunday) and then review everything all at once. And then every month you have a monthly review session (e.g. the 1st of every month).

This would be better if you find it difficult to plan what you will do in the long term.

Other Revision Techniques

You probably found this article as you wanted to understand these study terms that everyone throws around.

However, they are not the only way of revising.

Below I have listed some other tips on how to revise more effectively for exams.

  • Study in the morning rather than at night – Try and get some work done early in the morning. It is when I feel the most productive and can get the most difficult thing out the way first. I have a whole article about how to wake up early and study. Spoiler alert: in the article, I talk about how a sunrise alarm clock was one of the most valuable purchases I ever made and that you should buy one right now if you want to wake up early and study more. This one by Philips is of good quality and has excellent reviews by 3600 people.
Coffee, Reading, Cup, Book, Table, Morning, Paper, Read
Studying early in the morning with some coffee is a fantastic way to start the day.
  • Be healthy and exercise regularly – It is scientifically proven that if you live a healthier life, your brainpower and memory increases. Even a small amount of exercise can get your mind going and put you into the mood to start revising.
  • Have coffee before your exams – Caffeine is a great stimulant to help you study better and remember what you have already learnt. Therefore, even if you don’t like it, you should be having coffee before every one of your exams.
  • Use scientifically proven methods – A lot of the stuff we have covered in this article is scientifically proven. However, if you want a full load down on all of the scientifically proven study methods, check out my insanely detailed article on just that topic. I’m sure you will find something in there that will help you get the grade you want.

Conclusion

  1. Don’t get overwhelmed – Everyone is in the same boat as you. Planning is the key to staying calm and getting things done.
  2. Set a realistic goal – try to look at the past; did it take you one week to review a chapter last time? If so, it would be ambitious to think you’ll do the next chapter all in a single day.
  3. Go over the stuff you learned in the week on a chosen day, for example, on Sunday (using questions from the end of the notes you have made – active recall!)
  4. Go over the stuff you learned in the month on the first day of the month (active recall again!)
  5. Keep on doing past papers

Disclaimer: The Amazon links included in the post are affiliate links which mean I get a small commission for every sale.

References

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