“Active Recall” – Introduction

Imagine for a moment that you are a brain. It is your job to decide what to remember and what to forget. However, you have no way of talking to your human to ask what they think is important. How do you decide that quickly, without discarding useful information? Well, your brain has found quite an interesting way of doing that.

Your brain says “if my human asks me to retrieve a piece of information on multiple occasions, then it’s most likely useful, if he tells me to store it and never asks for it again, it’s probably not that important”. It’s actually quite an ingenious system. Think about all the things you know like the back of your hand. Your age, 5+5, where you were born, etc. These are things that at one point or another you had to ask your brain to bring to the surface for some use, be it in a conversation or to solve a problem. Each time you did this, you were telling your brain that the information is important and it made sure to keep it. It’s this system that we need to understand to be able to efficiently learn and retain the information that we’re studying.

It can be called active recall or retrieval practice but basically what it means is that you’re bringing forth information from your memory without looking at any external sources. This can be in the form of explaining an idea to yourself or a friend/family member, making a spider diagram, writing out everything you know about a topic, drawing diagrams, etc. The important thing is to check with your study materials afterward to make sure that you didn’t miss anything and that the information that you recalled is correct. You don’t want to be remembering your incorrect interpretation.

One very important form of active recall is the use of past paper questions. These are a goldmine. Not only are you retrieving the information but you’re also getting used to the types of questions and concepts that will likely be in your exam while also practicing being in an exam setting.

The other, a very popular form of active recall (which I’ll discuss in more detail later in the course) is flashcards. Flashcards, be it physical or digital, are a very effective form of active recall because they organize the information into discrete, bite-sized pieces of information that need to be recalled. If you’re using an app such as Anki you’re also incorporating spaced repetition (which will be discussed later) without really having to think about it.

A couple of last things to remember: don’t only use active recall for definitions and facts, use it also for concepts. It’s a great way to find out where the holes are in your knowledge. Try reading a new concept and be conscious of how confident you are in how well you understood it. Now try to explain it to yourself. You’ll find that even though you understood everything perfectly and were able to recognize it, there are parts that you didn’t fully commit to memory.

Secondly, use group study sessions to make the process easier. Active recall is hard. When you first start using it you’ll feel mentally fatigued much quicker than before. This is a good thing, it means you’re learning effectively (similar to how you feel tired after going to the gym, you don’t want to finish a workout feeling refreshed). Learning in groups is a great way to make this process easier, while also providing different perspectives, pointing out things that you might have missed or thought weren’t important, and being more consistent through external accountability.