Active recall is one of the most efficient and effective evidence-based ways to learn pretty much anything.
1. Activating Prior Learning
The first way to use active recall effectively is to test yourself before the initial learning event to activate your prior learning before a class or lesson.
When we encode new information we link it to what we already know. Therefore to reduce our cognitive load it's important that we quickly go over our existing knowledge ahead of a class.
Going over what you studied at your last study session ahead of starting a new study session or lesson activates your prior knowledge and you'll then be able to more easily link new content to what you have previously learned.
Research shows that you learn new content better when the content of what you're learning is relevant to you, that means you know why it matters and you know how you're going to use it.
Priming involves introducing new material before the lesson or primary learning event occurs. This is often done in lessons and books using learning outcomes but this might not be that relevant to you or grab your attention. This is where active recall comes in.
Before you start learning something new just take a few minutes and ask yourself 3 questions-
1) What will I do with what I learn
2) What questions do I have about it before I start and,
3) What do I already know about it.
This will help you to identify personal relevance and it will start pulling out your existing knowledge and get you to link new content to past experiences to aid effective encoding. This active recall method is super quick and only takes a few minutes of your time.
3. Hypercorrection & Surprise
It might sound counterintuitive but the next way to use active recall is to test yourself on a topic before you've even opened your book.
When you test yourself without prior learning you'll either be very confident you know the answer or completely uncertain or your confidence will be somewhere in between.
Now, you might think that the less confident someone is in their response, the more easily they’ll update their memory when they hear the right answer. But that’s not actually the case. Research has shown that people learn better when they get feedback on a mistake they were confident in. This is something known as the hypercorrection effect which was outlined by educational researchers Janet Metcalfe and Brady Butterfield in 2001. The hypercorrection effect states that making high confidence mistakes rather than making low confidence ones is more surprising and memorable.
The idea is that when we get feedback that goes against what we expect, we pay more attention. And, because we pay more attention, we are better able to remember the feedback we get. So in essence, surprising feedback means we pay more attention, which means we remember.
Taking a small quiz before you start learning allows you to benefit from the hypercorrection effect as even if you have no clue about the answer after learning the correct answer, your brain will try not to make the mistake again in your exam.
4. Write Recall Questions Not Notes
Your primary learning event is basically the first time you go over new content. This might be a class, an online video or reading a book.
While it's easy to write notes, highlight or bookmark things this isn't actually an effective way to learn, it just feels like it is. A better way to engage with the new material is to turn the information into questions.
For definitions and facts use What is … ? questions. For processes, methods, procedures or techniques use How? questions. Test your deeper understanding of new content by asking Why?
A really quick way to generate lots of questions is to turn headings or subheadings into questions by adding what, how and why in-front of them. This will stimulate curiosity at or before the initial learning event and means you'll have a list of questions you can revisit at a later time.
5. Stop and Recite
When working through content from slides, video or books it's easy just to sit back passively thinking you are learning. A much better way is to use active recall in the form of the stop and recite or closed book method.
If you are reading at the end of each paragraph or section close your book or cover up what you have just read and try and explain it back. You can write it out, say it outloud or just think about what you've just learned in your head. Once you've finished go back to the material and see how you did. For videos pause after each section and do the same. By stopping you are naturally breaking up what you are learning into smaller, more meaningful chunks and by reciting what you've learned in your own words you are ensuring you are learning as you go along.
6. End of Study Session Review
At the end of class, the end of a book chapter, end of a video or the end of a specific study session you can use active recall to immediately review everything you have learned and test your knowledge.
This forces you to immediately revist the material and is a longer version of the Stop and Recite method which covers a whole concept. Using active recall in this way highlights your weak areas and any gaps in your knowledge that you need to go back over and also gives you a good idea about how well you know a topic.
If you know it well you can probably leave it a bit longer before revisiting it using spaced repetition whereas if you're struggling with a topic you need to revisit it sooner and attack it head on.
7. Mind Maps For Active Recall
Similar to the closed book method another way to recall information and test yourself is to draw out a mindmap. To do this start with a blank piece of paper or an apple pencil, iPad and drawing or notetaking app. Then put the topic or concept that you're studying at the center. Next draw out everything you can recall about the topic from the center and start connecting things together.
This not only gets you to think about what you know about the topic but also forces you to consider structure and how things relate to one another as you learn.
Similar to note-taking lots of people use mind maps incorrectly. They just transcribe or copy information from books or videos into a mind map and then make them colourful and pretty without actually engaging their brains or self-testing. When used correctly mind maps should challenge you to recall information around a central topic and link information together. Remember you're not just limited to text you can draw images, add phrases and make key concepts bold. If you're not sure about something you can even add a question mark and highlight this as an area you need to go over in the future.
8. Drawing Images
Similar to mind maps another great way to combine visual learning with active recall is to challenge yourself to draw or annotate diagrams.
In science subjects this might be identifying the structures of a cell from an image. In anatomy this might be try to draw the brachial plexus from scratch or in math to draw and label the angles and trigonometry calculations around a shape.
You might want to start off with labelling an existing diagram as this is a quick and effective way to use active recall and reduces your cognitive load by functioning like a worked example where the scaffolding is provided in the diagram and you just need to label things.
For more of a challenge try moving up Bloom's Taxonomy and drawing a diagram or concept from scratch. After you have drawn or labelled go back to the source material and see how you did.
Now I'm not the biggest fan of using flashcards to learn as they really focus on the bottom of Bloom's Taxonomy where you are just rote memorizing facts rather than more deeply understanding and applying knowledge.
That being said they are a valid form of active recall and if you need to learn facts such as vocabulary in a language or specific terms in science they are pretty quick.
You can either create your own flashcards which can be time consuming or use existing flashcard sets on apps like Quizlet, Shiken or Anki. Most of theses apps have spacing intervals built in too which means you can come back to cards at appropriate times to re-test your knowledge so you remember facts for longer.
10. The Feynman Technique
Richard Feynman was a nobel prize winning physicist and was also known as The Great Explainer for his ability to explain complex topics in simple terms that anyone could understand. The Feynman technique is simply the ability to explain a topic that you are learning in language that a child could understand.
By putting a topic into your own words and simplifying it you are really testing your deep understanding. You can combine this with active recall by challenging yourself at the end of a book chapter, video or study session to explain what you have just learned in simple terms. You can do this by summarizing to yourself or even better explain the topic to a friend or family member. If you can't explain the topic simply or can't remember elements of it you probably don't know it well enough and you need to go back over it until you can.
11. Teaching Others
Being able to create materials and teach others is at the top of Bloom's Taxonomy and the process of creating a teaching session forces you to actively recall the topic you are teaching which leads to better learning.
Planning out a teaching session also means you will need to provide structure to your lesson and you might need to dive deeper into the topic so that you can explain it correctly to learners.
Creating teaching materials is an active process and you may also pre-empt the questions that learners might ask and it gives you a bit more insight into what you and others find confusing around the topic.
12. Ask a partner to quiz you
Learning with others keeps you accountable and asking a study partner to select questions from a text can help make learning more social as well as testing your recall.
The process of saying answers out load and explaining things in your own words helps you to develop a deeper understanding. Plus having a friend put you on the spot will test you to see how well you know a topic.
This method helps to make learning more fun as you challenge each other and when someone gets a question incorrect the process of the teaching your partner will help to further embed the knowledge.
This use of active recall is really effective for practical subjects such as learning history and exam techniques for medical OSCEs, preparing for interviews or learning a language where you friend takes on the role of an examiner, interviewer or patient to give you the most realistic practise possible for these types of tests.
13. Use Online Question Banks
Jumping into a large volume of questions that accurately represent the questions you'll be tested on at your final exam or test is, in my opinion, the best and most effective way to study for exams.
Questions that require you to apply your knowledge and which come with explanations are way better than flashcards for deepening your understanding.
Multiple choice questions that require you to choose the correct answer, order a selection of answers or write out a short explanation actively test your knowledge using active recall.
Some online exam question banks allow you to filter questions by subject and topic area and so you can read a chapter and then immediately test your knowledge of that topic area in a focused way. And many also gamify the experience and allow you to filter by whether you have attempted a question or answered it incorrectly so you can quickly focus your study sessions on your knowledge gaps.
Don't worry about failure and rather see every incorrect answer as a way to learn something new and identify which areas you are weakest at.
14. Use practice tests under timed conditions and mock exams
Just like testing yourself before you have learned a topic, it might seem counterintuitive but jumping straight into exam conditions can help you to recall information more effectively and reduce stress at the real test.
If you can get hold of past paper questions or mock exams and use active recall to try and get through an exam paper early this will give you a really good idea of the standard of knowledge required as well as the difficulty of the test itself.
When you then subsequently study topics you'll know how much depth of learning is required and ensure you are studying and using active recall at an appropriate difficulty. This will keep you engaged and most exams and tests have questions that come up again and again. If you can focus on practising these high yield, commonly tested questions you'll do very well.
If your test or exam is something like graded essays or a spoken oral exam you can also apply active recall under timed conditions by writing out essays or conversations in advance. If you have past papers and an idea of high yield essay topics you can basically practise writing these out in advance, learning them and then at the actual exam you'll have already prepared these essays and just need to write them out from memory. This is also a technique that works well for interviews where you can plan out your answers to common questions like "why do you want his job?" and then recite them at the interview focusing on your delivery. This is what I did when I learned my TED talk.
15. Practising For Real
The 15th and final way to use active recall is to simply practise and apply what you are learning in the real world. By applying your knowledge for real you're constantly testing your own ability.
If you are learning a language going to the country of the language you are learning and practising with native speakers and immersing yourself in the culture is the best possible way to learn. This builds personal, emotional experiences that are easier to recall and is also just way more fun that learning theory.
If you're learning something practical like I did with surgery you can test yourself on the steps of a procedure, then practise on a mannequin before doing focused individual steps under supervision before finally doing it completely by yourself.
The more you can put what you are learning into practise and use your knowledge the better you'll learn.