Active Recall – The Evidence-Based Study Technique You Should Be Using

Are you tired of using ineffective methods like rereading, highlighting, and summarizing for revising? If yes, then it's time to switch to more efficient and effective study techniques. In my experience, the most effective study method is active recall.

I'm going to cover my five-step active recall method that will make your studying more efficient, effective, and rewarding. Let's dive in!

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Unlocking the Power of Active Recall

Most of the time, we think that how we learn is a process where you test yourself after you've learned everything. It seems silly to do anything else, doesn't it? In fact, this couldn't be more wrong!

Active recall is a way to get information out of your memory by testing yourself at each step of the revision process. The act of retrieving information and data from our brains not only makes it easier for us to remember things, but it also makes it easier for our brains to make connections between different ideas.

The Science Behind Active Recall

Graphs showing evidence for active recall as a study method

A 2013 study that looked at hundreds of different studies about effective ways to review found that testing, also called the testing effect is a method that has "high utility" and can be used well with little training.

"Based on the evidence, we think that practise tests are very useful. Testing effects have been shown in a wide range of practise test formats, types of material, learner ages, outcome measures, and retention intervals. So, practise testing as a learning process has a wide range of uses.

The scientific literature from 1939 and 2010 are strong evidence that active recall is a high yield learning technique and is superior to passive study techniques, but Karpicke and Blunt's 2011 paper published in Science is probably the best example of the effectiveness of active studying.

In the study, researchers placed students into 4 groups and gave each group the same material to learn. Then, each group was tested on what they had learned. But each group was given different rules and instructions for how to learn the information.

The material would only be read once by the first group.

The second group had to read the information four times.

The third group was told to read the information and then draw a mind map.

The fourth group would only read the information once and then try to remember as much as they could.

In the verbatim test, where people were asked to remember facts, and the inference test, where people were asked to remember ideas, the active group did much better than the other groups.

This study shows that taking a test just once is better than going over a chapter four times. I'm sure we've all reread something at some point, but just by testing yourself once, you could make your studies much more effective and efficient. This is such a simple method, but it has so many clear benefits that we'd be silly not to use it.

Maybe we don't like to use active recall because it's harder and takes more brain power than rereading. But the most important thing is that review should be hard on your mind! You can think of this like going to the gym: if you lift light weights, you won't make much progress, but if you lift weights that challenge your strength, you're more likely to build muscle faster. The same is true for building up the "muscle" of your brain. The harder we have to work to remember something, the better our brains will be at remembering and storing it in the future.

Active Recall Strategies for Your Study Routine

So, how can we use an active recall strategy in our own study routine? Well, first of all, almost anything we do that makes us think and use our brains to remember things is going to help. But more specifically, I used a number of strategies. Here are three that I've found helpful.

Closed-Book Notes

If you can't seem to break the habit of taking notes, I found that taking notes with the book closed helped a lot. Instead of just copying from the textbook verbatim, try to learn about a topic and then write how you would explain the most important points and ideas in your own words with the book closed. Once you've written down everything you can remember, open the book and fill in the parts you forgot.

This uses the Feynman Technique and forces you to write concisely in your own language. In terms of the learning science when we are forced to think independently rather than just looking at content in a book and trying to remember it we are better encoding that information as our brains are linking it to our existing knowledge and packaging it up for more effective storage.

Create Questions

Even though there is evidence that taking notes isn't a good way to study, it still seems like a good idea to write things down, right? It makes sense to note things down so we don't forget. But actually for studying most of the information is already out there in textbook or online and so you end up duplicating information. A better way that employs active methods is to write down your own questions as you go through content that you're learning.

This method is similar to the Cornell note-taking method, which is when you write questions for yourself based on the information in the syllabus. The main idea is that instead of passively rereading or highlighting the information, as we're often tempted to do, we're forced to actively engage in cognitive effort to retrieve the information to answer the questions. This strengthens connections between information in our brains and improves our ability to remember that information on an exam.

If we look at Bloom's Taxonomy which is a hierarchy of effective learning techniques. The highest order methods of learning are evaluating and creating content. By creating our own questions that challenge us to evaluate or explain concepts we are actively forcing ourselves to dive deeper and better understand the content we are learning rather than just writing down information as we tend to do when learning passively.


Even easier than writing closed book notes or creating questions is self-questioning. This can be done anywhere, at anytime without any tools. You simply need to choose a topic and then think about how much of the topic you can talk about right now. There is no complexity here. You are just thinking - what am I not sure about with this topic? What is the extent of my knowledge? Why does x mean y?

You are essentially examining your existing knowledge and pulling on the strings to identify where you limits of understanding are. You can then head back to the books and read-around the areas you're not confident about to build up that knowledge.

Self-questioning is also important as it allows for reflection and identification of gaps in your knowledge which then become more relevant when you encounter them  when studying and so your brain pays more attention to them.

Use Question Banks and Practice Tests

There are lots of great digital resources that use practise testing to force you to learn actively but in a fun and fairly enjoyable way. Flashcard apps like Anki have huge volumes of cards that you can immediately dive into a test your knowledge against. Apps like DuoLingo or Shiken use higher-order questions to get you to analyse and use your knowledge across a variety of different question types. You can incorporate active recall as a key study method when using practice testing in question banks without needing to really plan anything out.

If you are studying for an exam the best question format to practise with is that which most closely resembles the format of your final exam questions. For me question banks were always the most time effective way to use retrieval practice to prepare for exams around my day job and they helped me get top grades.

Teaching Others With The Active Recall Study Method

Teaching others is a great way to use active recall. Teaching others puts you on the spot and challenges you to pull out information and convey it in a way that is easy for people to understand. It is also a much more social way to study and a diversity of opinions can often help to bring new ways of understanding tricky topics.

Step-by-Step Guide to Implementing Active Recall (With Examples)

Creating active recall questions from notes

In terms of practically using these 5 techniques it's pretty easy. But switching from passive learning to active learning for an actual exam is a habit change and can feel uncomfortable.

When I was studying for my postgraduate surgical exams to help me remember the huge volume of medical content in the shortest time possible I developed a specific process.

1. Priming With Closed Book Notes

To begin any revision session before I opened any books or apps I would prime my knowledge by drawing a spider diagram or jotting down bullet points for the topic I was studying. I'd try to remember as much as I could, and then I'd go back to my books or google and fill in any missing information. This forced me to pull out information from my brain and self-test.

2. Create Retrieval Practice Questions

When I then went into my books or google I would identify any concepts I was struggling with or which I couldn't remember in step one and turn these into study notes. This might be as simple as "Explain topic X" or more specific like "what does Y do?".

3.  Self-Questioning

Although I've included it as step 3 here I actually used self-questioning throughout steps 1 and 2 when assessing what I knew and what I didn't. I'd also use self-questioning when in the shower or on my way into work to think about any hard topics that I had created so I was always testing myself.

4. Use Practice Testing Question Banks

For medical finals and surgical exams I signed up to question banks that I could use on my iPhone. If I'm learning a language I'll use DuoLingo. Question banks are important as they provide questions that you may not have thought to self-test on and they also provide explanations which saves you a tonne of time. The best apps and websites allow you to quickly get through lots of practice test questions that test your application of knowledge, so higher order analytical ability, rather than just memorization skills.

5. Teaching Others What You've Learned

As I lived with medics after an evening of studying we would try and summarised what we had learned in our study sessions that day after steps 1-4. This aids effective encoding by packaging information together and summarising back what we have learned.

Tips and Tricks to Stay Motivated with The Active Recall Study method

Because self-testing is an active cognitive process it takes more energy and it can be easy to become tired and lose motivation, especially if you are answering questions. To stay productive and motivated when using active studying methods I made sure I got sufficient sleep and took breaks to go to the gym and to eat healthily around study sessions.

A really good tip is to make sure you stock up on water and healthy snacks like nuts, berries and dried fruit which have been shown to help improve cognitive function and focus.


What other evidence-based study techniques can improve my learning?

There are several other evidence-based study techniques that can improve your learning. These include:

  • Spaced repetition
  • Interleaving
  • Elaboration
  • Desirable difficulty

How does active studying differ from passive studying?

Active recall is an evidence-based study technique that involves actively retrieving information from memory rather than simply reviewing or re-reading material passively. This means that instead of simply re-reading notes or textbook chapters, you actively try to recall and reproduce the information from memory. This technique has been shown to be more effective for long-term retention of information compared to passive studying.

Passive studying, on the other hand, involves simply reading or reviewing material without actively engaging with it. This may include reading notes, textbooks, or other materials without attempting to recall or reproduce the information. While passive studying can be helpful for gaining initial exposure to material, it is generally less effective for long-term retention and recall of information than active recall


Roediger, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in cognitive sciences, 15(1), 20-27.

Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science, 319(5865), 966-968.

Can I combine active recall with other study methods?

Yes, self-testing can be combined with other study methods to enhance your learning and improve your retention of information. For example, you could incorporate recall into a study session that also includes note-taking or summarizing key points from a textbook. This would allow you to actively engage with the material while also reinforcing your understanding through note-taking.

Another way to combine active learning with other study techniques is to use flashcards. Flashcards are a popular study tool and can be used to actively recall information from memory. You can make flashcards with questions on one side and answers on the other, and then actively recall the answer before flipping the card over to check your response.

How much time should I allocate to active recall?

The amount of time you should allocate to active recall depends on your individual learning style, the difficulty of the material, and your study goals. However, a good rule of thumb is to allocate at least 20-30% of your study time to active recall.

This means that if you have a 2-hour study session, you should spend at least 30-40 minutes actively recalling information from memory. You could break this up into shorter chunks, such as 10 minutes of active recall followed by 20 minutes of note-taking or summarizing key points.

It's also important to note that the frequency and duration of active recall sessions can vary depending on the type of material you are studying. For example, if you are studying for a language exam, you may need to allocate more time to active recall sessions to practice vocabulary and grammar rules. On the other hand, if you are studying for a math exam, you may need to allocate more time to practicing problem-solving techniques through active recall.

What are the cognitive processes behind active recall?

Active recall involves retrieving information from long-term memory and bringing it to the forefront of our consciousness. The process of active recall involves several cognitive processes, including:

Encoding: The first step in active recall is encoding, which involves taking in information and storing it in long-term memory. When you first learn something, it is important to encode it in a way that is meaningful and memorable so that it can be easily retrieved later.

Retrieval cues: Retrieval cues are stimuli that help you retrieve information from memory. When you engage in active recall, you use retrieval cues to help you access the information you have stored in long-term memory. These cues can be anything that is associated with the information you are trying to remember, such as a keyword, an image, or a sound.

Recognition and retrieval: Once you have retrieved the information from memory, you must recognize it as correct and retrieve it accurately. This involves evaluating the information you have retrieved to make sure it is accurate and complete.

Working memory: Working memory is a temporary storage system that allows you to hold information in your mind for short periods of time. When you engage in active recall, you use working memory to hold the information you are trying to retrieve in your mind while you search for the correct answer.

Consolidation: Consolidation is the process by which memories are stabilized and strengthened over time. When you engage in active recall, you are helping to consolidate the information in your long-term memory by retrieving it and reinforcing the neural pathways associated with that information.

How can I track my progress with active recall?

Tracking your progress with active recall is a great way to monitor your learning and ensure that you are making progress towards your learning goals. Here are some ways you can track your progress with active recall:

Keep a study log: Keeping a study log is a great way to track your progress with active recall. In your study log, you can record the questions you ask yourself, the answers you give, and the sources you use to study. You can also record how long you spend studying and how confident you feel with the material.

Use flashcards: Flashcards are a great tool for active recall and can be used to track your progress. You can create flashcards for the information you are trying to learn and then track how many cards you get right and wrong each time you review them. This will give you a clear idea of how well you are retaining the information and where you need to focus your efforts.

Take practice tests: Taking practice tests is a great way to track your progress with active recall. You can take practice tests before and after studying to see how much you have learned. You can also take practice tests on a regular basis to reinforce your knowledge and track your progress over time.

Use an app or software: There are many apps and software programs available that can help you track your progress with active recall. For example, apps like Shiken allow you to create flashcards and track your progress, while others provide practice tests and quizzes to help you assess your knowledge.

Learn How To Learn
Learn How To Learn helps your get top grades. While saving hours of studying every week.