Use Active Recall If You Don’t Want to Blank on Exams

Use Active Recall If You Don’t Want to Blank on Exams

Using active recall is the best way to learn material faster and remember it longer
A lot of my students at one point in time have asked me something along these lines: “What should I do to prepare for my exams – read over my notes again, listen to the lectures online again, rewrite all my notes, read the book again?” To all of which my response is always “No, no, no and no.” Most students, despite spending a huge portion of their day studying, haven’t tried to figure out what study methods are most effective. Even if they can find a way to learn something 10% faster, say in 27 minutes instead of 30 minutes, this 10% boost in efficiency will save hundreds of hours of study time over the course of a year. What if you could cut study time by 20%? 40%? Imagine how much more time you would have to text and Facebook stalk!

Listening to a boring teacher

Using “Active Recall” while you’re studying or learning a new skill is perhaps the most important thing you can do. Active recall, as its name implies means that you have to actively engage your brain while recalling information. There is a huge difference between passive learning and active learning. The thing that reading notes, rewriting notes, listening to lectures and reading a book all have in common is that they are passive processes. Information only comes in, it is a one-direction process. Some people are sponges and may be able to retain most of the information learned this way, but for the average person it takes a lot more than just listening to something or reading it from a book one time before they actually understand the information and remember the details.

In contrast, here are active processes: answering a question verbally, drawing a diagram from memory, working out a problem on paper, writing an essay, taking a test, performing a calculation in your head. What do all of these have in common? They all require your brain to actively retrieve information and synthesize a solution. See the difference? If you just read something or even rewrite your notes, your brain doesn’t have to actively interpret and synthesize anything new, it’s already there in front of you. Sure, rereading and rewriting might help you memorize things, but this is about as inefficient as studying gets. Read my article about spaced repetition before you try to memorize something this way!

Listening to the teacher lecture in class and following a teacher through an example problem are passive learning processes, information only goes in. Even doing homework can be somewhat passive – since most of the problems in a given section apply the same concept a lot of students just look for the pattern to solve that certain type of problem and put their brain on autopilot to crank through their homework assignment. Rarely will a student pause and think about what type of problem it was, how they can recognize it, and make note of any tricks they used should a similar problem be set up that way in the future.

Why is this a problem? Because when you get an exam it is blank, there are no answers on the page, you have to come up with them from scratch. Your brain utilizes certain pathways to absorb, interpret and store information, and very different pathways to retrieve, synthesize and produce a correct answer. Passive learning only enhances the pathways that take in and store information, they do not strengthen the retrieval and critical thinking areas of the brain necessary to solve problems on exams. This is why you have to use active recall techniques when you study so you prime your brain to extract all that good information and come up with the right answer on the test.

Learning to drive

Do you think you could learn how to drive a car through passive learning processes? By reading a book and listening to a person talk about driving cars? Would you have been ready to take your behind-the-wheel driver’s test if you had only read a book and listened to a person talk about how to drive a car? No. This isn’t The Matrix, so you can’t have someone download a program into your brain about how to pilot an Apache helicopter, and then boom, you’ve got it. You needed to put the skills you passively learned about into practice by testing them out for yourself, allowing your brain to process everything and figure out how to properly operate a vehicle under circumstances you’ve never encountered before. So why do you think you can ace an exam with questions on it that you’ve never seen before if you’ve only read about some concepts in a book or listened to a teacher talk about the subject? Most students can’t, and this why you have to force your brain to make new pathways through active recall.

Often students will come to me and say “I can follow the teacher when they’re lecturing in class, I understand all the concepts and I get good grades on all the homework, but I always bomb the tests.” And then the student (or parent) will attribute this poor performance on exams to “test anxiety”. However, “I get test anxiety” is rarely the reason why students perform poorly on exams. I would say fewer than one out of 100 students can use this as a legitimate excuse for bad test scores. The reason for poor test performance is that they haven’t adequately prepared for the exam, whether it is just not knowing what to study, or, as is more often the case, how to study so they can come up with the right answers on the test. Being able to understand something when another person is explaining it often gives a false sense of how well a student actually understands the material. Even though the student can absorb the information in the one-directional process of passive learning, their ability to retrieve the information and put it to good use on an exam is an entirely difference ability. Students who “blank” on a exam didn’t develop the pathways in their brain that locate and extract the information they took in. This is like having an iPod that you can store 64GB of music on, but it has a broken audio port – it doesn’t matter how many of One Direction’s songs you’ve got stored in memory if you can’t get them back out. I better you’ll never think of One Direction the same way again! (If you don’t know who One Direction is you’re definitely not hip with the teenage crowd)

Hopefully now I’m beginning to convince you that you need to fundamentally change the way you study if you want better grades and less study time. So here’s an example of how you incorporate active recall into studying:

I’m going to use the same example of cell parts for a biology test that I did in my Spaced Repetition article. Let’s say you are going to have a test at the the end of the week on the parts of the cell and what their functions are – i.e. the nucleus stores DNA, the ribosomes synthesize proteins, the Golgi finishes and sorts proteins, the lysosomes break down cell waste… Active recall means that you essentially have to give yourself a test on the information and force your brain to come up with the right answers, just like for the test you will have in class at the end of the week. What you should do is, instead of making a set of flashcards with the cell parts on side and the functions on the other and cranking through them one-by-one, write down all the information on a single page in the form of questions similar to ones you think will be on the exam: What is the function of the Golgi apparatus? What is the job of a ribosome? Which organelle breaks down cell waste? And make sure you leave the answers blank. Then, take your own test and see how you do. While you’re getting used to this method, I would print out a few copies of your blank test and actually write the answers in each time, just like you’re taking the the real exam. And you should write a couple of versions of the question to make sure you learn it both ways – by being able to describe the function given the cell part, and also being able to name the cell part given the function: What is the function of the Golgi apparatus? Which organelle is responsible for modifying and sorting proteins? So if there are 15 cell parts you are responsible to know, you might have 30-45 questions on your test.

Make sense? You basically just want to put everything in the form of a question that you have to answer, rather than just rereading a notecard. It might not seem like there’s a big difference here, but this way of studying turns a passive learning process into an active one, which makes a huge difference to your brain’s ability to come up with answers on a blank exam. And to incorporate the spaced repetition technique I talked about into all of this, just go over the questions with increasing periods of time in between recall sessions.

Another important thing to do is to make sure you don’t go through the questions in the same order each time, because again your brain will take shortcuts and just try to take cues based on where on the page a particular question is and what question came before it. The two easiest ways to avoid this are to cut up all your questions and mix them up each time, or do the turn-your-head-and-point-to-a-place-on-the-page-without-looking technique.

As I’ve said before, and I will say a hundred times again, your brain is a very lazy creature and it will never want to do anything that it doesn’t have to do. This is why people procrastinate and this is why you have that voice in your head saying “Just read over you notes again and you’ll be fine”. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s good for your brain to look for the easiest way out because you’ll use less energy and way back when we were hunter-gatherers and didn’t know when our next meal was coming, this might have saved us. But you are not starving, and your brain’s laziness will not save your grades!

The scientific evidence

Research on active recall isn’t nearly as extensive as that on spaced repetition, but there is still plenty of scientific evidence of its effectiveness. From personal experience and from the limited, but astounding, study results that are in, I believe active recall is even more important than spaced repetition. A Purdue psychology research group who published a study in Science magazine, perhaps the most respected scientific journal, showed that students who used active recall were able to remember about 80% of the new terms, compared to 30% for the control groups who passively went back through a deck of notecards until they learned them all, when tested a week later1. This is a huge difference. This same research group did another study to compare active recall with other methods again – a group that passively studied by just going over and over material again, an elaborative study group who practiced making concept maps (where you draw out maps of the important concepts, definitions, and ideas), or a group that had to use active recall by taking a free recall test. The active recall group again demolished the passive studiers and even the elaborative study group who had already practiced making concept maps, even though the total amount of time studying was the same! And not by just a little bit, by about 50%! This active recall stuff is deadly as a study tool!

Hopefully you’re convinced that active recall is perhaps your biggest key to improving your exam scores and cutting your study time. Please make your own practice exams, or do the practice tests and review questions in your book, or find practice exams online (many textbook publishers have supplementary quizzes and exams online), or Google around for other teachers’ or professors’ practice exams!

Because this is such an important study method, I will be elaborating on it much more in future posts. I will teach you how to use active recall while reading, and how to take a few shortcuts so you don’t have to write your own practice exams every time you want to study.

So here’s the take-home message:

Active recall is a far superior study method to any type of passive learning. Passive learning only involves taking in information, whereas active recall forces your brain to retrieve, process, and come up with correct answers to questions from scratch. This means that when you are handed a blank exam your brain will be able to come up with the right answers and you won’t “blank” on the test.


  1. Karpicke JD. Roedinger III HL. “The critical importance of retrieval for learning”. Science. 319: 966-968. 2008.
  2. Karpicke JD. Blunt JR. “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping”. Science. 331(6018):772-5. 2011.

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