If rereading, highlighting and summarising aren’t effective methods of revising, then what should we be doing? The two most effective methods that I’ve come across are active recall and spaced repetition which, in combination, will help make your studies more efficient, effective and rewarding. I’ll cover spaced repetition in a future post but for now I’ll concentrate on active recall.

Active Recall Theory and Evidence

We often think that learning is a process whereby you test yourself after having learnt all the information. Surely it’s counterintuitive to do anything else? In fact, this can't be further from the truth!

Active recall involves retrieving information from memory through, essentially, testing yourself at every stage of the revision process. The very act of retrieving information and data from our brains not only strengthens our ability to retain information but also improves connections in our brains between different concepts.

Research from 2013 which analysed hundreds of separate studies about effective revision techniques, concluded that testing, or active recall, is a technique that has ‘high utility’ and can be implemented effectively with minimal training.

“On the basis of the evidence…we rate practice testing as having high utility. Testing effects have been demonstrated across an impressive range of practice-test formats, kinds of material, learner ages, outcome measures, and retention intervals. Thus, practice testing has broad applicability”.

These studies from 1939 and 2010 provide valuable verification of the effectiveness of active recall but it was a study from 2011 that I found particularly convincing.

In that study, the researchers split students into 4 groups with each student tasked with learning the same material before being tested on what they learnt. However, each group was given different instructions and parameters for learning the content.

- The first group would read the material only once.

- The second group would read the material four times.

- The third group would read the material then were told to make a mind map.

- The fourth group would read the material once, then recall as much as possible.

In both the verbatim test – when asked to recall facts – as well as the inference test – when asked to recall concepts – the active recall group significantly outperformed the other groups.

This study shows that testing yourself just once is more effective than rereading a chapter four times. I'm sure we’ve all used rereading at some point but simply through testing yourself once you could drastically improve the efficacy and efficiency of your studies. This is such a simple technique but has such substantial, obvious benefits that we would be foolish to not use it!

Perhaps the reason we don't like to use active recall is that it's more difficult and mentally taxing than rereading. But the key point is revision should be cognitively demanding! It’s useful to think about this in terms of going to the gym – if you’re lifting weights that are light, you’re not going to make much progress but if you’re lifting weights that test your strength, you’re more likely to develop muscle faster. It’s the same with developing the ‘muscle’ of your brain - the harder we have to work to retrieve information, the more effective our brains will become in storing and recalling that information in the future.

Active Recall Strategies

So, how can we apply active recall in our own studies? Are there any strategies that are more effective? Well, first of all, almost anything we do that requires us to use cognitive effort and brain power to retrieve information is going to be helpful. However, more specifically, I used a number of strategies which utilised active recall and below are three approaches that, personally, I’ve found useful.

Closed Book

If you can’t quite break the habit of making notes, one strategy I found particularly helpful was making notes with your book closed. Instead of copying directly out of the textbook, try to learn a topic before writing out how you would explain the key points and key concepts in your own words but with the book closed. Once you’ve written down as much as you can remember, open the book and add the parts you missed.

This may sound simplistic and, in many respects, it is! However, it was particularly effective when I was preparing for my third year exams in psychology when I’d made essay plans and, in order to commit them to memory, I decided to draw spider diagrams of each plan with my book closed. I’d draw out as much as I could from memory and afterwards go back to my actual plan and fill in any information that was missing.

I repeated this for about two months in the lead up to the exams – combining active recall with spaced repetition – and by the time the exams came round I had a good grasp of over 50 essays, each with references, which I could then draw upon in the exam.

So it's a simple strategy but if it can work for third year university exams, I'm sure you can find a way of making it work for your personal needs too.


Alternative to Making Notes…Ask Questions

Despite evidence showing that note-taking isn’t an effective revision technique, it still feels intuitively productive to write things down, right? I didn’t want to completely stop making notes so I tried to adapt this desire to make notes and began to write questions for myself.

This strategy resembles the ‘Cornell Note-Taking’ method - the process of writing questions for yourself based upon the material in the syllabus. This produces a list of questions with the main idea being 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 which strengthens connections between information in our brains and improves our ability to recall that information in an exam.

In essence, writing questions forces you to engage in cognitive effort and the more brain power it takes to recall a fact, the more mentally taxing your studies are and the more you’re going to gain from the time you put into revision.

Anki

Anki is a flashcard app that allows you to create online flashcards which you can use to test yourself in practice sessions. It uses an algorithm built around active recall and spaced repetition and hence learns as you progress through your studies and revision.

I found Anki particularly useful for two key things:

  • Firstly, memorising particular facts – for example, as a medical student I used it a lot for pharmacology – learning the names of drugs and what they do.
  • Secondly, I also used it to help memorise particular paragraphs that I could slot into appropriate essays.

Check out the video for how I specifically did this but I certainly found it incredibly helpful! In fact, one of my friends from university who consistently ranked at the top of our year in terms of exam results found Anki so useful that he switched from making notes in lectures to going straight to making flashcards with the app! If that isn’t a positive endorsement of how useful it can be, I don’t know what is!