Active Recall: Efficiency meets Effectiveness
4 minute read
If you’re a student, odds are you’ve wound up in this situation: lots to learn and not much time to learn it. It’s unsurprising given most assessments and exams have their deadlines at a similar time of year. An easy trap to fall into is combing over your old notes, rereading them and tricking yourself into believing information will magically sink in. The problem is that it probably won’t.
Recent research into the subject of learning has shown ‘passive’ techniques like rereading are pretty ineffective for retention. Instead, we should be focussing on ‘active’ learning techniques. These are exactly as the name suggests - ways of making your mind active and engaged when reviewing information, and not just showing yourself the answers. A couple of examples of this would be:
Discussing a topic in a group
We’ll delve into why this is so much better here, as well as some strategies to maximise your learning efficiency.
Active recall is making your mind active and engaged when reviewing information, and not just showing yourself the answers
A great thing about active recall is that it forces you to engage with the content. You’ll often be summarising information, putting it into your own words, or answering a question based on a prompt. This requires you to analyse things and draw conclusions, which in turn creates stronger neural pathways in our brain, helping us recall the information later.
Passively looking over something like a textbook means the heavy lifting is done for us; the author will be doing the analysis. Our own brain has less reason to switch on, and won’t engrain the content into memory. In fact, your brain’s focus will probably be split between what you’re reading, what you’re going to make for dinner, and what the cricket score is.
Being engaged with what you’re learning is also great for motivation. Reading the same chunks of text over and over feels like a chore - you’re unlikely to jump out of bed to do it. Using a method like flashcards gamifies the learning process to an extent, something which is intrinsically more motivating. You can also see your progress; it’ll be clear which areas you’re weaker in and which you’re stronger in. Not only will this help you target learning, but it should also give you a kick to go and fill your knowledge gaps.
Get the knowledge, use the knowledge
Active recall techniques are also a way of deepening your understanding of a topic. To break something down into its core parts means knowing what those core parts are. Sounds self-explanatory, but it’s important for learning: it’s one thing to look over information, and it’s another entirely to summarise key insights and test yourself on them. You’ll be far more likely to actually understand what it is you’re looking at rather than have a series of memorised facts.
This point extends to the real-world application of what you’re studying. It might be tempting for an exam just to memorise what you’ll need, commit it to your short-term memory, and lose it after a few beers in the pub afterwards. That’s not the point of what you’re doing, though: you should want to remember what you’ve learned permanently, using it outside of your course.
Active recall is proven to more deeply engrain information in our brains, giving you a better chance of doing exactly that. It leads to a more holistic learning experience.
Retention and recall
Of course, a lot of the time you’ll be concerned with remembering something in the immediate future. If you’re learning for an assessment, it’s human nature that you might not look too far beyond that. Active recall is king here too, though. Passive revision relies on short-term memorisation, but doesn’t promote long-term recall. What does that mean? Even if you started revising weeks before an exam, if you’re only using passive techniques you probably won’t get very far anyway.
Active learning requires retrieval of information - a flashcard needs you to remember an answer, as would writing an essay plan from memory. This is a potent tool for solidifying knowledge in our memory. That means when it comes down to the assessment your brain will be able to recall the information then, just as it had done when practising earlier. You won’t be left staring hopelessly at the exam hall’s wall.
No better time to start
Even if you’ve always revised with passive methods in the past, the sooner you start with active techniques, the sooner you’ll reap the benefits. It makes learning more efficient, so you’ll have more time for the things you love, and it’s more effective, giving you the best chance at success.
When we designed Luna we wanted to make sure it engaged active recall as much as possible, whilst taking out the arduous parts of flashcard creation. Flashcards are a brilliant method of active learning, but they’re not the only one: there are plenty of ways you can make the most of it. That means that whatever your learning preferences there’s an active method for you.