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


Why Use Active Recall?

A lot of students have asked me, “How should I prepare for tests? Should I read over my notes again, rewrite them, or read the book again?” My response to all of those options is always, “No, no, and no.”

Despite spending hundreds of hours studying every year, most students haven’t figured out which study methods are most effective. Even a 10% boost in studying efficiency would save a student dozens of hours of studying over the course of a year.

Lets say the average student studies for 2 hours a day for 200 days of the year. That’s 400 hours of studying. A 10% increase in studying efficiency would save 40 hours. That’s a lot of Fortniting and Instagramming! What if a student could cut study time by 20%? 40%? Imagine how much more time would be available for Fortnite and Instagram then.

Using Active Recall is perhaps the most important thing you can do. Active Recall, as its name implies, means you have to actively engage your brain while recalling information. The opposite of active learning is passive learning and the difference in effectiveness between the two is massive.

Reading notes, rewriting notes, listening to lectures, and reading the book are passive learning processes — information only comes in. While some people may be able to retain a lot of information acquired passively, the average person cannot.

By 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 they all 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 rewrite your notes, your brain doesn’t have to actively interpret or synthesize anything new because the information is right in front of you. Sure, reading and writing might help you memorize things with enough repetition, but it’s not the most efficient technique. If you combine Active Recall with Spaced Repetition, that’s the studying gold mine.

Active Recall, like, saves me tons of time. #InstagrammingInsteadOfStudying Photo:

Active Recall, like, saves me tons of time. #InstagrammingInsteadOfStudying

Why is passive learning ineffective? Because when you get a test it is blank. There are no answers on the page and you have to come up with the answers from scratch. Your brain uses certain pathways to absorb, interpret, and store information, and different pathways to retrieve, synthesize, and create an 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 come up with a solution. You have to practice Active Recall in order to construct answers effectively.

Could you learn how to drive a car through only passive learning? No, that’s why behind-the-wheel training is a requirement — you have to actively practice driving in order to become a good driver. We don’t live in The Matrix, you can’t download a program to your brain about how to pilot an Apache helicopter, and then BOOM, you’re a pilot. So why would you think you can ace an exam with questions on it that you’ve never seen before if you’ve only read information in a book, or listened to the teacher talk?

Often students tell me, “I can follow the teacher when they’re lecturing in class, I understand all the concepts, and I get good grades on the homework, but I always bomb tests.” The student (or parent) will usually attribute the poor performance on exams to “test anxiety.” However, test anxiety is rarely the reason why students perform poorly on exams, it’s almost always used as a scapegoat.

The reason for poor test performance is usually that the student doesn’t adequately prepare for the exam by using Active Recall. Being able to understand something when another person is explaining it often gives a false sense of understanding. Even though the student can absorb information passively, their ability to retrieve the information and put it to use on an exam is a different skill. Students who “blank” on an exam didn’t develop the brain pathways that help them locate and extract the information. It’s like having an iPod with 256GB of memory, but a broken audio port – it doesn’t matter how many T-Swift songs you’ve got stored in memory if you can’t get them back out.

Hopefully, you’re convinced that you need to change the way you study if you want better grades with less study time. Now, I’ll give an example of how to incorporate active recall into studying.

An Example Of How To Use Active Recall

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 their functions – i.e. the nucleus stores DNA, the ribosomes synthesize proteins, the golgi apparatus finishes and sorts proteins, the lysosomes break down cell waste… Active recall means you must test yourself on the information, as if it were the real thing.

Instead of making a set of flashcards with the cell parts and functions and cranking through them one-by-one, write down the information in the form of questions similar to those that 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? Then, try to answer your questions and see how you do.

As a bonus, print out a few copies of your questions and actually write down the answers each time, just like you’re taking a real test. You should write a couple of versions of the question to make sure you learn the information both ways – be able to describe the function given the cell part, and be able to name the cell part given the function: 1) What is the function of the Golgi apparatus?, and 2) Which organelle is responsible for modifying and sorting proteins? If there are 15 cell parts that means you’ll have 30 questions.

I should have used Active Recall!

I should have used Active Recall!

Make sense? You 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, but this way of studying turns a passive learning process into an active one, which will build the brain pathways necessary to pull answers out of thin air when you take the exam. To incorporate Spaced Repetition with Active Recall, go over the questions with increasing periods of time between recalls.

Make sure you don’t go through the questions in the same order each time because your brain will take all shortcuts possible and will try to go on auto-pilot by remembering which question came before it. The easiest way to prevent your brain from cheating is to mix them up each time.

As I’ve said before, your brain is a very lazy creature and it will never want to do anything that it doesn’t have to. This is why people procrastinate and is also why you have that voice in your head insisting “Just read over you notes again and you’ll be fine.”

The scientific evidence

The 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, results that are in, I believe active recall is even more important than Spaced Repetition. A Purdue psychology research group published a study in Science magazine showing that students who used Active Recall were able to remember about 80% of new terms on a memory test, 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 later.

This same research group did another study comparing Active Recall with other methods – a group that passively studied by just going over and over material again, an elaborative study group who practiced making concept maps (they drew out maps of the important concepts, definitions, and ideas), and a group that used Active Recall by taking a free recall test (like the example I gave above with the cell parts). The active recall group 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 small margin . . . by nearly 50%!

So here’s the take-home message:

Active Recall is far superior to passive learning. Passive learning involves taking in information, whereas Active Recall forces your brain to retrieve, process, and create answers from scratch. If you study using Active Recall you’ll be much less likely to “blank” on the exam.


  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. me