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Active Recall - The Science- Backed Study Technique

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.


In a 2011 study on 'active recall', the findings were very positive.


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.


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.


Ways of implementing 'active recall'


- CLOSED BOOK- Learn the material through using the book and taking notes. Once you have completed this, close the book and attempt to write out the summary of the topic in your own words. From this, you both work your mind and figure out what parts of the topic that you are missing, so that you can go back to focus on that material.


- ASK QUESTIONS- The science does not back note- taking as very effective in revision sessions. Although it feels productive as we can see a finished product, a better way to do this is to write down questions as we learn the material. In this manner, we still receive that boost of having a finished product, but we also have to cognitively engage with the material.


- FLASHCARDS- By writing out flashcards, we implement both of the above in order to both use a closed book method and engage cognitively in material by asking questions of ourselves.


If you are struggling with productivity, try implementing at least one of these strategies into your revision!


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