How Does Active Recall Help Students Learn Better?

Active recall, as previously established, is one of the best ways to take your independent studying to the highest proficiency. From synthesis questions to flashcards, any study technique that requires you to think back to the concept you are consolidating and apply it to the established context (i.e. the question), is known as active recall. Put simply, you are ‘actively’ engaging your mind, memory and knowledge to ‘recall’, and thus re-affirm, the material (facts, concepts or mechanisms) you are learning. 

So let’s break it down to its practicality, why does active recall help students learn better?

In its most fundamental sense, softwares like Anki and blind Q&A sheets written onto an A4 sheet of paper accomplish the same task. These methods test and re-test the information you have learnt so that you can:

  • eventually commit the material to memory
  • automatically evaluate your understanding of the material with how well you can recall the answers to the questions 
  • identify and clarify mistakes in your understanding of the material

This ensures that the material that you learn and affirm is accurate, fully comprehensive and well stored in time for application and recollection!

Let’s look at the three studies that established active recall as a validated evidence-based study technique:

#1 – Spitzer et al (1939)

https://www.gwern.net/docs/spacedrepetition/1939-spitzer.pdf

In this study, two groups of students were given the same fact-based study material. One group was asked to passively study the material while the other group was given a practice test either a day or week later to test their knowledge. The study found that the group of students who had a practice test performed 10-15% better in the actual examination as compared to the group that did not take a mock assessment. 

This was one of the initial studies that established greater retention for students when active recollection was involved as opposed to passive study methods. 

#2 – Butler et al (2010)

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20804289/

To build more on the previous study, two groups of students were again asked to study some material, this time both factual and conceptual information. One group was asked to restudy the material in any way they chose and the other group was presented a practice test. Again, the study found that the group studying with retrieval as part of the learning, that is the group doing the practice test, had a better result in the final examination by 15-30%.

#3 – Karpicke & Blunt (2011)

https://science.sciencemag.org/content/331/6018/772.full

In this study, there were four groups of students who were asked to review the study material by (1) studying it once, (2) re-studying the material, (3) concept mapping/spider-webbing the material and (4) retrieval practice/active recall. The study found that in both fact-based and concept-based assessments, the group that studied the material once was the least performing and the retrieval practice group was the highest performing. 

(Ali Abdaal discusses all three of these studies in further depth in his video ‘How to Study for Exams – Evidence-Based Revision Tips’ which I highly recommend giving a watch if you’re more interested in what I touch on in this article)

So conceptually, these three studies (among many) communicate, and prove, that active recall helps you learn better because there is a cognitive effort exercised in the memorisation and comprehension of the material. This not only aids in retention but also in the recollection and application of the study material learnt!

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