Active Recall: The path to mastery.

It’s freshman year in high school.

You sit back in your chair, look out your bedroom window at complete darkness… a glance at your bedside clock tells you its past 2 AM.

You sit back in that office chair, and agonize over the 4 tests you have in the next 4 days.

It isn’t so much the lack of sleep, or the late bedtimes, or the skipping of movie night, and family time, and all the things you appreciated (or took for granted) in middle school. It’s a simple fact, really, one that you can’t get over:

You don’t know where to start.

In this article, I want to give you a place to start.

Of course, you’ll want to pair it with a solid way of thinking about information, a clear framework for studying, and some tweaks to your note-taking, but beginning here isn’t a bad place to start your journey.

Where do we begin? With active recall. Active recall is when you study by retrieving (recalling) information from your memory.

Instead of passively reading through your notes, you instead ask yourself: “What is the meaning of this word?” and attempt to recite it, from memory.


Active recall sounds great, but why would you use this method over something like recognition (“ah, now that I see it I remember what this means”), or passively reviewing your notes?

Well, it has to do with retention. A study from researchers at Washington State University concludes that active recall is vastly superior to other methods of studying: “Results reveal that practice tests are more beneficial for learning than restudying and all other comparison conditions.“

What’s even better is that you can implement this technique pretty easily into your studying regimen. There are great products online (some are free) that streamline the process, and make active recall as easy as possible.


Flashcards are a great way to quickly utilize active recall. They work by showing a term on one side of the card, and you have to guess the definition of the term (usually out loud). After your guess has been cast, the card is flipped, so you see the correct definition. The act of reciting the definition in the beginning is using active recall to perforate the definition into your memory.

A great product that streamlines this process is Quizlet. Quizlet allows anyone to create a ‘set’ of flashcards, and study them from your browser. More recent releases of Quizlet offer a handy ‘learn’ mode, which trains the flashcards that you need the most work on, and they offer a ‘test’ option to test yourself after you feel confident in the material.

But Quizlet is inherently flawed:

This is a graph (retention on the vertical axis, time on the horizontal axis) that shows how Quizlet flashcard reps (the times you view the card and see whether you got it right or not) affects retention:

This, on the other hand, is a graph of my preferred flashcard app, called Anki (same deal with the axes):

As you can see, to remember the info for the same amount of time, it took 1/3 of the reps with Anki. See how the reps are getting more spaced out the more reps I do? I marked a point on the retention axis that I like to call the “forgetting point” –– right when you’re about to forget the flashcard.

Only at that point, however many days it takes, will Anki show you the card again. I have some flashcards that I won’t be seeing for 3 years because of this phenomenon.

This is exponential too, so if you were to increase the timescales from remembering it for 3 days to remembering it for 3 years, Anki would outperform by even bigger margins because the gap between reps gets larger and larger.

Now, it’s true that Quizlet offers a spaced repetition mode now (that costs $$), and there are alternatives like Knowt that let you import Quizlet sets and use spaced repetition for free.

If your teachers already use and provide Quizlet sets, use Knowt and save yourself from giving the Quizlet business mongers their monthly cup of joe.

I personally like Anki more because I think its base algorithm is still more effective than Quizlet and Knowt. Also, you can use some better custom algorithms like FSRS (which I personally use) for even more optimization.

But honestly, at this point you’re breaching into the “overkill” zone. Just choose the easiest spaced repetition system for you, and stick with it long-term.

Bonus Tip: Active Recall and Speeches

If you need to memorize a passage, or a script for your presentation, you can use active recall. Web apps like allow you to efficiently memorize the material, first by re-reading the material, and then using active recall patterns to help you retain the text. All you have to do is copy-paste the text, and click ‘Help me memorize it’.

If you prefer it old school, you can print out your script, re-read it a few times (to get the feel of the text), and cover certain excerpts with your hand and recite from memory. After practicing this method for 15-20 minutes, you should feel more comfortable with the text. If you want the best results (and have the time), try to do this every day until the presentation date. This way, you have time to ‘sleep on it’, and place the script into your long term memory.

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Sources: Brainscape, Ali Abdall, study from ResearchGate






2 responses to “Active Recall: The path to mastery.”

  1. […] a result, the information becomes more deeply ingrained in your memory, making it easier to recall when you need it. By relying less on external notes and more on your […]

  2. […] effective method for exam review is using Anki flashcards with spaced recall. Anki is a digital flashcard app that employs spaced repetition, a technique […]

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