Active Recall: The path to mastery.

You have 4 tests in 4 days, the semester is ending, and your success is paramount for your academic career. Your heart is racing, the abrasive thump a rhythm to your anxiety. Your stomach is queasy, but most importantly, you have no idea where to start.

Well, start with active recall. Active recall is when you actively try to retrieve (recall) 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, or the passive reviewing of 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.“ Further, you can implement this technique with minimal effort on your part. 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.

I personally use this on a daily basis, especially if I have to study for a vocabulary quiz. Many of my teachers include Quizlet sets in the class resources that students can use to study, but if that is not the case for you, the creation process is quite simple.


If you need to memorize a passage, or a script for your presentation, active recall can be implemented. 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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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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