Learning Science

What Is Active Recall?

Want to know how to study smarter, not harder? We look at active recall as a learning technique.
Gumbo
8 min to read

Retrieval practice or the testing effect is the process of actively recalling or applying knowledge (either for practice, or as a test). Retrieval practice can be considered as an alternative learning method to other options such as re-reading, highlighting or note-taking.

Re-reading, highlighting and writing long notes gets us comfortable with the material we’re studying and convinces us that we’re mastering it. In reality, this is often an illusion known as the fluency effect, which causes us to mistake fluency with mastery meaning that we may understand something on the surface but don't yet have the deeper knowledge required to actually apply it in practice. In terms of learning, passive methods such as reading or highlighting put the information into our short-term memory but unless we are applying it or are tested to recall the knowledge it is not stored in our long term memory. The best way to put information into your long-term memory is to actively retrieve it from your own longterm memory.

The 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. Testing your knowledge also provides a diagnostic step to help you identify knowledge gaps and topics you are unsure about.

Active Recall Theory and Evidence


The earliest research into testing and active recall can be traced back to an experiment from 1909 that demonstrated that recitation (via a test) of a word list was a potent factor in learning.

A literature review from Kent State and Duke University in 2013 which analysed hundreds of separate studies about effective revision techniques, concluded that testing, or active recall, has ‘high utility’ and can be implemented effectively with minimal training.

“On the basis of the evidence…we rate practice testing as having high utility. Testing effects have been demonstrated across an impressive range of practice-test formats, kinds of material, learner ages, outcome measures, and retention intervals. Thus, practice testing has broad applicability”.

This study also concluded that active recall is be better than mind-mapping and note-taking since it is extremely efficient for committing details and ideas into one's memory.

Professor Jeffrey Karpicke is the James V. Bradley associate professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University and has been involved in a number of high-profile studies into active recall and testing.

In his 2011 study researchers split 80 students into 4 groups with each student tasked with learning the same material before being tested on what they learnt. 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 (concept mapping).

- The fourth group would read the material once, then recall as much as possible (retrieval practice).

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. This study shows that testing yourself just once is more effective and meaningful than rereading a chapter four times.

Results of Experiment. (A and B) show the proportions correct on verbatim and inference short answer questions, respectively. (C) shows the proportion of information subjects predicted they would recall on the final test (their metacognitive judgments of learning). On the final short-answer test, retrieval practice enhanced long-term learning above and beyond elaborative study with concept mapping by one and a half standard deviations (d = 1.50), yet students were largely unable to predict this benefit.

If retrieval practice is such a potent learning strategy, you would hope that many learners would practice retrieval to learn many different things in many situations. However retrieval is not typically considered an important part of the learning process, and unfortunately, many learners do not practice retrieval as often or as effectively as they could.

At the end of the learning phase in the same experiment, the students’ metacognitive knowledge of the effectiveness of these learning activities was assessed by having students make judgments of learning. After completing the learning phase, students predicted the percentage of information from the materials they would remember in 1 week.

The study shows that learners predicted that repeated study would yield the best results and retrieval practice the least beneficial results. Thus showing that we overestimate the value of simply reading something and undervalue testing and retrieval practise.

Active Recall and Stress

More than a decade of research has supported a robust consensus: Acute stress impairs memory retrieval.  A 2016 study by Smith et al. aimed to determine whether retrieval practice could strengthen memory against the negative effects of stress. Participants first learned stimuli by either restudying or engaging in retrieval practice. Twenty-four hours later, researchers induced stress in half of the participants and assessed subsequent memory performance. Participants who learned by restudying demonstrated the typical stress-related memory impairment, whereas those who learned by retrieval practice were immune to the effects of stress. The results show that active recall can help protect against test-related stress and anxiety.

Active Recall Strategies For Learning

On the background of this evidence when learning anything it is vital that you test yourself regularly. Combining active recall with spaced-repetition has been shown to deliver the best results in terms of memory retention. There are a number of ways you can test yourself and others while learning:

Close your book: While reading a book try to close the book or hide certain chapters or concepts and try to recall or work out the answer yourself before revealing the correct answer. This will help to make your reading more active.

Use practice tests under timed conditions: It might seem counterintuitive but jumping into exam conditions can help you to recall information more effectively and reduce stress at the real test.

Ask a partner to quiz you: asking a revision partner to select questions from a text can help make learning more social as well as testing your active recall

Create your own questions or flashcards: whether by hand or using digital tools creating your own quizzes and flashcards for use alone or with others can help you test your knowledge.

How do we apply this in Shiken?

Shiken's learning mode features tens of thousands of quiz questions across a variety of question formats using retrieval practice and testing. This is one of our core features that leads to such high learning efficacy. Shiken tests ability to recall knowledge, ability to recall definitions and ability to apply knowledge and definitions to answer exam questions.

When learners do not score highly enough, our adaptive learning system programmes that material back into your learning schedule, leading to additional instruction and testing. Learners continue to be tested (practice retrieval) over spaced intervals for maximum benefit, which is reflected in our spaced repetition learning algorithms. Finally our mock exams simulate real life and help to reduce anxiety by allowing for realistic practise under exam conditions so there is less stress at the real test.

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