Active Recall: The Most Effective High-Yield Learning Technique
Published on Feb 21, 2022. Updated on Jul 29, 2023.
The scientific literature has spoken: Stop re-reading your notes! In this Osmosis article, fourth-year medical student Michael Owen discusses why active recall is the most effective study technique.
We all have our favorite study technique. You might read your textbook, make flashcards, highlight written notes, listen to podcasts, or watch your favorite online videos. However, we often don't stop to think: Is my chosen revision technique the most effective? Am I maximizing my working efficiency? Am I ensuring that I stand the best possible chance to knock that next exam out of the park? A wealth of scientific research collected over half a century tells us that the vast majority of students still use the least effective study techniques. Almost all of my friends and peers at medical school fall into this trap—as did I until very recently. But I'm sure this doesn't apply to you, does it?
Multiple studies (like this one and this one) have shown that reading and re-reading notes remains the most popular study technique utilized by higher education students. Many of you will recognize the truth in this; I too have relied on reading and re-reading my notes to pass exams throughout school and university. So, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?
Wrong. Despite its popularity, scientific research consistently and emphatically emphasizes the following point: Reading and re-reading notes is classed as an ineffective, time-consuming study technique that does little to significantly improve memory retention and academic performance.
A comprehensive 58-page meta-analysis investigating the efficacy of ten different study methods concluded that passive learning techniques, such as re-reading, highlighting, and summarizing notes, were all low-utility methods. Put simply, passive study techniques do little to engage your memory retrieval or test your knowledge. In particular, re-reading your notes ranks as one of the most ineffective ways to learn, study for an exam, or retain information in your long-term memory.
So why are they so popular? Essentially, they're easy. Reading and highlighting your notes is easy. On top of that, it feels productive. We love reading a sentence and halfway through realizing, "Oh, yeah, I recognize this!" It feels good and gives us this false sense of confidence that we understand the topic. But if someone were to ask you unprompted for the clinical feature pathognomonic of acute tubular necrosis, chances are you would draw a blank. Because there is a big difference between actually remembering information and simply recognizing it. So, let's explore what is widely regarded as the most effective, high-yield learning technique: active recall.
What is active recall?
Active recall (a.k.a. active retrieval or practice testing) is a study method that flips the original way of learning on its head. Traditionally, students learn by trying to put information into their brains. With active recall, you learn by retrieving information from your brain. Although this may sound strange, in practice, it's very straightforward.
Active recall involves taking a topic you wish to learn, creating questions based on that topic, and then repeatedly testing yourself on those questions. By forcing your brain to retrieve the information, it ensures that you actively learn it instead of passively reading it. Not only are you significantly more likely to remember the information, active recall makes you acutely aware of topics that you don't yet understand and that require additional attention. Since incorporating active recall over the last few months, I've already noticed a difference in my understanding and knowledge. The pathophysiology of a condition is easily accessible, the key clinical features no longer elude my memory, and the first-line medication comes with little prompting.
Getting lots of practice answering questions is also excellent preparation for life on the wards as a junior doctor. Whether you are getting grilled by the on-call consultant or racking your brains for the most important causes of loss of vision, being able to recall information quickly and accurately is a crucial skill that's best mastered sooner rather than later!
What does the research say?
As mentioned previously, active recall is widely regarded in the scientific literature as the study technique that improves exam performance the most. The same 58-page meta-analysis on study techniques ranked active recall (named practice testing in the paper) as a high-utility study technique. Another two studies (this one and this one) evidence how students using active recall significantly outperform students that use passive study techniques, such as re-reading notes.
How can YOU incorporate active recall?Active recall can be easily incorporated into your current study in a number of ways. My method involves taking whatever learning resource you use—whether it be lecture slides, Osmosis videos, or your own written notes—and making a list of concise questions based on the content. When you next revise that topic, go straight to the questions and answer as many as you can without reading your notes. For any questions you get wrong, return to your notes afterward until you can answer the question correctly. Color-coding the questions based on whether you got them right (green) or wrong (red) is a helpful way of tracking progress. Integrating spaced repetition into your topics and questions is another scientifically-validated way to boost memory retention. Online question-based resources can also lend a helping hand, such as Passmedicine, Osmosis flashcards, and the BMJ question bank. Have a look around and see what works for you!
The cons of active recall
So, we've covered the pros of active recall; what are the downsides? I can sum up the cons in one sentence: active recall is hard work. Continually testing yourself requires significant cognitive effort compared to studying by simply reading and highlighting your notes. It can be disheartening when you are struggling to answer questions on a difficult topic, and the temptation to simply read your notes instead can be very strong. But do your best to persevere and thank yourself later!
Active recall is the most efficient, high-yield study technique that involves repeatedly testing yourself using questions created from your notes. A wealth of scientific research proves the efficacy of active recall in significantly boosting memory retention and test performance when compared to passively re-reading and highlighting notes. Incorporating active recall into your study methodology has the potential to maximize your learning efficiency and ace those pesky exams. Well, what are you waiting for?
Butler, A. C. (2010). Repeated testing produces superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 36(5), 1118.
Carrier, L. M. (2003). College students' choices of study strategies. Perceptual and Motor skills, 96(1), 54-56.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students' learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.
Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 331(6018), 772-775.
Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger III, H. L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: do students practise retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17(4), 471-479.
About Michael Owen
Michael Owen is a fourth-year medical student from Tring and a current member of the Osmosis Medical Education Fellowship program studying at the University of Birmingham in the UK. He is considering specializing in toxicology due to his previous experience as a researcher at the National Poisons Information Service. Michael enjoys playing football, guitar, and piano with friends to unwind and de-stress.
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