What is active recall and how effective is it?

Kasey Lawless

Marketing Coordinator at Atomi


min read

Do you find yourself studying for hours, only to find that not much information has stuck? That might be because you haven't committed what you’re studying to your long-term memory. In other words, it’s just loitering around in your short-term memory! Well, active recall is designed to move that information to where it belongs.

So what is active recall?

Think of a piece of information as a passenger on a train–and that train happens to be your brain! That passenger keeps getting off too early at the short-term memory stop instead of staying on board until they arrive at long-term memory station! Frustrating.                               

Well, thats where active recall comes in. It's a process designed to keep that passenger on board until they arrive at long-term memory station. Once that information (ahem, I mean passenger) gets to your long-term memory, you’ll be able to find it again when you need it most, such as for an assessment or exam. 

How do I practice active recall?

When you’re trying to remember information, avoid simply reading, rereading, or underlining it. Instead, close your eyes and try to recall it from memory without checking your notes or searching online. If you can successfully do so, you have used active recall, it has been committed to your long-term memory. If not, that information is still chilling out in your short-term memory–look it up, learn it and then try again.

Review vs recall

Although review and recall sound really similar, they’re not but they’re both part of the active recall process. Here’s why:

1. Review

Review is what we use before we get to the active recall stage. It’s essentially the broader context that your brain needs in order to understand a piece of information. For example, you ask yourself: in what year did the ‘Battle of the River Plate’ take place?’ To answer that, you'd need to first identify what the 'Battle of the River Plate' is and understand its significance in the larger context. Knowing that it relates to World War II, you grab your world history notes to gain further context. Reviewing is the fallback position you use when you can't quite remember something. It's also the first step in employing active recall.

2. Recall

Recall is the next step, and it requires you to focus on remembering without relying on any additional notes or tools so that you’re relying solely on your memory. This is where many of us get stuck as we often don't practice committing information to memory.

If you find yourself unable to remember something without searching for clues or looking it up, you're not truly recalling it. In such cases, it's best to go back to step one and try again. Being able to go from using review to recall is crucial in retaining information, it is only when you can distinguish between reviewing and recalling that you are truly tapping into your long-term memory.

Active recall vs passive review

Active recall works because it is based on the principle that in order to learn and remember your material, you need to stimulate your brain to recall something from your long-term memory. But how do you actually do that?

Repeated testing

Repeatedly asking yourself a question and then challenging your brain to retrieve the answer is an interactive exercise that will move information from your short-term to long-term memory. Once the information is stored in your long-term memory, that’s when you can successfully recall it at some point in the future (like in a test). If you only passively review your material (like simply reading it), the information won’t transfer as readily, so you may not be able to remember this information as easily, if at all, in the future.

Continuing to do practice tests over time and repeatedly retrieving that information from long-term memory, will allow your brain to be able to effectively recall this information when it is needed most. So keep setting short quizzes and recall activities for yourself and the results will become evident. 

Good luck!


Published on

May 2, 2024

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