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What is active recall and how effective is it?

By Sam Di Sano on 17 May 2018NSWstaffroomPedagogyInnovationUKstaffroom

Well if you believe the hype, active recall is better than reading, better than highlighting, crushes just listening and is better than watching. A technique that helps you remember better than any other strategy and if you want to improve your students’ grades, the best place to start is to incorporate active recall methods into your teaching.

So what exactly is active recall?

Active recall is the process of remembering information. It is an efficient way of moving information from short-term to long-term memory so that you can easily draw on it again when you need it most, such as for an assessment or exam. So the theory goes that if you want to remember a fact, don’t just read it, don’t reread it, don’t just underline or highlight it, close your eyes and try to recall it without looking it up in your notes or online. If you can successfully do so, you have used active recall. If not, look it up, learn it and then try again.

What’s the difference between review and recall

The key to using active recall for effective study is by making a distinction between recall and review, which I am going to do now:

1. Review

This is the step prior to using active recall. You can’t practice remembering something unless you know it and understand it well enough to remember it.

For example, if you ask your students: In what year was the Enabling Act passed? They probably wouldn’t be able to answer that without first being able to identify what the Enabling Act is and where that actually fits into the bigger picture. So out come the Germany notes to get a bit of context. This is reviewing.

Something that you do when you can’t quite remember something, your fallback position. Reviewing is the first step to using active recall.

2. Recall

This is the step where you focus on remembering without using any additional notes or tools, drawing only on your memory. It is also where many of us struggle the most because we don’t often practice how to actually commit information to our memory.

If your students can’t remember something without searching for clues or looking it up then they are not recalling it. Get them to go back to step one and try again.

This distinction separates success and failure. Only when you separate review and recall are you calling on your memory to remember what you have previously learned and no doubt stored somewhere in the recess of your brain.

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 which moves 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.

Is there evidence that it actually works?

One of the studies most often cited supporting the effectiveness of active recall is “The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning”, conducted by Jeffrey D. Karpicke (Department of Psychological Sciences, Purdue University) and Henry L. Roediger, III (Department of Psychology, Washington University in St. Louis). The results were published in Science Magazine, 15 February 2008.

Briefly, a group of college students were each given the same 40 foreign language vocabulary word pairs to learn, then were tested on all of them. Once a student recalled a word pair correctly just once, that word pair was treated in one of four ways:

  1. The student continued to study and be tested on all 40 word pairs
  2. The student no longer studied that word pair, but continued to be tested on it
  3. The student continued to study that word pair, but was no longer tested on it
  4. The student no longer studied and was no longer tested on that word pair

Students then returned one week later for a repeat follow up test. The results of the study showed the following results:

  • Students who used active recall were able to remember about 80% of the new terms compared to 34% for the control group who passively went back through a series of cards until they learned everything again.
  • This same research group did another study to compare active recall with both passive (i.e. reading) methods and elaborative (creating concept maps). The active recall group’s success rate again outshone the others by a margin greater than 50%.

What the research clearly shows

Based on the methodology used throughout this study and the outcome of the final test results, the researchers were able to conclude that the process of repeated testing (active recall) rather than repeated studying (passive methods) was the decisive factor for promoting correct recall from a student’s long-term memory.

By using interactive methods such as short quizzes and memory testing, information can be transferred from short-term to long-term memory storage.

While passive learning methods involve simply taking in information in a one-dimensional process, active recall allows for interaction and mastery, forcing the brain to retrieve, to process, and to come up with correct answers to questions.

By continuing to do practice tests over time and repeatedly retrieving that information from long-term memory, will allow your students to ultimately be able to effectively recall this information when they needed it most. So keep setting short quizzes and recall activities for your students and see the results for yourself.

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