How to Use Active Recall While Studying

In this article, I talk about ineffective studying techniques such as rereading, highlighting and summarizing. These techniques are very popular but proved to be ineffective. Nonetheless, there are effective study techniques that we can apply for better results. One of these is an active recall.

What is active recall?

Active recall is a principle of learning that proved to be effective. The principle claims active stimulation of the memory while studying, instead of being passive (such as rereading or highlighting).

For example: reading a text about pneumonia repeatedly is completely passive while answering the question “what is the most common cause of pneumonia” is an active recall.

So, it’s an active process of retrieving information from our brain. Through this, we strengthen our memory and will have more chances to remember things. In addition, we improve neural pathways and build new synapses in our brain. Therefore, the probability to remember things is higher when we use active recall.

The evidence behind active recall

Research shows that active recall is the best strategy for learning. The research revealed it is the quickest, most effective, and most efficient technique to study. Applying active recall in learning in general, and in medicine can boost your performance and results. As a doctor, applying it throughout my career helped improve my performance and grades.

Here I conclude the major studies that explored active recall.

This study concludes the evidence about the active recall. In the study, it is called practice testing. Although it is efficient and can improve learning and memory, many students will delay performing testing till the end of their study period. The study even shows that many students do not use testing and treat it as unnecessary practice. But the evidence suggests the opposite.

In one study that presented a list of words for undergraduates, Two groups were compared; the first practiced active recall, and the second did not. Final test performance was significantly higher among those who practiced active recall (53% versus 36% after 10 minutes, 35% versus 4% after one week).

Another study examined the effectiveness of retrieval practice relative to other studying techniques. with concept mapping. In this study, 80 students studied a science text under one of four conditions: study once, repeated study, concept mapping (in which you construct a diagram of concepts linked together via links, and considered to be an active learning process), and active recall (retrieval practice). Then the student’s performance was tested at the end of the learning process and after one week.

Results are in the following graph:

results of research on active recall.

Results demonstrate that active recall outperformed other studying strategies, and produced the best learning. Nonetheless, students predicted that repeated studying would produce the best long-term retention (graph C), although the results prove the opposite.

Another study compared grades on course exams between three different groups: one used active recall, the second res-studying, and the third did not practice any strategy. Final course exam grades were significantly higher among those who used active recall. The difference was also significant when students were tested on repeated or new questions.

To conclude, The evidence from research suggests that:

active recall effects have been demonstrated across a wide range of practice-test formats, kinds of material, learner ages, outcome measures, and retention intervals. Thus, practice testing has broad applicability. Practice testing is not particularly time intensive relative to other techniques, and it can be implemented with minimal training

Therefore, we can conclude that the evidence is very strong and encourage students to use active recall during studying. Also, all the studies I mention above support that active recall is a better way of learning than rereading or highlighting text.

My Personal example

I also bet that we all have practiced active recall while learning medicine. In my first years of medical school, I tended to learn using the traditional way: rereading. Sometimes I took notes or used highlighting, but mainly I read the textbook again and again.

Throughout the years, I started to notice that active retrieval of information, asking questions, and practicing exams gave me a better understanding of the study material and improved my grades and my memory.

Towards my final exams in residency, I and a lot of my colleagues were aware of the fact that reading Harrison’s principles of internal medicine, again and again, will not improve our performance.

So we used active recall strategies by asking questions and practicing internal medicine exams. What we did was to write questions about every topic we learned, then try to answer them the best we can. That was an active recall of a textbook of more than 3000 pages, written in tiny letters. Sections in which we used this strategy, we remembered more efficiently rather than rereading them.

I used again the same strategy in my pulmonary medicine exams, I spent more than 45 days practicing exams and completing the necessary materials from the textbook. Passing the exams was so simple.

How to apply active recall while studying

So, the main question is how to apply active recall in your own studies? The evidence is very good, but what are the strategies you can use to apply active recall.

Everything that will get the information retrieved from your brain is good. Here, I suggest several strategies that can work to apply active recall.

Asking questions strategy

This is probably the most straightforward strategy to use active recall. You read the textbook once and start writing down questions about the material. Instead of just taking notes, write down questions for yourself.

That’s how you create a list of questions that you can answer later, and instead of rereading or reading your highlights, you answer your questions. The advantage here is using an active retrieval strategy instead of a passive one.

For example, when I studied the pneumonia section, I used to write down questions:

  • What are the most common causes of pneumonia?
  • What are the complications of pneumonia?
  • What is the first-line treatment for the community-acquired pneumonia?

And so on. You got the idea.

Later I would try to answer these questions.

Practice exams

Practicing exams is my favorite strategy. I used to dedicate enough time to practicing for exams and testing my knowledge. Then, I would go to the textbook and complete the missing information.

I used this strategy in all of my final medical exams, residency exams, and fellowship exams. The more advanced I become in my career, the more I dedicated time to practice exams.

This helped me retrieve information in a real exam setting mode. The process is active, enhances memory, and strengthens the synapse connections between neurons.

3R strategy: read-recite-review

The 3R strategy is very simple:

  1. Read the text once
  2. Recite out loud as much as you can remember from the test. This is the step of actively recalling the information. You can do it with alone or with a friend.
  3. Review the text you want to remember or study again, and make notes of the information you could not recite.

This strategy is very effective and supported by research.

Flash cards

Flashcards are another good strategy to use an active recall technique during studying. You can prepare your own flashcards while reading any study materials, preferred with questions and answers and just facts.

Flashcards can be used after reading the text to recall facts, answer questions, and more. By repeating them in a spaced fashion (Spaced Repetition), flashcards can be a great way to learn and study, and it’s one of the best strategies to use for actively recalling study materials.

I will continue with the example of pneumonia. While reading the textbook on pneumonia for the first time, we can write down flashcards our notes, and answers.


We usually use ineffective methods to study and prepare for exams, even though research and evidence are undeniable.

The scientific evidence shows clearly that active recall is the best way to learn and remember a new material and study it, and in fact, we all use it somehow in our studying process.

Active recall is probably the best learning technique that helped me pass tough exams in medical school. You should also follow the evidence if you want to achieve better results.

If you enjoy reading studying articles, read about the techniques you would avoid.

2 thoughts on “How to Use Active Recall While Studying”

    1. Here is what I used and I think can work:
      1. Ask questions that seems important to you while reading.
      2. Ask questions about things that seems to be difficult to remember or you struggle with.
      3. Ask questions that you know will be part of the exam. Usually, after solving some questions.

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