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Active Recall for Fast and Efficient Revision

Why this Revision Technique Works so Well Illustration of a brain working

Teachers, educationalists and scientists often have complicated names for things. To make matters worse they often have many different names for the same thing. In our case, you might find that they refer to Active Recall as practice testing, test-enhanced learning, the testing effect or retrieval practice. They all mean the same thing but what exactly DO they mean?

We all use Active Recall all the time but we don’t usually associate it with a study technique. Every time we remember something we “actively recall” what we already know. Let’s look at the true value of that process with a simple illustration…

Suppose you are introduced to someone for the first time, you’re told their name but then you don’t see them again for a year. It’s almost certain that you won’t remember their name when you next meet.

Contrast that with someone you are introduced to and then speak to a few times during the next year. It’s almost certain you WILL remember their name. Each time you speak to the person, your brain is forced to use Active Recall to retrieve their name. The more often you retrieve their name the more firmly it becomes embedded in your long-term memory.

What is Active Recall?

Active Recall is a way of compelling your brain to do something instead of just requesting that it absorb something. Playing a quiz is a prime example of Active Recall.

Teachers constantly ask students to remember what they have learned, and in the classroom they frequently use quizzes. Certainly, this helps the teacher understand the depth of a student’s learning but the MAIN reason teachers do this is to compel their students to get their brain into gear – to remember things and thereby consolidate and embed the learning.

Quizzes are the most widely used and the most effective way to employ Active Recall


What is Passive Review?

Passive Review is the opposite of Active Recall. Passive Review involves reading, watching and listening in hopes that our brain will remember things.

The problem with Passive Review is that it’s a one-sided affair which invariably permits the student’s brain to go to sleep. You know from your own experience that reading a book, listening to a teacher or watching an educational video gives your mind freedom to wander wherever it chooses. All too often, an active mind chooses to think about something more exciting like what’s for dinner, Manchester United’s home game or your next Facebook post.

Teaching Methods

It is widely acknowledged in the teaching profession that Active Recall has much to commend it but it’s not easy for a teacher to get 30 students in front of him/her actively engaged in doing something in order to stimulate their minds. And it’s almost impossible for a book or a video to get students actually doing something. For these reasons Passive Review is the fallback position for most teaching systems.

Passive Review is a revision technique that allows your mind to wander.. Active Recall insists that you stay focussed and is therefore MUCH more effective.


Beware the Enemy Within

The words ‘cramming’ and ‘swotting’ have become inextricably ingrained in the vocabulary of students. So much so that many students mistakenly believe that the more they swot and cram, the better will be their exam results. All too often this leads to a false sense of security because students think they have put the hours in and therefore good results are a given. Sadly, this is not the case.

Make no mistake, the quality of revision is far more important than the duration. One hour of thoughtfully doing something is more valuable than two hours of passively reading or listening.

Still Confused?

The Wikipedia article on Active Recall gives this insightful definition: ‘Reading a text about George Washington, with no further action, is a passive review. Answering the question “Who was the first US President?” is active recall’.


There is no doubt that reading, listening and watching are valuable tools in a student’s revision armoury but Active Recall (especially playing quizzes) adds another dimension.

When it comes to revision, quality is MUCH more important than quantity and quizzes are exceptionally high quality.


A Personal Note

The whole concept of Education Quizzes was developed during the time I was studying a university course in computing. The systems analysis element of the course involved learning terminology and definitions that I struggled to get my head around and as a result I was constantly confusing one thing with another.

With the help of the books provided by the university, I wrote pages for myself consisting of a series of short, sharp questions with answers underneath each one. By employing a blank piece of paper, I could uncover one question at a time and then try to recall the answer before revealing it. I worked on this in revision sessions before the exam. Unknowingly, I was employing Active Recall.

To the astonishment of my classmates and the complete disbelief of my tutor I came top of the class! That was the inspiration for Education Quizzes. Interactive quizzes, written by teachers, are much less clumsy than me and my scribbled pieces of paper!


Authoritative Further Reading on this Important Revision Technique

“The mere presence of a question forces our minds to pay attention and focus on the topic” – Christopher Pappas in 6 Ways To Enhance Active Recall in eLearning.

“Results demonstrate the critical role of retrieval practice in consolidating learning and show that even university students seem unaware of this fact” – Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Henry L. Roediger in The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning.

“Multiple retrievals in multiple contexts are superior for long-term retention (think frequent, low-stakes quizzes which are cumulative)” – Chelan Huddleston in Memory and Recall.

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