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What is Active Recall?

Active Recall is the grandiose name that academics give to a relatively simple concept that all of us understand but most of us don’t know its name. It is probably the most valuable educational tool for every student preparing for tests and exams.

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Explaining Active Recall is best done with an example.

Consider meeting someone for the first time, learning their name, and then not seeing them for a year. It's likely you won't remember their name when you meet again. On the contrary, if you meet someone and interact with them multiple times over the year, you are likely to remember their name. Each interaction forces your brain to use Active Recall to retrieve their name, strengthening its place in your long-term memory.

Active Recall compels the brain to do something rather than passively absorbing information, making activities like playing quizzes a prime example of this technique.

In education, Active Recall stands out as one of the most valuable techniques for embedding knowledge in long-term memory, crucial for exam success in the current emphasis on examinations over prolonged coursework.


Understanding Passive Review

Passive Review is the opposite of Active Recall, relying on reading, watching, and listening, hoping the brain will remember. However, this one-sided approach often allows the mind to wander, leading to distractions and a lack of focus.

Unlike Active Recall, Passive Review can result in the need to re-read or re-watch due to inattention, highlighting its limitations.

Clarifying the Concept

The Wikipedia article on Active Recall provides a clear example: 'Reading about George Washington without further action is passive review, whereas answering the question "Who was the first US President?" is active recall.'

Avoiding Pitfalls

Terms like 'cramming' and 'swotting' are ingrained in student vocabulary, but the belief that more hours lead to better results is a misconception. Quality of revision outweighs duration; thoughtful engagement surpasses passive reading or listening.


Educational Challenges

While Active Recall is praised in education, getting students actively engaged is challenging. Traditional methods often resort to Passive Review due to practical limitations.

Reading, listening, and watching are valuable revision tools, but Active Recall, especially through quizzes, proves to be the most effective path to examination success.

A Personal Experience

The concept of Education Quizzes originated during my university computing course. Struggling with terminology, I created short questions and answers, employing Active Recall unknowingly. Revising with this method, I unexpectedly topped the class, sparking my mission to advocate for the value of quizzes.

Further Insights

  • “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.
  • “If you just read something or even rewrite your notes, your brain doesn't have to actively interpret and synthesize anything new, it's already there in front of you.” – Joe the Tutor in Use Active Recall if You Don't Want to Blank on Exams.
  • “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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