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Study Tips: Using Active Recall to save time revising

18 Awst 2021

Welcome to my second blog in my own mini-series on ‘Study Tips’ where I aim to share advice on different techniques that I have found useful. Hopefully, we can start discussions to share advice on how to boss the exams to get into university and beyond! Today, I shall discuss Active Recall.

Let’s say I give you a list of dates to remember for a history exam, or selection of drug names for a chemistry test to go and learn, how would you go about it?

Many would sit down, write out the information as a mind-map or highlight the relevant sections of a textbook and study the list over and over until it is dedicated to memory. But is spending your time passively reading and re-reading your notes over and over and mind-mapping your way to exhaustion really the best call of action?

The Testing Effect is a scientific finding that highlights how long-term memory performance can be dramatically improved by testing yourself on the exam-related knowledge throughout your revision (not just right at the end when you think you’ve got it).

There is considerable evidence in academic literature to support the efficacy of The Testing Effect, with participants outperforming those who passively re-read their revision notes. I’ll include a couple of links at the end if you don’t believe me! But for now, lets focus on how we can we incorporate it into our revision.

Active Recall

Active Recall is the method of activating The Testing Effect in your own studies. The idea is that when you sit down to revise you should be testing yourself on the relevant knowledge. By forcing yourself to remember different aspects of information, it becomes better cemented into your long-term memory ready for your exams. By revising in this method you are making a better use of your time, as the knowledge is more likely to stick!

So, a brain hack that improves your ability to remember exam content … sounds great! But what’s the the catch?

It’s hard!

Think of revising as a workout for the brain!

Lets quickly compare the process of revising to a workout. The best workouts leave you feeling tired and sore, as you have pushed yourself to the limit. Revision is much the same!

Mind-mapping and re-reading over notes is like a leisurely stroll. Usually, it is not a challenge, so its not going to have a massive effect on your cardio.

However, after a run around Roath Park you are more likely to find yourself huffing and puffing with your legs aching. But by increasing the intensity, your body will become stronger, fitter and more prepared for the next time.

Active Recall is your run around Roath Park. Yes, it is hard, but stick with it and you will notice a difference in your long-term memory.

But how do we incorporate Active Recall into our day-to-day revision?

Closed Book

Photo by Emmanuel Ikwuegbu on Unsplash

Closed Book revision is possibly the easiest way to perform Active Recall in practice. Just cover whatever revision notes or mind maps you already have with a sheet of paper, and start to recall what you have written down! Reciting your notes from memory is an easy way of testing yourself, particularly if you are trying to remember a process.


Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

This is my favourite form of Active Recall! In fact, I tend to jump straight to writing flashcards as my method of writing lecture notes. The question answer format tends to work the best for me, but you can also write down key facts, quotes, or explanations!

Quizzing with


Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Like flashcards, you can create a question answer format of important information and quiz yourself with friends. There are a tonne of benefits to revising with friends, such as:
• their notes might be different, which can challenge you on content you may not be familiar with or have left out of your own notes
• it can make revision less boring, as during your breaks you can go on coffee breaks together
• you can also create accountability and responsibility, where you feel inclined to keep to a study schedule and less likely to procrastinate the work

Asking Questions

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

When reading through your notes, perhaps take a step back and ask yourself to explain a key concept you come across. This can make the revision process more interactive and it is an easy way of progressing from a passive revision method to an active one.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog. Please leave a comment if you found it useful, or if you have any revision tips that you’d like to share! Perhaps I missed out a method of Active Recall that works for you!

Feel free to contact me on UniBuddy if you have any questions on the content covered.

Until till next time,

Nick 😊

Please find below a list of Journalistic Articles explaining the evidence behind active recall and the testing effect as promised:

Augustin, M. 2014. How to learn effectively in medical school: test yourself, learn actively, and repeat in intervals. The Yale journal of biology and medicine 87(2), pp. 207-212.

Dunlosky, J. et al. 2013. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14(1), pp. 4-58. doi: 10.1177/1529100612453266

McDaniel, M. A. et al. 2007. Testing the testing effect in the classroom. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology 19(4-5), pp. 494-513. doi: 10.1080/09541440701326154