Have you ever struggled with retrieval of previously studied information during exams? Does re-reading a specific topic lead to any substantial benefit in overcoming the setback caused by the natural phenomenon of “Volatile Memory”?
As a foreign medical student in Pakistan, I found myself staring at a similar dilemma, which forced me to the start my quest of exploring effective memorization techniques.
Although the “Memory Palace Technique” used by Memory Champions seemed promising, its execution is rather difficult. During these tumultuous times, I stumbled across the wonderful concept of “Active Recall”, and my life has never been the same.

Active recall is a principle of efficient learning, which requires active stimulation of memory during learning.”

Most of the research thus far has been focused on stuffing our brain with information, but it has been recently discovered that retrieval and application of knowledge at the required time is the real game changer.

Active recall in academic setting:

Explaining it with an example:

Consider a situation, in which you are studying for an anatomy exam.

Non-Active Recall Scenario: X reads and re-reads popliteal fossa 20 times and then thinks everything has been transferred to his brain and moves on.

Active Recall Scenario: X reads the topic, but to find out whether he has memorized the topic or not he tests him/herself on a couple of questions either from past papers or a question pool. For example; (clinical scenario-based questions were avoided intentionally)

  1. The shape of popliteal fossa is ___________.
  2. Importance of popliteal fossa?
  3. What are its contents and boundaries?

X answers, a and c, but doesn’t know the answer to b. He/she goes back and revises the topic from the book and then tries answering the question.

The same goes for the diagrams, he/she looks at it as a flashcard; with labels and then without the labels, trying to identify the structures of the popliteal fossa.

Active recall in a non-academic setting:

A study by Peter E. Morris was done in 2005. According to the study, he tested people’s ability to remember the names of individuals at a party. He found that the people who remembered names just by looking at the faces were not as successful as the ones who practiced the active recall method. In the first case, people only remembered five individuals with correct names whereas those who did active recall, remembered 11 names correctly.

How practical is active recall?

Professor Jeffrey Karpicke, in his study showed that active recall outperformed other methods of learning.

He gave 80 undergraduate students a science text to read and compared the test results a week later, for those who read the text once, four times, those who drew a concept map and those who actively recalled, trying to remember as much information as possible without looking at the text. Those who read it once did very poorly on the test, those who re-read did better but still far from acceptable. Concept map drawers took the same time to learn but did half as good as those who tried retrieving the information actively. He also discussed the results of this experiment in one of his videos.

How does re-reading and highlighting value against active recall?

Professor John Dunlosky did a study for determining the best method of learning. He stated that re-reading and highlighting were ranked as low utility techniques, whereas practice testing, which is a form of active recall was ranked as a high utility technique. A review paper, published in Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine by Marc Augustin, highlighted that medical students, ought to use active recall technique to retain the vast amounts of information they learn in schools and research.

Why active recall works?

Professor Karpicke says that active recall works because it not only helps to store the information, but also helps to sort and connect other pieces of information already stored in our brain, which makes retrieval of the information better and easier.

I found that understanding the topic, then explaining it to self (aloud), followed by questioning, works wonders. Also, writing short notes will later help in quickly recalling the buried information and help in spaced repetition.

The biggest drawback of this technique is that it takes a lot of brainpower and you may face a lot of initial inertia and laziness. The situation may be difficult and discouraging for some people. Don’t waste your time when you experience difficulty in recalling some information. Just revise it again with undivided attention and try to practice active recalling. It will help you retain specific information you once forgot due to lack of focus while studying. One should never lose orientation while studying; revise, recall and you will be rewarded with greater retention of the intricate details you studied!


Written By: Zia Uddin

About the writer

Zia Uddin, is a second year med-school student. Loves to write about productivity, science, philosophy and religion.



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