Active recall is the active use of memory during the learning process. It requires focused attention on recalling and using information to improve your language skill.
This can be contrasted with passive learning, where you allow knowledge to come to you in a passive way without actively straining to decode meaning or recall a concept.
For example, relaxing and watching a TV show or reading over your study notes.
While passive activities such as simply watching a show are generally much more enjoyable and easier to do in large amounts, active recall is more efficient in terms of progress per hour spent.
Active learning by using your content for focused study will let you gain new knowledge faster.
At the same time, learning a language takes enormous amounts of input and there is no way to realistically expose yourself to all the forms and words you need without large amounts of passive learning.
Be sure you are doing both types of learning. You may find it better to use more difficult resources for active learning and easier ones for passive learning.
Active Recall Strategies
So, how can we apply active recall in our own studies? Are there any strategies that are more effective?
Well, first of all, almost anything we do that requires us to use cognitive effort and brain power to retrieve information is going to be helpful. However, more specifically, below are a few approaches that we’ve found useful.
If you can’t quite break the habit of making notes, one particularly helpful strategy is making notes with your book closed.
Instead of copying directly out of the textbook, try to learn a topic before writing out how you would explain the key points and key concepts in your own words but with the book closed.
Once you’ve written down as much as you can remember, open the book and add the parts you missed.
This may sound simplistic and, in many respects, it is!
However, it is particularly effective when preparing for an exam when you need to make essay plans and, in order to commit them to memory, try to draw spider diagrams of each plan with the book closed.
Draw out as much as you can from memory and afterwards go back to your actual plan and fill in any information that was missing.
Repeat this for about two months in the lead up to the exams – combining active recall with spaced repetition – and by the time the exams come round you will have a good grasp of a large number of essays, each with references, which you’ll be able to then draw upon in the exam.
So it’s a simple strategy but if it can work for university exams, you can find a way of making it work for your personal needs too.
Alternative to Making Notes
Despite evidence showing that note-taking isn’t an effective revision technique, it still feels intuitively productive to write things down, right?
Try to adapt this desire to make notes and begin to write questions for yourself.
This strategy resembles the ‘Cornell Note-Taking’ method – the process of writing questions for yourself based upon the material in the syllabus.
This produces a list of questions with the main idea being that instead of passively rereading or highlighting the information as we’re often tempted to do, we’re forced to actively engage in cognitive effort to retrieve the information to answer the questions which strengthens connections between information in our brains and improves our ability to recall that information in an exam.
In essence, writing questions forces you to engage in cognitive effort and the more brain power it takes to recall a fact, the more mentally taxing your studies are and the more you’re going to gain from the time you put into revision.