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How Not to Forget: Active Recall

Updated: Jan 6

Recall vs. Recognition

We’ve all been there: It’s trivia night, you know you've heard the answer before, but you just can't remember it. Greg says the answer, and your mind says, “Of course!”

You recognized the answer, but Greg recalled it. In other words, recognition is seeing the right answer and knowing it’s right; recalling is being able to come up with the right answer unassisted.

Recalling is a much harder skill than recognition and is crucial for higher order thinking like putting concepts together or taking a deep-dive into a topic. Recognition can get the job done if the job only requires passive identification, such as with more basic multiple-choice problems. In the academic world cramming is a common strategy to develop recognition, but that fleeting knowledge disappears just as quickly as it came.

If you only need to remember names for a weekend conference, then recognition may be what you’re looking for. But, for long-term knowledge, active recall is the way to go.

More Effort = More Learning

You may be thinking, “I feel like I know the subject more when answering multiple choice questions than when free writing an answer. Doesn’t that mean recognition works better than recall?” I wish it did!

Sadly, the fact that recall feels harder, more awkward, and slower is the precise reason why it works better. The extra effort required means the connections in the brain are stronger than those made when only recognizing. Indeed, research suggests information learned while recalling is processed differently than that learned while recognizing – leading to better long-term memory.

The takeaway: the more you use active recall, the more uncomfortable learning feels, and the more it works!

Stop Reviewing Notes! Stop Re-reading!

Reviewing notes and re-reading texts have both been found to be “low-yield” study techniques – meaning there is minimal long-term learning in comparison to the time put in.

One of the reasons why is that both fall into the recognizing, not recall, category of study techniques. Another is that these techniques create false confidence. Progress is often more noticeable while re-reading or reviewing notes, which can create a feeling that you know something when you really don't yet.

One common cause of this false confidence is that you feel like you “get it” simply because you are more familiar with the presentation of the information. For example, on reviewing your notes you may start to have the structure of the notes almost memorized: "First is the cell wall, then the mitochondria, and I know the nucleus is next."

Another example is that a graph is usually easier to understand on a second reading than on the first. However, being more comfortable with a text is not the same as truly knowing the information. Often, increased fluency with the text means that you understand the author’s style or structure more easily, but this does not mean you understand the concepts enough to be able to use the information in the future.


In Practice

Better Note-taking

For note-taking, I recommend trying out various methods including SQ3R (especially for dense reading), Cornell Method, Outline Method, and Mind Mapping/Spider Mapping and seeing what works best for you and the subject you are studying. The overall goal is for notetaking to:

  1. Improve learning on initial reading or listening

  2. Make it easier to process the information afterwards for continued studying

On point 2, knowing that we want to study using recall, you best strategy is to have notes that are easy to make questions and answers from.

Even better? Write your notes as questions and answers from the beginning. Alternatively, you can go through the notes after the lecture/reading and create questions and answers. Yet another option is to do a combination of the two – directly create questions for easier topics and create questions later for topics that need more research.

Using cell biology as an example topic, we want to generate questions like, “What does the mitochondria do in the cell?” or “How is the cell wall structured?” and include the answers.

We will discuss more specifics on generating questions in later articles, but my overall advice is to write the questions that you have while reading or listening in addition to the questions the text explicitly answers. For example, for this Wikipedia paragraph on the cell:

Nucleus: This functions as the genome and genetic information storage for the cell, containing all the DNA organized in the form of chromosomes. It is surrounded by a nuclear envelope, which includes nuclear pores allowing for transportation of proteins between the inside and outside of the nucleus. [...] This is also the site for replication of DNA as well as transcription of DNA to RNA. Afterwards, the RNA is modified and transported out to the cytosol to be translated to protein.

these might be the questions & answers I generate:

  • Why is the nucleus important?

  • It stores all the genetic information for the cell.

  • How is genetic information stored in the nucleus?

  • As chromosomes made from DNA

  • What surrounds the nucleus?

  • The nuclear envelope.

  • How do proteins get in and out of the nucleus?

  • There are nuclear pores in the nuclear envelope

  • Where does DNA replicate?

  • In the nucleus, DNA --> RNA.

  • Where is RNA translated?

  • In the cytosol

I may still have questions, like those below. I would want to either go back to the text to see if it answers the questions or refer to outside sources.

  • What is the structure of the nuclear pores in the nuclear envelope?

  • Why is RNA translated in the cytosol and not the nucleus – is there a benefit?

· I wrote the questions and answers in my own words.
· I tried to narrow questions to one fact or one concept.
NOTE: You may already know that genetic information is stored as chromosomes, at which point you wouldn’t need to take a note on it!

Another great method for reading is to practice recalling while reading. This means reading a paragraph, closing the book, and asking yourself, “What was the point of the paragraph? What did it say? Was there evidence? How was the evidence structured? What questions do I have?” etc.

First, try answering these questions as if explaining it to someone else. Then, open the book and skim the paragraph to see if you were right. If any questions remain unanswered, write them down. This technique can be used in conjunction with the notetaking above for a deeper understanding.

Better Review

My favorite way to initially check my grasp of a concept is derived from the Feynman Learning Technique. In short, you try to explain the concept to someone else in the simplest terms possible.

This could be explaining it to someone or even pretending to explain it to someone. Either way, while trying to explain it you will find any gaps in your knowledge that need to be filled in.

A second method is to test yourself. I strongly recommend doing this in the form of creating flashcards, with the questions you generated on the front and the answers in the back.

If you are in an academic class and the instructor has provided learning questions, or even previous tests, then even better – these are ideal questions to use! A great flashcard app is Anki, which is free on most platforms.

NOTE: For those doing test prep, I recommend flashcards only for learning underlying concepts or facts – not as a way to practice problems. Even after solving a problem only once, you may simply remember the answer instead of the concept – which goes back to the recognition vs. recall issue.


Sources and Additional Resources

Brown, P. et al. (2014). Make it stick: the science of successful learning. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

I highly recommend the book Make It Stick by Roediger, McDaniel, and Brown. I had come across most of the information in the book before, but it is certainly the best summary and explanation of these topics – in addition to the most comprehensive resource – I have found.

As the authors note in Ch. 1, “we circle through these topics several times along the way”; they do so intentionally to improve understanding and memory. The concepts above are all discussed throughout the book.

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