5 Powerful Active Recall Strategies

Hi, friends. Today I’m publishing a guest post by Kay from Smart Student Secrets. I love this post because it’s full of great information and actionable tips on how to incorporate this information into your study strategies. I hope you enjoy it!

I used to struggle with tests before I learned to use active recall for studying.

The test would be sitting in front of me. I would be scrunching up my face thinking, “I know this… I think I know this… What was that answer again…” I would come up with answers but I never had any confidence because it was always a struggle. This is a problem that I now understand.

I was familiar with the material but I didn’t know it well. This is the problem that active recall solves.

You shouldn’t have to struggle to remember everything on your tests. You’re not a bad test taker. You just need to learn a few new strategies. These strategies can increase your test scores and turn you into a top-notch test-taker.

It gets better than that too. You’ll also save a ton of time learning for class.

In active recall, you need to practice remembering “it” to remember “it.” “It” is whatever you need to study.

What Is Active Recall?

Active Recall is a principle of learning. Here is the simple way to understand it:

You need to practice remembering “it” to remember “it.” “It” is whatever you need to study.

The most common active recall tool students use is a set of flashcards. When you read one side of a flashcard and then remember what’s on the other side, you’re using active recall. If you flip the flashcard over without remember then you’re not using active recall…

In active recall, you need to practice remembering “it” to remember “it.” “It” is whatever you need to study. Click To Tweet

You shouldn’t just read your textbook. You should also spend time remembering the information you read in the textbook.

There are plenty of different ways students study. You’ll notice most of the usual study methods don’t use active recall:

Reading your textbook: If the information is sitting open in front of you then you’re not going to be spending much time having to remember it. You can just scan back at the page to get any information you need. That helps you get familiar with the material but it doesn’t help you remember it.

Highlighting: Highlighting information just encourages more reading. It can be useful for organizing information but it’s not using active recall. It draws your attention right to the information you should be trying to remember.

Rewriting notes: Rewriting notes is usually just copying stuff you already have written somewhere else. That doesn’t help use active recall either. (Unless you get creative and write sections of your notes without looking back.)

You’ll notice these are some of the most popular studying strategies around. As Aaron from Smart Student Secrets (where I usually write) would say, “feeling good studying isn’t always the same as doing good studying.” Using active recall can be tougher than these strategies in the short term. In the long term, using it makes tests easier. Which do you prefer, easy studying or easy tests? Active recall will make taking tests easier.

This is one great way to make test taking less stressful.

How Valuable is Active Recall Anyway?

Experiments have been going on for years on active recall. In 2011 an experiment by Karpicke and Blunt showed that active recall performed 50% better than concept mapping in every single way. The participants that used active recall even performed better on concept mapping tests.

So How Can You Use Active Recall Strategies?

#1 Flash Cards

Flash cards are the classic active recall tool. You probably already know how to use these. On one side you have a question or a trigger. On the other side you what the answer or what you’re trying to remember.

This strategy has been popular for decades now for a good reason. The process of writing the flashcards is perfect for familiarizing yourself with what you need to remember. After you’re familiar with the material you can use the flash cards. This is where active recall kicks in.

When you’re using flash cards, you know whether you’re succeeding or not. There is no easy way to cheat. When you look at the first side of the card, you either know what’s on the other side is or you don’t. If you succeed you’ll know it. If you don’t then you’ll know to keep practicing.

Flash cards are great but they have their disadvantages. They can be time consuming to make and every time you have a new test you’re going to have to make more.

#2 Teaching

Teaching is an amazing process. It helps others and it helps you.

If you can teach someone else what you want to remember then you’ll remember it better. No… lecturing by reading out of your notes doesn’t count.

When you’re trying to explain something to someone else, you’re forced to explore it from multiple perspectives. You need to make sure what you’re saying it true but you also have to think about what they’re hearing.

If something doesn’t make sense then you’ll notice it. If you don’t notice then they’ll notice it. They’ll be asking questions that make you think about it from a new angle.

This process allows you to remember the things you’ve already learned while giving you more perspective on what you still need to learn.

This is one of my favorite ways to learn but it comes with the challenge of always needing someone willing to listen. (Well… not really… I’ve taught a wall once or twice in my life. Unfortunately, the wall is awfully quiet when it comes time for questions.)

#3 Read To Remember

Reading your textbook the traditional way isn’t great for memorizing. I’ll admit it though. It’s super convenient to try and read to study. You don’t need to write anything down. You don’t need extra tools with you. You just have the information you need. The problem is, if you’re not paying attention then it just doesn’t work!

Here is what you can do to make it work:

  1. Read a short section.
  2. Close your eyes and remember the short section.
  3. Open your eyes and verify you remembered it correctly.

This is a much faster strategy than using flashcards but there are a few things you should pay attention to:

  • Ideally, do this process on your own notes
  • Consider repeating it for your textbook if you’re pushing for a super high score
  • Don’t just remember the section word for word. Remember it thought for thought.
  • Be familiar with the material before starting.
  • Repeat this process more than once.
  • Do not keep all the sections in order while reviewing it.

This is a great strategy but it’s super easy to cheat with. If you’re not genuinely remembering the information then you need to know that.

#4 Practice Testing

Taking tests gets a whole lot easier when you’ve had plenty of practice.

Make time for practice testing.

Most of the tests you’re going to take don’t have practice tests available through the class. That’s okay. You still have some good options:

  • Textbook quizzes
  • Online tests on the subject
  • Redoing old tests (particularly if you’re preparing for mid-terms or finals.)
  • Creating your own tests

Take your practice exams just like you’d take your usual exams. No cheating! Try to imagine you’re in a real test. This can make test day a little more comfortable because you’re used to feeling the stress.

Have you ever had a day when you just didn’t want to have to study? These are the perfect days to spend creating your own practice tests. Take your notes and textbook and see if you can create a test that will completely stump you. (Don’t create a test you know you can pass right now. Create a test that will take some serious studying to kick-butt on. That will motivate you to study better.)

#5 Create Something Awesome

This one doesn’t look like an active recall strategy, but it’s actually one of the most powerful.

Take the subject you’re studying and try to create something related to it that you’ll find fun. This can look very different depending on the subject you’re studying. For example:

In History: Create counter-narratives. What would happen if something else happened in History? If you’re studying World War I, then you might ask, “what would happen if the Tsar didn’t fall in Russia?” How would that have changed history?

In Math: Create problems. Do you ever get sick of solving problems in math? Well… try creating a problem that you can solve. Work backwards to make it even more interesting. What do you want the answer to be? Use the stuff you’re studying to work backwards from the answer. This idea was inspired by Aly’s article Clever Study Techniques For Your Math Class

In English Lit: Change perspectives. What would a new main character in the story change? What would they see differently? Would it still be the same genre?

This doesn’t look like it involves much remembering at first glance but try it a few times and you’ll understand.

Creating something and staying consistent with an existing set of facts is difficult. You need to be intimately familiar with the details to do a good job.

Start by creating a rough draft based on your memory. Then dig back into the facts or your textbooks and try to find your own inconsistencies. Then step away and try to create something else.

This process can be fun and completely draining. I recommend saving it for subjects that you’re really dedicated to understanding completely. It’s not the fastest or easiest strategy but it can do a surprising amount of good over time.

How do you use active recall to prepare for tests? Do you have any awesome strategies that I missed? Tell me in the comments below! 😀

Kay is a UME double major with a 3.7 GPA despite her low stress study strategies. She writes at Smart Student Secrets. She can’t wait to see you there!

  • Kay


    Thanks to Aly for publishing my article.

    And thank you for reading it!

    Be sure to ask any questions you have because I’d love to help!


  • Raymond

    It feels like you’re making fun of students but isn’t this obvious ?