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How to Utilise Active Recall and Spaced Repetition To Study Effectively [Full Guide]

Since our childhood, we’ve been conditioned to study in a certain way. Statistically speaking, it’s mostly been re-reading, summarisation, highlighting or something along those lines. However, psychoanalysis in recent decades have proven otherwise. According to research published by Kent State University, summarisation, highlighting, mnemonics, imagery, and re-reading receive a low-utility assessment when tested on a group of students from varied backgrounds. This seems fundamentally wrong as it goes against the very grain of our academic intuition. So, lets take a deeper dive into the most effective way to study according to science!

What is Active Recall?

In one sentence, active recall is the process of actively stimulating ones memory for a snippet of information. And you’ve done it, you just don’t know about it. You’ve heard of a flash card, a studying tool where one side of the card contains the question and on the other side is the answer. The process of trying to remember the answer before flipping the card and checking if you were right or not is active recall. Your brain at that instance is in the mode of scouring through its vast library of information looking for one distinct information or data.

However, talking about active recall without mentioning retrieval practice is akin to talking about Oreos without talking about the filling. When we look at the cognitive physiological reasons behind the success of active recall, we come to realise that its the retrieval practice that’s helping us learn and internalise the information.

We all know that practice makes a man perfect, in the case of retrieval practice, we bring information to mind in order to enhance and boost learning. Repeatedly following through with recalling information results in us reflecting on our actual knowledge and pulling on our memory. Its quite intuitive actually, you must have seen that you remember something better when you work hard on recalling what it was instead of Googling that information.

Scientists in this field of study classify this method as the testing effect, even older research from 1930’s and 1990’s demonstrate that testing drastically improves learning.  And what is it that testing does? That’s right, it forces you to actively recall information and put it in writing.

Challenging learning leads to long-term learning

What is spaced repetition?

One thing a lot of you might be thinking after reading what I wrote about active recall before, you might be thinking that it takes too much time and you don’t necessarily have this time. So, here’s the solution for you, spaced repetition. Quite simply, by implementing and having time intervals between study sessions you do remember more even though you might be spending fewer hours studying.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, practitioners of spaced repetition leverage a neurological phenomenon known as the spacing effect which essentially describes how the brain learns most efficiently when learning is spaced out over time.

Work involving higher mental functions, such as analysis and synthesis, needs to be spaced out to allow new neural connections to solidify. New learning drives out old learning when insufficient time intervenes. 

– Pierce J. Howard, The Owner’s Manual for the Brain

The earliest pioneer of this learning style was a psychologist by the name of Hermann Ebbinghaus who systematically studied how memory is formed and retained by memorising a series of nonsensical syllables. Recording his ability to remember by varying the time intervals between his study sessions and how much he actually remember, he charted the rate at which memories “decay” with time and potrayed it by the forgetting curve.

What Is The Forgetting Curve (And How Do You Combat It)? - eLearning  Industry

So, how to study?

Now you know what the best practices are, so how do you implement this in your real-life application? What is the best distribution for spaced repetition? What are some of the best tools for active recall? Let’s answer those questions one by one.

So, according to research published in 2008 involving over 1000 subjects found that with respect to a predetermined test date, which is what you are probably going to face in real life, the optimal gap between first and second and the subsequent study sessions will vary depending on how far away the test is. One Benedict Carey accumulated data from research subjects and arrived at the following optimal intervals based on different testing dates.

Now when it comes to active recall, we have a couple of tools at our disposal. Now, it is understandable that a lot of you find it increasingly difficult to break from the habit of making notes, one technique that might serve to incorporate your older habit and make it better is to make notes with your book closed, i.e., instead of copy-pasting from your knowledge source, learn the topic orally, talk to your buddies about it, and finally, once you have a thorough understanding of the topic it is now time to write it down but without referring to the source material. However, after you have written down whatever you remember, open the book, see what you missed and start over the closed book practice again.

Another method which really helps out a lot of students is the Cornell Note-Taking Method where you write questions for future answering based on what you are sutyding. The idea is to make a list of questions instead of mere re-reading or highlighting which we’ve established to not be effective methods of learning. With this method, you are compelled to actively recall and engage your brain’s cognitive effort to retrieve the information in order to answer the questions thus improving connections between the brain and overall improving our effeciency and effectivity during learning.

About the author

Sayon Bhattacharya

A student, Quant Dev, Finance & Capital Market Enthusiast, and now a blogger on The Indian Wire living in the Financial Capital of India, Mumbai. Sayon is a multi faceted individual with limitless enthusiasm to enlighten the uninitiated in the realm of Finance and Business. He enjoys sharing his knowledge and understanding of current and core happenings in these domains with startling simplicity and ease of understanding. Stay tuned to know more about the latest happenings and be up to date with the market.

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  • There are also various spaced-repetition apps and services for those who are more into keeping huge amounts of small chunks for information memorized. An example is an online spaced-repetition site

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