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Active Recalling: Your ultimate exam preparation tool

August 2, 2021 by Wajiha Yasmeen in Exam Preparation, Student Life 8 min read

Active Recalling: Your ultimate exam preparation tool

We have all experienced the panic of forgetting an important equation, formula or quotation in the middle of a very important exam. The toe-curling anxiety and gut-wrenching stress makes it difficult for your brain to function properly. Suddenly, you start forgetting answers to every question like a domino effect. Despite how many times you revised it last night, you just can’t seem to recall it. If you can relate to this, then active recalling is what you need. Keep reading to understand its what, why ,and how.

What is active recalling?

Active recalling refers to the exercise of stimulating your brain to retain a certain piece of information. How does it differ from passive recalling or revising? You might ask. Well, to clear your confusion let’s start with an example to demonstrate the difference between the two. 

Suppose you are reading an article about anthropological activities causing the Greenhouse effect. If you pause every few minutes and work your brain muscles by recalling an important piece of information every few minutes, such as what is the major contributor to the Greenhouse effect, etc. This is called active learning.

To put it into perspective, passive learning is to test your brain for information retrieval at the end of the learning process while active learning is to continuously test your memory at various points of the learning process.

What are the advantages of active recalling?

Active recalling is a super helpful and efficient technique to learn a new skill or concept. Especially for students who come across various new concepts each day and have to recall a gazillion of them during yearly assessments. Here is how incorporating this learning technique in your exam preparation strategy can enhance your chances of scoring top marks. 

Tests you: forces you to remember crucial information and implants it in your long-term memory.

Highlight your mistakes: let’s you identify the gaps in your memory.

Time-saving: Might be time-consuming in the start but once your brain muscles catch up to speed, learning difficult concepts becomes second nature.

Cements your knowledge: Solidify your concepts through rigorous recalling.

See also  10 Interesting Facts About the Limits of Our Memory

Scientific Evidence supporting active recalling

Not convinced yet? We totally understand, let’s look into a scientific study conducted in 2011, backing this learning approach. In this experiment scientists divided students into 4 groups. They were all given the same text but their tasks were different.

  • First group was tasked to read the given text only once.
  • Second group was asked to read the given text four times.
  • Third group read and made a mind map of the text.
  • Fourth group employed active recalling.

By the end of the research, scientists concluded that the test subjects using active learning significantly outperformed other members in both factual and conceptual learning.

Ways to learn active learning strategy

Is the evidence enough? If yes, then let’s get down to business and see how you can master this technique to unlock a successful future.


This simple yet powerful method involves five steps;

  • Skim: Quickly scan or skim through the reading material
  • Question: Make a list of all the questions that come to mind
  • Read: Read the material again actively to find answers to the above questions
  • Retrieve: Try to remember all the information that you have learned yet. Find answers to the questions. Try to avoid the urge of referring to the reference material at all costs. Make every effort to recall all the answers with a closed book. This is the most important step as you are jogging your brain cells, forcing them to stay active.
  • Review: Lastly, open the book and fill in the gaps.

Feynman Technique

One of the globally acclaimed practices and also supported by the scientific community is the Feynman Technique. Invented by the famous American Physicist, Richard Feynmann, suggests to teach the newly learned concept to a layman. If you are able to answer all of their questions and help them understand complex concepts, then you have perfectly stored them in your memory. If not, then keep going back and revising.


This is highly effective for visual learners. Make small colourful flashcards, write questions on one side of it and answer on the other side. Use them while revising, especially a few hours before the exam.

To sum it up, active recalling is the act of reaching back to exercise your brain muscles time and time again while studying. Instead of reading something passively and then asking questions, you set small milestones and then engage your muscles. 


Wajiha Yasmeen
Author: Wajiha Yasmeen

Biography of Wajeeha Yasmin

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