What is active recall? Plus free notion template!

by | Jun 14, 2021

Want to know something interesting? We, students, take notes all the time in school. Primary, Secondary, JC or Poly and University.

A huge part of our time is spent making notes. Yet the way we do it doesn’t really help us.

Studies have shown that passive techniques like highlighting, re-reading and summarizing don’t really help memory.

And sadly, that’s what most students do.

Apart from other study techniques that like the Pomodoro technique that focuses on productivity.

This article introduces an memory technique that has helped many score and excel in their exams: Active recall.

What is Active Recall?

A girl thinking about something

Oftentimes students make the mistake of trying to digest massive walls of texts through highlighting and countless times of rereading.

This is otherwise known as passive review.

Though it can work for some people, it is a daunting and tedious task that is generally less effective as compared to active recall.

As the name suggests, active recall engages your mind and spurs it to work better and more efficiently.

Active Recall relies on the principle of triggering your brain to memorise certain pieces of information using other means, such as using flashcards and repeatedly testing yourself, aside from reading and highlighting.

In short, active recall is the process of absorbing as much information as possible, and storing this information in our brains so we can obtain this more easily in the future.

Why does Active Recall work?

This is a much more effective and efficient way to ingrain specific and important details into your brain.

A 2011 study was conducted to assess how well a student’s retention of information was under different conditions. This study made use of the active recall method of repeatedly questioning and testing in order to see its effectiveness.

There were 4 groups of students tested under different conditions:

  • The first group would read the given text once.
  • The second group would read the given text four times.
  • The third group would read the text once and make a mind map.
  • The fourth group would read the text once, and recall as much as they could shortly thereafter.

These groups of students would then be subjected to a test to see how much they could remember the text, and the fourth group did significantly better than the other three groups.

This thus exemplifies by taking in information only once and trying to test yourself at least once could yield significantly better results in recalling them.

By using active recall methods instead of passively reviewing information, you are able to save a lot more time while achieving much higher efficiency in your study time.

What are some active recall study methods?

I. Closed book note taking


An extremely simple way to use active recall is to internalize information through closed-book note-taking.

Instead of copying and pasting words from your textbook or worksheets, you should learn and read through a certain chapter or topic before writing down anything.

Once done, put aside your study materials and try to create your own notes, without any reference to the original text.

Try to explain key concepts and information using terms that are both accurate and easy for you to understand. Once you have jotted down as much as you can recall, refer back to the source material and fill up the parts that you overlooked.

This is useful for topics that involve more complex ideas and theories, where materials distributed by schools may be difficult to digest.

With this active recall technique, you’re more able to grasp the concept at hand, and will thus be able to memorise information efficiently. 

II. Asking relevant questions

To build on the previous point, it is also essential to keep asking yourself questions related to the topic; be it adding questions to your notes or asking yourself out loud.

Through this, you actively engage your mind to retrieve answers to these questions.

One effective method is to look at previous tests and assignments and pick out questions that have frequently appeared or that provide a huge chunk of marks.

This way, you’re able to cover the most ground in that topic and avoid committing the same mistakes.

Also, it is crucial to record unusual or rare questions that have appeared in previous tests and assignments that can benefit your overall understanding of the topic.

Though this active recall technique can seem unnecessary to some, asking yourself questions related to the topic forces your mind to work. And this makes it easier to retrieve information for upcoming tests or assignments.


SQ3R essentially stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review. Through this active recall method, readers would actively engage their minds during and after reading a text, which greatly increases their understanding of the information and efficiency of their brains.

Survey: Firstly, skim through and browse through the source material while taking note of the topic’s headings, keywords and highlighted/ bolded words and phrases.

Question: After getting the rough idea of that topic, come up with several questions that can potentially strengthen your understanding of that topic (i.e. What does this section mean?) or questions that are predicted to appear in tests and assignments.

Read: Read through the source material and digest its contents. While reading, pick out information that can be used to answer the questions brainstormed previously.

Recite: This is where Active Recall kicks in. In this step, recall and remember what was in the source material, only this time, explain the key ideas using your own words.

Review: Revisit the source material once again, compare the answers to the questions generated before to the correct answers and fill in the gaps. Lastly, do an overall summary of the entire topic.

This active recall strategy is an extension of what most students already excel at reading. Rather than merely scanning through texts, the SQ3R method stimulates your mind constantly and helps you better make sense of what you are reading.

IV. Flashcards


Flashcards are one of the most popular yet effective active recall methods to retain information for tests.

They help students to memorize key terms and concepts while identifying areas where they need to improve on.

Start by writing a keyword or key idea on one side of the card, and write its definition on the other side. Then try to recall the definition when reading the keyword. Alternatively, you could also write a question related to the topic on one side, and the model answer on the other.

It is important to not include too many words and details onto your flashcard, so as to make it easier to recall and understand information.

A good way to utilise flashcards efficiently is using them at times where you are bored or have nothing to do, such as waiting for your next bus or riding on public transport. Even a short flashcard session can be beneficial to your overall memorization of a certain topic.

V. Teaching Others

Other than being one of the best ways to motivate yourself to study, going on group study sessions presents the perfect opportunity to utilize active recall: through teaching your peers.

By teaching others, your mind is forced to process information about the topic, translate it into easy to understand words and relay it to your friends and schoolmates. Essentially, you are forced to break tough information down so both parties are able to comprehend it better.

Another benefit of teaching others is that it is a mutual process, they learn from you and you can learn from them.

When they ask you questions, you are forced to think harder and look at the topic from different angles, allowing you to re-evaluate and reinforce your understanding. By doing so, you are more able to piece out an explanation that can be easier for both parties to appreciate and remember.

This process helps one to actively recall the things they have already learnt while at the same time, it builds on their knowledge which can make it easier for them to internalize.

What are some active recall study methods?

AnkiApp Flashcards


Sourced from Pinterest

Price: Free, option for the premium subscription
Available on: iOS App Store, Google Play Store, Windows, macOS

Anki is a flashcard-based app that helps users master their knowledge, in the shortest amount of time possible.

Users are able to choose from a wide range of content or create their own ‘deck’ of cards that they can use to test themselves.

The app uses machine learning that knows when to show you a particular card — the more you know it, the less it will appear.


Quizlet app

Sourced from Playstore

Price: Free, option for premium modes
Available on: iOS App Store, Google Play Store

Quizlet is also another flashcard-based app that does offer different learning modes.

One of the main differences when using Quizlet is that it provides users with a study plan that caters to their needs and preferences and seeks to maximize productivity through the use of their own algorithms.



Sourced from Notion

Price: Free, option for the premium subscription
Available on: iOS App Store, Google Play Store, Windows, macOS

Notion is an all-in-one app that gives users the ability to create their own workspace. In addition to allowing users to create notes and categorize them, it presents them with a reminder feature and the ability to collaborate with others.

If you want to know more, check out our in-depth review of this note-taking app.

We’ve provided our own Notion active recall template that allows users to fill out their own questionnaire.

This template contains various functions aimed at making active recall more effective with instructions to help. Make sure to check it out!

Final thoughts on active recall

In a nutshell, the active recall methods discussed above aims to maximise the use of your study materials and your own precious time. By doing so, you will be able to reach your maximum potential in your studies!

We hope that this article would be helpful in aiding your studies.

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