Active recall

March 2022 

Approximately 52% of students say they prepare for an exam just by rereading their notes. However, Research shows that unless you work on actively recalling what you’ve learned, you’ll forget approximately 60% of the material within 24 hours and most of it by the end of the week. Still, approximately 52% of students say they prepare for an exam by rereading their notes or textbooks.

Surprisingly, most students don’t know that active recall is the most effective studying strategies. About 75% of science students believed that going over and over the material is more effective than active recall, even though the opposite is true. In fact, one study found that students who were repeatedly quizzed while learning new vocabulary remembered about 80% of the words one week later. On the other hand, students who kept rereading notes remembered just 1% of the words after the same period of time. Research shows that your time would be much better spent trying to recall what you have learned without looking at your notes or textbook. 

Here is how you can use active recall while studying:

Make active recall the focus of your study routine. Instead of rereading your notes or textbook, quiz yourself often on what you’ve learned. You could use your Cornell Notes, make flashcards, create your own questions, or find some tests online. When quizzing yourself, try not to get discouraged if you make a mistake. Research shows that students who made mistakes while quizzing themselves and then corrected them did better on a final test than students who just rehearsed the correct answers.

Say it aloud. When trying to recall what you learned, say your answers out loud. According to one study, participants who studied words by saying them aloud remembered more words than those who read them silently.

Double-check your answers. Try to recall material or answer questions without looking at the textbook, your notes, or the back of your flashcards. However, after recalling a fact or definition, check your answers carefully by comparing them to the material you’re studying. Research found that fewer than half of students checked their answers by flipping the flashcard over or looking at their notes because they believed their answers were correct. Even when students said they checked an answer, they were often so confident that they didn’t notice it was incomplete or wrong.

Quiz yourself again, and again, and again. Most students say they believe that correctly recalling a fact more than once will help them remember it longer. However, only 34% try to do so while studying. If you want to remember what you’re studying, you’ll have to practice recalling it more than once. Keep in mind, to be able to recall approximately 80% of the information you learned after one week, you’ll have to keep rehearsing until you can correctly remember it at least three times in a row on three different days. Let’s say you‘re trying to memorize the name of the capital of Palau, which is “Ngerulmud”. To improve your chances of remembering it a week from now, you’ll have to recall it correctly on the first day you start memorizing it (e.g., Sunday), and then later in the week on two more different days (e.g., Tuesday and Friday).

Keep at it. Don’t stop practicing after you have correctly recalled something once. Likewise, don’t stop using a flashcard just because you knew the answer during your first study session. Research shows that students who recalled a list of new words just once remembered only 30% of those words in one week’s time. The more often you correctly recall something, the better you’ll remember it a few days or weeks later.


  1. Bretzing, B. H., & Kulhavy, R. W. (1979). Notetaking and depth of processing. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 4, 145–153.
  2. Piolat, A., Olive, T., & Kellogg R.T. (2004). Cognitive effort of note-taking. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 18, 1-22.
  3. Piolat, A., Olive, T., & Kellogg, R. T. (2005). Cognitive effort during note-taking. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19(3), 291-312.
  4. Kiewra, K. A., DuBois, N. F., Christian, D., McShane, A., Meyerhoffer, M., & Roskelley, D. (1991). Note-taking functions and techniques. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83(2), 240-245.
  5. Kiewra, K. A. (1987). Note taking and review: The research and its implications. Journal of Instructional Science, 16, 233-249.

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