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Why active recall could be your most effective study method

Monday 15th, February 2021

Rishi Goel

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I know what you’re thinking; another article promoting a new and fancy method of studying that can improve your scores by up to 50%. In a way, you’re not wrong in saying that, the only difference here is that the method I’m advising you to try out – not necessarily focus on and abandon other methods – is backed up by evidence, both scientific and anecdotal.

In year 10 I did well, staying on flat As the whole year, but the issue is that I spent SO much time studying that 1) I didn’t enjoy my year and 2) I didn’t enjoy learning. I primarily used notes, summary sheets and long Word documents to study. I’d reread them over and over, highlighting key parts I thought would be good to remember. And honestly, it worked alright. The hours I spent reading my notes did make some of the facts stick, but I knew there would be a better way to study – and that’s what I tried in year 11.

Year 12 study methods - active recall - ATAR Notes

With the start of year 11 I knew that school was about to get a whole lot harder. In particular, I was dreading having to memorise definitions for the big end of year test. And so while procrastinating one summer afternoon I came across a video of someone talking about active recall – the new and improved way to study.

The man in the video was fairly young and got into Harvard (so I knew the information had to have reliability). He spoke about how notes, Word documents, highlighting and re-reading is fine for a small amount of content but when it comes to a lot of information, this is pretty much useless. So he suggested a simple form of active recall: flash cards. And in essence, that is what active recall is: seeing a prompt, without the answer, and having to actively recall what the answer is. Sounds simple enough right? Well, if you think about it, rereading notes does the complete opposite; you are constantly seeing the answer without the prompt, which for studying is pretty much useless.

And so, as the intrigued and bored 16-year-old I was, I looked more into active recall. There are simple forms of active recall like doing practice questions or writing paragraph responses, but there were also more complex forms like making a mind map of everything you’ve learnt with no notes beside you.

Year 12 study methods - active recall - ATAR Notes

The evidence for this working is out there, and I urge you to go look for it and prove to yourself that active recall works.

And so, for my final exam in physics for year 11, I made flash cards for all my definitions, made mind maps of everything I knew every week, spent the time in the shower just trying to recall what we learnt, and did a lot of practice questions. The final exam rolls out and I felt prepared, more prepared than I have ever been, and so, to little surprise, I got 99% – better than I did in grade 10. And yet, in total I spent less time studying for that test than I did for my year 10 subjects where I made notes.

For me it worked, and so in year 12 I adopted the method once again and I ended up with a final ATAR of 99.90, earning me 2 scholarships.

So, why does active recall work and how is it better than just reading notes?

Well, when you have to actively remember specific details without seeing the answer straight away, your brain struggles. It has to actually put in work. If you’re at the gym and you want to get big legs, you don’t just watch people successfully squatting and expect to get jacked, you have to actually do it yourself, move the weights and put in work. The same is true for your brain. If you just read notes, you aren’t thinking – you’re just looking at answers.

Year 12 study methods - active recall - ATAR Notes

So below is a list of active recall methods I recommend you try:

1. Closed book notes

This is for those who love to make pretty notes and enjoy the process of writing content down in a beautiful way. You can continue to do that, just next time, do it with your answer book closed, with no answers whatsoever, and only the syllabus dot points in view.

2. Write questions – not answers

This is for those who prefer to write less and think more, instead of making notes, make a question book, firstly of the things you don’t know and then secondly make questions for the content that you do know.

3. Anki

This is for the flashcard lovers out there, Anki is a free to use app for your computer that makes it easy to create and study content (this is what I used for physics definitions).

4. Practice questions

This is something all of you should do regardless, but its simple, find questions and without looking at the answers, find out the answer.

5. Blind mind map

Similar to the closed book notes, get a piece of paper and start with your subject in the middle, from there draw branches out to different concepts and continue on with more specific information you can recall – all without looking at your notes or any prompts.

With these methods, I am positive that you will be able to study harder, faster and more effectively than those who reread notes and highlight their favourite parts.

Good luck in year 12, I’m sure you’ll smash it and make sure to at least give Active Recall a go if you haven’t already.

– Rishi Goel

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