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    The Testing Effect: what is Active Recall and what is it for

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    Louise Hay
    @louisehay
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    Il active recall it is one of the pillars of an efficient learning method, and it exploits the principle that long-term memory is stimulated by the very attempt to try to remember. 

    Think for a moment about when you are trying to learn something - you probably spend most of your time studying at read and reread, until the information and concepts are understood, processed and finally remembered by your brain. 


    It is a passive learning process, very slow, very repetitive, and which often gives poor results, at least compared to the time it took you. 


    Why then, you ask, do most students use multiple re-readings as the cornerstone of their method? 

    Well, why rereading is easy!

    Just put the book in front of you and do it - you don't need to concentrate or strain.

    Indeed, surely you will have happened to read even for consecutive hours thinking serenely about your own business, arriving at the end of the chapter without having the faintest idea of ​​what has been talked about. 

    Now, certainly also on reading you can work a lot, making it more active and therefore more effective.

    For example with skimming and quick reading, or formatting notes differently, or even just learning to focus better. 

    However, few things are as effective as active booster. 

    Ok, but what is active recall?

    Get a book, read about twenty lines, close the book, count to 30 or 60, and then try to remember what you read here, this is the active reminder. 


    To complete the cycle then, and maximize understanding and memory, return to the text and check the quality and quantity of your memory.


    In short, check: 

    • What you remembered
    • The precision with which you remembered it
    • What you did NOT remember

    Simple right? Yes and no.

    Yes, because in fact it is an almost banal procedure. No because, if you try to do it, you will discover how tiring it is!

    Once you have read a piece of text, you have closed the book, and you start trying to remember, you will find that, at first glance, it seems to you that you do not really remember anything. Total or almost total darkness

    And it is by trying to overcome this total darkness that gods happen fantastic processing and storage processes of the material you have read: your cerebral synapses begin to shoot at a very high intensity and the first "glimmers" of memory are created which then fade or become stronger, mixing with each other and taking more defined and concrete shapes.

    Then you get a little light in the dark and you realize that you actually remember something…. and that maybe that something makes you remember something else too… and so on. 

    Until, as a final effort, you repeat aloud everything that came to your mind, consolidating it in a very strong way: you have it already passed, as if by magic, in long-term memory.  

    And that's not the only magic you get ...

    All the benefits of active recall

    Between studying for an hour by reading and rereading the same text, and studying for an hour alternating reading and active recall, the differences in results are enormous, and have been demonstrated by more than 50 years of research and experiments in cognitive psychology. 



    In short, the advantages of active recall are demonstrated and evident as regards the processing and passing of information into long-term memory. 

    But there are others, more subtle, less studied, but in my opinion almost as important. 

    The active recall in fact:

    1. It really makes you understand what you know and what you don't know

    Very few students are able to make a correct judgment on what they know and what they don't know, especially if they have just finished reading it.

    Some tend to overestimate what they have learned, that is, they exchange the fact of "having understood" something with "knowing it". 

    Others, perhaps a little anxious, tend to underestimate what they know, and therefore to study more time and with much more concern than necessary.

    Whether you belong to one or the other category, continually testing yourself during the study will allow you to estimate much more accurately what you know and what you do not know, adjusting your strategy accordingly. 

    2. It can help you motivate yourself better 

    We all know that adding a game or challenge component can make even the most boring activities interesting.

    The fact then of knowing that, at the end of each reading session, you will take a small active recall test, can be a motivating stimulus, or that in any case will make you less bored. 

    So try to experience the call as a race against yourself (without stress however, which is not the case), trying to remember more and more precisely. 


    3. Makes you stay more focused

    We have already said that reading for consecutive hours often means simply roll your eyes on the book while you think about something else. 


    However, if the reading is broken up, and at the end of each piece you do an active recall session, it will clearly be easier to maintain a better overall concentration, passing from the "passive brain" mode to the "active brain" mode.  

    4. Prepares you for the final exam or question

    How many times does it happen?

    You know what, you've understood it, you've memorized it, and then when it's time to use it, for example in front of the professor at the exam… BUM! Total darkness and panic

    Negative emotional states, a bad moment, an unlucky day, can affect your performance and make you perform much less than you deserve. 

    But if you've got your brain used to working against total darkness in hundreds of active recall sessions, here it is on the exam you will be mentally much stronger. 

    In fact, you will have experienced the feeling of total darkness so many times that it will make you less afraid. 

    And you have already overcome it so many times that you have an arsenal of strategies in mind to cope with them in the best possible way. 

    Different modes of active recall

    So far we have talked about a single pattern: you read a piece of text, close the book, try to remember, open the book and check. 

    However, there are actually two other modes of active recall: 

    Recall with recognition ("recognition"): it is typical of multiple choice tests, in which you do not have to remember an info from scratch, but to recognize it among a series of alternatives. This approach requires less effort, but also yields less results. Also, if the tests are not already prepared by others, you will have to do them yourself, and this takes time (although preparing them will help you a lot to understand and memorize). However, it may be useful from time to time to use this mode, a little to vary the study and a little to get used to multiple choice exams. 

    Recall with clue ("clue"): you do it for example when you review with the book open throwing an eye from time to time, or when you review with a friend who questions you and "fools" you a little on the answers. In this mode the recall is much easier and above all faster. In general, the one with the open book I do not recommend, unless it is a last super-quick review. With a partner who questions instead, especially if you find one patient, capable, and more prepared than you, it can be really useful. 

    Practical Tips

    We have seen what active recall is and how it works, but you may now have some doubts about how to incorporate it into your learning strategy. 

    Here, clearly, there is no scientific research that can help us that much, it is a matter of practice, experience and personal taste. 

    But I can tell you how I see it, and give you some guidelines: 

    • When facing a textbook for the first time, do not use active recall, but rather try to read it all as quickly as possible. In fact, you need to quickly build what I call route map, and that will guide you in the next study. Instead, start using it from the second reading!
    • Do not use it only with texts, but also with notes or any other format you use to learn. If, for example, you are learning by watching videos, activate these as well. 
    • Break up the content taking into account its degree of difficulty and the amount of data to remember: the more difficult and intense the content, the more it will have to be chopped up
    • Break up the content on the basis of your knowledge of the same: at each review then you will have to stretch the sections in which you divided it. 
    • Repeat aloud what you remembered, and then always double check the quality and quantity of the memory in the text. (This is the most important consolidation phase for me). 
    • Incorporate if you can also other techniques (such as those of memory, but also simply a concept map or a scheme), already in the phase of checking what you have remembered. 
    • Active recall does not always have to be preceded by a reading phase, especially when you do subsequent reviews. The control phase instead, however short, there must always be!
    • For some types of information, particularly those of great detail, or new words in a foreign language, the best form of active recall is to build flashcards (again, but it is optional, you can use memory techniques such as the keyword method). 
    • In the first phase of the study, the recall must be done immediately after the reading. In the reviews, on the other hand, try to find optimal intervals for the material you are studying, according to the principles of spaced repetition. 

    Fundamental ideas about active recall

    It makes me want to ask you, now that you have reached the end of the article, to close your PC and try to remember as much as possible of what you have read ... But it would be a low blow, moreover for the fact that when we read on the screen we are even more distracted and hasty than usual. 

    So I'll give you a summary of the basic ideas to "take away" from this reading: 

    • Active recall is a bit of a pain, but it is a very efficient method of processing and storing information. Much more efficient than reading and re-reading. 
    • In addition to this it promotes awareness, concentration and motivation. And it prepares you for exam stress
    • In its essence it is very simple: read, close the book, try to remember, check. When you review you can skip the "read". 
    • There are variants, less effective but to be taken into consideration: "recognition" and "clue". 
    • As always when it comes to studying, don't think about doing everything with just one "trick". Active recall must be incorporated into broader study strategies and may in turn incorporate various techniques. 

    Finally, really: if you don't use active recall you miss a huge opportunity to study better and faster, so, try it! 

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