What is the best way to cement information into your brain?
Research shows active recall (aka retrieval practice) is a highly effective strategy for remembering information. This strategy will take your studies and your grades to the next level.
Active recall involves bringing information to mind without looking at your books and notes.
I have spent the last 30 days experimenting with this excellent learning strategy. In this blog, I’ll share what I did and how I kept the process interesting for my brain.
But first a little background . . .
I no longer need to study for tests and exams.
So, why did I spend 30 days using active recall strategies?
In my line of work, I need to constantly come up with new and original content to present to students. I also need to memorise this content. Why?
Because if I was to read from a sheet of notes or text heavy slides that would be really boring for students. I want to connect with students and to do this, I have to be able to deliver the content off the top of my head with speed and ease.
This is where active recall enters the picture.
Active recall helps to speed up the learning process. It allows you to learn more in less time.
Below I share some of the ways I use active recall to learn new presentation content. Keep in mind, you can use all of these strategies to prepare for an upcoming test or exam.
1. Work with a whiteboard
Whiteboards are wonderful learning tools. Here’s how I use a whiteboard to do active recall . . .
I push my speech notes to the side, so I can’t look at them. Then I grab a marker and say to myself, “What can you remember? Go!”.
I write out everything I can remember on the whiteboard. Once I’ve exhausted my memory, I pick up my notes and check to see how I went (using a red marker to make corrections).
2. Write it out
No whiteboard? No problem!
I pick up a pen and sheet of paper and start scribbling out whatever I can remember on the topic. When I get stuck, I pause and take a few deep breaths as I try to scan my brain for the information.
I regularly remind myself that it is okay to not remember the content. “This is how the process goes!”, I say to myself. There is no point beating myself up. That only leads to feelings of misery and not wanting to do active recall practice.
After having a shot at it, I take out my notes, pick up a red pen, and begin the process of checking to see how I went.
3. Draw it out
Sick of writing? I get it.
Try drawing out the information instead. Alternatively, you can use a combination of words and pictures, which is what I often do.
4. Mind map it out
Grab a blank piece of paper (A3 size is best) and create a mind map of everything you can remember on a topic (no peeking at your notes). Then check your notes or the original mind map to see what you remembered correctly and incorrectly.
5. Say it out loud
Writing and drawing out information can take time. If you want to speed up the process, you can talk to yourself.
But don’t do this in your head. It’s too easy to just say “Yeah, yeah, I know this stuff!”. You need to speak it out loud as this forces you to have a complete thought. Then, check your notes to see how you went.
The only downside with this approach is you don’t have a tangible record of what you recalled, which brings me to the next strategy . . .
6. Make a video
I make videos of myself presenting the content (without referring to my notes). Although I use special software and tools to make my videos, you don’t need any fancy equipment. Your phone will do the job. Here’s what you can do . . .
Set your phone up so the camera is facing you. Now hit the record button and tell the camera what you’re going to do active recall on. Have a shot at explaining the idea. Then stop recording and hit the play button.
Watching yourself struggle to remember information is often hard viewing. But this is where it’s super important to double down on telling yourself kind thoughts (e.g., “I’m still learning this content. It’s going to be rusty and feel clunky – that’s okay!”).
You need to take a deep breath and keep watching because the video will give you valuable feedback.
For example, if you stop midsentence and you don’t know how to proceed, that tells you something: you don’t know this stuff so well! Make a note. This part of the content needs your attention.
7. Chat with a friend
Hand your notes over to a friend, parent, or sibling. Now get them to ask you questions on the content.
I sat with my mum and showed her a print out of my slides for a new presentation. The slides were just pictures (no text).
As I went through the slides, I explained the ideas to mum. I made notes of any sections I was rusty on. Mum also asked lots of questions, which allowed me to think more deeply about the content.
8. Print out your slides and use them as prompts
When it came crunch time (a few days before the final presentation), I printed out my presentation slides (16 per page) and used each slide as a prompt. I’d look at the slide and say, “What do I need to say here?”.
Sometimes I wrote out what I’d be saying in relation to each slide (without looking at my notes). Then I checked my original notes to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything.
It’s really important that you don’t skip the stage of checking to see how you went, especially as you become more confident with the content.
At times, I found myself thinking “I know this stuff! I don’t need to check my notes” but then another part would say, “You better just check . . . just to be on the safe side”.
I’m glad I forced myself to check because more often than not I would discover that I had missed a crucial point.
9. Make a zine booklet
Zines are cute little booklets you can create on any topic you like. They are fun to make, so I thought I’d try making a mini zine on the main points of some new content I had to learn.
I folded up an A4 page into a booklet and then I sketched out the main points on each panel.
10. Test yourself with flashcards
I create a deck of flashcards on some key ideas (question on one side and the answer on the back) and then I test myself with them.
I read the question and before flipping the card, I write out the answer on a sheet of paper or say it out loud. Then I check to see how I went.
The beauty of flashcards is they are small and portable (they can easily fit in your pocket or bag). Whenever you have a spare minute or two, you can get a little active recall practice in.
Active recall + Spaced practice = Supercharged learning
It’s not enough to do active recall just once on the content you need to learn. For best results, you want to practice recalling the information several times over a period of time.
I didn’t follow a strict schedule for the 30 days. I had my notes for each important chunk of information I had to learn pinned to eight different clipboards.
Every morning, I’d pick up a different clipboard and I’d practice that specific content. I knew as long as I’d had a good night’s sleep in between practice sessions that the information was being strengthened in my brain.
Get comfortable with the discomfort of doing active recall
Doing active recall is a bit like doing a high intensity workout: it can be exhausting. But you must remember, just like a high intensity exercise session is an effective way to train and get fit, active recall is an effective way to learn. Unlike less effective strategies (e.g., rereading and highlighting), you can learn a lot in a short space of time with active recall.
The key is to expect the process to be a little uncomfortable. Don’t fight the discomfort. If you trust the process and persevere, it won’t be long before you begin to see amazing results.
Ways to make active recall fun for the brain
Just because active recall is challenging to do that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it.
Using a combination of different active recall strategies is one way to keep things fresh and interesting for your brain. But you may wish to try the following things to add a little boost of fun to your active recall sessions:
• Use a different type of pen
• Use a different coloured pen
• Change the type of paper or notebook you use (e.g., instead of using lined paper, use blank A3 paper)
• Incorporate movement into your active recall sessions (e.g., walk and test yourself with some flashcards)
• Change your study environment (e.g., go to the library or study outside)
Find a spot in your routine
Like I said, active recall is challenging to do, especially when you first start learning new content. You can feel awkward and clumsy. For this reason, it’s easy to make excuses to get out of doing it (e.g., “I’m too tired”, “I’m not ready to do it”, and “It’s not the right time”).
This is where you need to harness the power of habits.
Find a set time in your day to do a little active recall practice. For instance, during my 30 days of active recall, I scheduled my practice sessions for first thing in the morning. I knew after I washed my face, I would sit down to practice.
Incorporating active recall into my morning routine worked really well for me. I was getting the hardest thing done first thing in the day. And once it was done, I could relax. It was done and dusted!
At a certain point, I became more confident with the content and I found I was on a roll. I felt motivated to do active recall.
This is when I started to look for spare moments in the day to squeeze in a few extra mini practice sessions.
For example, one day I found myself waiting in a car. I grabbed a paper shopping bag and started scribbling out the content onto the bag. As soon as I got home, I checked the shopping bag against my notes.
To sum up
I hope you can see that there’s no one set way to do active recall. This is a highly effective strategy you can be creative with. As long as you’re testing yourself and checking to see how you went, you can’t go wrong.
And if you do make a mistake? It’s no big deal. If you check to see how you went, you won’t embed the error in your long-term memory.