How to make active recall method of studying faster? Is there something wrong with how I am incorporating it in my studies?

I really like the active recall method of studying as it help me to retain information longer than passive learning. BUT it is EXTREMELY SLOW compared to passive learning. For example it took me 10 minutes to completely memorize a Reflex arc when I could have learned it in 2 minutes by passive learning. Same goes for anything else that I try to learn verbatim e.g definitions etc

Is there anything with how my active recall method. I usually do this

  1. Read the definition that I want to memorize verbatim.
  2. Reread a few times until it gets stuck in my head
  3. Pose a question to myself such as “Define resting potential of neurons”(just giving an example)
  4. Then recall the answer from my mind and write it down

But all of this IS extremely slow compared to passively just learning it. I feel as if my active recall method is wrong.


Hi, =)

about active recall maybe i’m wrong but I always thought the questions comes before the learning,
for your exemple, when you see resting potential of neurons you tell yourself " what do i know about resting potential of neurons? how can i define it? " then you try to answer before you learn, after that you check your book and see if you got it right or not and if you’re wrong, you’ll pay attention to it so it will stuck easily in your memory.

another exemple " myocarditis " I ask myself before starting the lesson " what is myocarditis ?" so i know already that “itis” is for inflamation, “myo” for muscle and “cardia” for heart so i tell myself maybe it’s the inflammation of the musclar layer of the heart (the myocardium), then i check my notes or my book and see if i had it right or if i need to correct it in my head.

Hope it is clear :smile: (i’m not a native English speaker)


From my understanding, active recall is a revision technique, not a learning technique.

Learn the material. Make notes, flashcards or whatever revision aids you like, if any. Then later when you revise the material then for sure use active recall rather than just passively re-reading.


If you’re interested in active recall, you might like this: Ultralearning by Scott Young

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My take is that active recall is best paired with spaced repetition. That combination, in my view, enables you to learn the material better and in less time than passive learning.

I also generally agree that active recall is intended for after you have learned the material or at least have some understanding of it but there are definitely exceptions. For example we are using active recall and spaced repetition to teach my 12 year old twins the periodic table elements, atomic numbers and symbols (we have made it to the 75th element so far). They don’t have a real understanding of what lanthanum is used for but can go backwards and forwards through the list and can tell you the element and symbol based on whatever number you give them.

In your example above of a definition that is new to you, you could

  1. read the definition that you wanted to memorize, maybe do this a couple of times and then leave it.
  2. the next day try to recall the definition and then compare it to the actual definition. Focus on what you got wrong and spend a minute or two practicing. Then leave it.
  3. the next day or the day after repeat this and it shouldn’t take long before you remember it.
  4. keep going and increase the time between when you review.

With respect to questions, you could make up questions when you are first reviewing the material and thereby get a deeper understanding of it. Then the next day you could test yourself with the definition and the questions you made up and review the material you got wrong. Rinse, lather and repeat.

I have found that if you try to make up/forecast test questions you have a decent level of success and it also proves to be an effective study technique.

For me, Anki has been an absolute game changer in employing spaced repetition and active recall. I really can’t recommend it enough.


One other thing I would add is that I think of active recall both as a tool to help improve retention of the material but also as an important diagnostic tool. It is highlighting for you what it is that you don’t remember as well so you can focus on that and review it. I remember back in university, people would take a practice test and then walk away confident that they were prepared for the exam. It seems like a better idea, not to mention a small time investment, to take what you got wrong on the test and then review that further. I think this same logic applies to active recall.

I am doing exactly the way you mentioned above but I am running into a problem. I don’t seem to remember the information till the next interval. Like for example when the interval between revising increases to 10+ days. I start to forget chunks of information.

For reference, my schedule right now is as follows
Day 1- Memorize info
Day 2- Revise (24 hours since the last review)
Day 5 Revise (3 days since the last review)
Day 10 Revise (5 days since the last review)
Day 17 Revise (7 days since the last review)

It seems like whenever I increase my review interval to more than 7 days, I seem to start forgetting major chunks of information. Any help would be appreciated.

Seems like a reasonable review schedule at first blush. My guess is that it is just a few tweaks here and there to make it work for you.

I just reread your initial post and I strongly recommend you consider using Anki. Most of what I am discussing below is done better or automatically and for sure faster using Anki. My understanding is lots of med school students use it to memorize the massive quantities of material required. There might be another thread on Anki and med school memorization but there are definitely YouTube videos about it. Having said that, hopefully some of the below is helpful.

One consideration is the size of the chunks of information you are trying to memorize. For example you might approach active recall (AR) and spaced repetition (SR) slightly differently if you are trying to memorize the outline of an essay for an exam vs. what is the afferent as opposed to the efferent arteriole vs. what are the major regions of the brain. From what I have seen the smaller and more atomic the pieces of info you are trying to remember the more effective this can be. It also lets you more specifically isolate the things you aren’t remembering. Those tiny pieces of info aggregate up and help you build your understanding.

My guess is that you are not wholesale forgetting everything but rather parts of it. AR/SR is not intended, in my view at least, to result in never forgetting info once you start the process but remembering most of it and then rereviewing the parts you forget. Some info locked in, some info you continue iterating. If you are forgetting 70% of the total material between day 10 and 17 that could be cause for concern whereas if you are forgetting 20 or 30% and then rereviewing and restarting the review clock that doesn’t seem too crazy, especially since you’ll likely retain most of that material on the second go round and then have a smaller amount of info that you’ll have to rereview/restart the clock for a third time.

AR/SR are not exactly “set it and forget it”. For example, if you are trying to memorize what is the afferent arteriole and you get to day 17 and have forgotten it, you may need a slightly different/more effective way for you to remember it or maybe just review it again. One of the key aspects of AR/SR is that the very act of trying to recall the information actually helps build the recall (kind of like working out and going to exhaustion). A quick review of the material then solidifies that nugget of info but resets your review clock to day 1 of the review schedule. In this example, for me, layering on the idea that A in Afferent alphabetically comes before E in Efferent helps me to recall that the afferent arteriole supplies blood to the glomerulus while the efferent arteriole carries blood away. Honestly, it is kind of weird but these little tidbits I add do help me quite a bit, not sure if it works the same for everyone.

This is also an example of memorizing atomic pieces of info to build up to a greater understanding. If you know that the afferent arteriole carries blood to the glomerulus, you can reason out an exam question about how vasoconstriction of the afferent or efferent arteriole affects glomerular filtration rate instead of memorizing vasoconstriction of the afferent results in lower GFR, vasoconstriction of the efferent results in higher GFR, vasodilation of the afferent etc. As a free side benefit, it also enables you to remember that afferent neurons carry nerve impulses to the brain/CNS and efferent neurons carry nerve impulses away from the brain/CNS.

One of the great things about using Anki to make flashcards is that it really helps with list making and image labels. For example, there is an add on (I think it is called Image Occlusion) that let’s you paste an image, say we are back to talking about regions of the brain, but hide all but one label and then serve the cards up to you hiding one label at a time. For lists, a native tool call Cloze Deletion, lets you put in a list and it hides one item at a time on a list when it serves that flashcard to you. I think these are quite effective and I don’t have a great offline suggestion for how to do this that is easy.

Also, despite my repeated endorsement of Anki, I sadly don’t get a commission for it. I just am utterly convinced it is a gamechanger for almost everyone interested in learning.

Hope this helps and that I got my physiology correct…haha.

I had this problem when I started to apply SRS in my learning…

Later I fixed this problem by ‘encoding’ the data well at the beginning stage of my learning. I mean,it was not a problem of SRS. The problem was,I was not giving enough attention to my learning material and I was not processing them correctly at the initial stage…To solve this problem,I started to use “mnemonic” techniques(correctly) iin my study…Now,whatever I do/learn,I make sure that I am applying ‘mnemonic’ techniques at first to encode the data. And after I am quite sure that the data is well encoded in my memory…then,I apply SRS technique!

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