Active Recall, Passive Review & Spaced Repetition

Many of us have faced the eternal of problem of not being able to recall the topics we learned. We are sure that we read something just not too long ago but when it comes to recalling that exact information, we pull up a blank slate. So, what if I told you there was a way to move past this? To actually be able to recall that important piece of information which you're sure you've read before in critical moments like interviews or exams?

Allow me to present to you the three terms(and in a way, strategies) to be able to better remember whatever you're learning:

Active Recall, Passive Review, & Spaced Repetition

Let's break them down and understand one at a time.

1. Active Recall

Active recall is a rich way of saying that one should recollect information from their brain. In other words, without relying on cues such as notes for preparation or re-watching videos or reading books/articles again and again. It should be pure mental effort without sensory hints based on seeing or hearing.

This means that you should repeat whatever you've just learned by relying only on your brain. Just sit down, close your eyes and ask your brain, "Hey brain, what do we remember from what we just learnt about?". Active recall does require a lot of effort. But, that doesn't mean that you have to be successful at recalling information perfectly every single time. Making an effort counts since it has been shown that even unsuccessful attempts to recall the necessary information would enhance learning. So, keep at it!

Tests are a great tool that can help perfect this process. However, sometimes, tests have a negative feedback if one constantly performs badly. So, don't let this get to you instead think about how you're still becoming stronger at storing information in your brain. Tests can sometimes provide passive cues like I said before! Having multiple choices to select a correct answer from isn't relying on active recall from brain and this might not be as effective.

A really good way that I've started using active recall is by writing questions at the end of notes for each section. Once you're attending a class, or watching an informative video, or reading an article, you would take notes, right? That's how we generally prepare ourselves to later re-read the topic. So, I do that as well but I add in a little extra bit at the end of these notes. At the end of each section, I try to add a question or two from the topic I just learned. These questions don't need to have any answers since they're right above in the notes. So then, when I'm revising, instead of starting with the notes, I start with the questions and try my best to answer them without looking at the notes. Answering questions takes a lot more effort than just plain reading. You're actively forcing your brain to reproduce the information that you've seen before instead of just looking at the notes and telling the brain, "Okay brain, here's some notes. Read it". Just the thought of this sounds boring to me! So, try your best to answer the questions.

However, it does not end here. You can form your own methods to perform active recall and practice; just make sure that you really engage your brain to remember without the help of any passive cues.

2. Passive Review

Passive review is the exact opposite of active recall. We review the notes, re-watch videos or re-read articles/books to remember. Once we use active recall and are still not able to recall the exact piece of information, we will have to dig into our notes, videos, mind-maps etc. and allow our brain to look at the information again in order to have a better chance of remembering it. But, passive review isn't a 'do it once' kinda thing. And that's where the spaced repetition comes into the picture.

3. Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition means you repeat a process after a specified time interval. Just allow yourself to have some time before you repeat the process again. Think of it this way, you learn something new today and you'll start forgetting it very quickly(forgetting curve) unless you come back to the topic the next day using active recall and passive repetition. So, does that mean if you learn something today, you have to practice and revise and review it every single day for the rest of your life? NO! Spaced repetition would allow you to space out your active recalls and passive reviews in intervals and eventually you'll be able to remember it well. You learn something today. You come back to it tomorrow, and then you come back to it 3 days later, and then 7 days later and so on. See, how the interval is actually increasing? You'll also retain the information for a longer time by practicing this method.

Okay! So let's assemble all three of these together.

Day 1: Learn something new.

Day 2: Active Recall & Passive Review of topic learned on Day 1.



[Meanwhile keep learning new topics and setting this method in motion for them as well]


Day 8: Active Recall & Passive Review of topic learned on Day 1




Day 24: Active Recall & Passive Review of topic learned on Day 1



Day 60: Now, you should be able to remember the topic learned on Day 1 well.

These intervals aren't exact and you should work out the one that would work best for you. Notice, how this process continues every time you learn something along with what you've learned previously.

This would obviously require some forming a schedule but trust me, the benefits of doing this far outweighs the time used behind preparing the schedule.

Reach out to me if you have any questions!


Focus Bytes Chapter Leader