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Why Active Recall is Great for Memory

Active recall refers to actively engaging your brain while recalling information (Joe the Tutor, 2013).

Imagine you walk out of a training course. You walk back to your team area and a colleague asks you what you learnt. If you had paid attention and felt motivated to be in the course, then it is likely that you could share what you had learnt and potentially teach your colleague a thing or two. What about a couple of months later? Would you have access to the same level of detail and knowledge? Time can have a significant impact on how well we can recall details.

So, what is the best way for us to learn with the intent of retaining knowledge?

Think about the amount of information that we learn for our jobs that we often need to retrieve in the moment. For example, imagine you have completed a course on how to explain a set of culture results to your team. Throughout the course it is all making sense. You nod your head and feel that you have a good understanding of the results and what they mean. Three weeks later one of your employees approaches you and asks about what a certain section of the results mean. You look at the results and try to think back to what you have learnt. You realise that an answer is not quite front of mind. You haven’t spoken about the culture results since the session ran and trying to remember what was said in the session three weeks ago is proving to be a challenge.

Think about the jobs that require quick decision making, the people who need to memorise certain information without access to supporting material. Consider those who are new in their position and require a variety of knowledge that is often needed ‘in-the-moment’. Hope is not lost for those in this position. There are ways that information can be delivered to support recall and the ability to retrieve information when it is required.

Research has shown that rather than studying information repeatedly, it is far more effective to practice actively recalling the information instead (Karpicke, 2012). Think about students studying for an exam at university. A common study technique is to re-read notes, listen to lectures again and again and read the textbook as many times as possible. These study techniques all have something in common, they are passive ways of learning. It involves information going in like a one-way street (Joe the Tutor, 2013). Has the learner understood the information? Do they understand how they could apply it to various contexts? On the other hand, actively recalling information involves the person interpreting and making meaning of the information. This could involve answering questions about the topic, drawing models and graphs from memory and being able to explain the concept across a range of contexts.

Think about how easily passive learning could take place in a learning experience. A glorified PowerPoint style eLearning module where the learner merely reads through information is a prime example.

So, what are some practical tips to incorporate active recall in your learning solution?

1. Real World Examples

Studies have shown that context is highly important in retrieval (Malamed, 2012). Think about how you are delivering learning within your solution. Are you making the learning relevant to the learner’s specific context? For example, if you are teaching people the skills required to be a paramedic, are you just telling them what the core skills are or are you relating the skills to their environment and how it is relevant to them? Here are some examples:

Passive Learning Example: “Here are the core skills of being a paramedic. Read through them and memorise them as best as you can.”

Active Recall Learning Example: “Here are the core skills of being a paramedic. Imagine you have arrived at a house and a man is having a heart attack. Using your knowledge of the core skills of a paramedic, describe what you would do in this situation.”

2. Group Discussions

A great way for learners to have the opportunity to recall information is through group discussions (Malamed, 2012). This enables the learner to go through the process of retrieving the knowledge that they have just learnt and applying it to a range of contexts. A great example of this is a culture facilitator course I attended. Throughout the session we had to learn a significantly large amount of definitions and concepts. We had read through the definitions numerous times though I wasn’t quite confident that I would be able to recall them or repeat them back outside of the course. The facilitator spent the last hour of the session asking us questions and getting us to actively recall information without our cheat sheets. Whilst it was difficult to begin with, it really got the brain working and forced it to comprehend and understand the information at a different level. I left the course feeling confident and was able to use that same active recall when I needed it.

3. Quizzes

A great way to incorporate active recall in learning solutions is by quizzing your learner. After your learner has read through the information they need to know, activate their brain by asking them questions about the content. To step this up a notch rather than just asking a question exactly how it was presented in the content, challenge their brains by switching up the scenario or context. This will equip your learner with the ability to apply their learnings to a range of contexts and be prepared for the real world.

A trap that learners can fall into is memorising the scenario rather than the concept behind it. An example of this is when I was at university. For some of our statistics exams, the practice test had the exact same scenarios as the actual test and therefore students memorised the scenarios and answers rather than gaining an understanding of the actual concept. If they had to apply that concept to another context they wouldn’t have been able to do it. You could imagine how this could play out when an employee memorises one scenario and is then faced with another one in real life.

Example of a realistic scenario screen from a Belvista Studios module.

So how will you promote active recall in your learning solutions? Do you have any tips or strategies on how you achieve this? I hope this added value to your craft!

A little bit about the author...

"I am Hannah and I am passionate about how we can create effective and fun learning experiences. I believe that if you create enjoyment and social connection through learning, learning outcomes can sky rocket! The world is changing and becoming more and more digital by the day. We need to harness this and see what's possible!".


Joe the Tutor, 2013. Use Active Recall if You Don’t Want to Blank on Exams. Joe the Tutor, Expert Advice on Studying, School and Teaching. Retrieved from

Karpicke, J.D. (2012). Retrieval-Based Learning: Active Retrieval Promotes Meaningful Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Sage. 

Malamed, C. (2012). The Power of Retrieval Practice for Learning. Retrieved from

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