Active recall is the study strategy. Anything else is fluff or decoration for your day.
Want to highlight your paper? Want to write notes? Want to create an interpretive dance to properly introduce the kinesthetic aspects of the War of 1812 into your history class? Okay… have fun.
But if you’re not using active recall then you’re probably not even studying. At best, you’re practicing. At worst, you’re wasting your time.
Scientists have been researching this for decades now. Active recall crushes every other way of studying. Learning styles are irrelevant. Personal preferences are irrelevant. It’s reasonable to say active recall is studying. Anything else is just dancing around studying.
Don’t buy it? That’s okay. I’m making the case quickly here to get to the actual point of this article. You can read the full story of why active recall is the awesome study strategy it is right here.
What Is Active Recall?
Active recall is, put simply, just practicing remembering stuff.
Instead of just reading information and hoping you remember it – active recall is reading information, looking away from that information, and then trying to remember what you just read. (Eventually, you’ll want to add more time between reading it and remembering it.)
The most common example of this is with flashcards. Read the first side of the flashcard. Remember what is on the back of the flashcard. Flip over the flashcard and check your answer. If you’re right then you’re learning it. If you’re not right, you’re closer to remembering it next time – keep practicing.
The best part of this strategy is – all of your studying will feel like a test. That means, when the test shows up, you know you’ll be able to remember everything because you’ve practiced it repeatedly.
Compare that to reading a textbook. At the end of reading the textbook, how do you know you’ll actually remember any of it?
Hint: you don’t.
I’m super thankful whenever I get a question from a reader because that’s almost always how I come up with the most interesting topics to discuss because I know at least one person wants to know what I’m writing. Take note, I owe this article to a number of readers that have requested a similar article. I’m sorry it took me until now to do it.
This is one of the things that I really wish I knew in college because I was an engineering student myself. By the end of this article, if I’ve done my job right, you’re going to know exactly how to use active recall to help you absolutely crush your math and other technical (procedural) courses.
“How The Hell Can I Use Active Recall In Math?”
That is a good question. It’s a question that I wish I had the good sense to ask myself a few years ago. It’s a question that – had I thought of it – may have saved myself a ton of struggling through college.
I had always assumed the answer was – you can’t.
In many classes, using active recall is easy.
Take history class for example. Most of the tests are going to revolve around remember certain pieces of information. You’ll need to remember this happened in this particular year. You’ll need to remember this leader did this specific thing. You’ll need to remember flash card after flash card of information.
The flashcards virtually write themselves.
Back when I thought I was going into a medical major and I ended up taking anatomy – this flash card memorization strategy made the seemingly impossible task of memorizing hundreds of bones – easy.
Active recall can make these classes super easy. They are virtually brainless. It’s almost like a game on your phone to run through a set of flashcards. It’s not the most fun thing in the world but given the choice between boredom and playing, you’d pick playing.
But there are certain classes where active recall doesn’t obviously help very much.
Take a writing course, for example. You don’t need to memorize much to write a good paper. Active recall is almost completely irrelevant.
But what about math? Can you use active recall in math?
Naturally… you could memorize complicated equations using flashcards… that’s something. But that’s only a tiny part of math that usually not really required when you know how to use the equations.
But can you use active recall to create results just as powerful as in a history or anatomy course?
And to get to the answer – Abso-freaking-lutely.
You’re going to like this.
What Makes Math So Different
There are two distinct kinds of memory:
1. Declarative memory
You use declarative memory to remember most stuff for school. This is the information that fits well on a flashcard. It’s remembering state capitals. It’s remembering the bones in your body. It’s remembering stuff that’s really easy to explain.
2. Procedural memory
Procedural memory is the memory you use to learn “how” to do something.
When you learn to ride a bike, you’re using your procedural memory. You don’t remember… I need to pedal. I better lean this way. I need to turn now. Whoa… Gotta’ keep pedaling! You learn the motion and it becomes automatic for your body.
Imagine trying to explain how to ride a bike to someone that has no idea what you’re talking about. Odds are, they’re not going to listen to you and instantly know how to ride it themselves.
Procedural memory is something you use in math courses to solve problems.
This is the part of math that makes it so difficult to implement an active recall strategy into your study routine. How can you learn a procedural process while using a study strategy that requires you use your declarative memory?
The answer is something that can take a mediocre math student and turn them into a mythical mathematical genie.
The key is learning to break the procedures into something more declarative.
For Those Of Us Not Born Gifted
Math class isn’t any particular single procedure for most students.
Sure… some mathematical geniuses are born gifted enough to instinctively understand how all mathematical changes are the result of a single underlying logic. One they get the basic rules, they can solve just about any ridiculous problem you put in front of them. But… that’s not me. And that’s not most of us.
Math, to most of us, is a number of different procedures that we have to learn how and when to use for each particular problem.
Have you ever noticed how there are different examples of different problems through each chapter of your textbook?
One fundamental challenge in math is to know when to use which particular procedure.
You need to learn to look at a problem and recognize what procedure you need to use to find the solution.
And this brings us to a big problem with 99% of math textbooks. This problem devastates the average student when their test shows up because the textbook is created to never actually teach the student how to recognize what procedure to use and when to use it.
Don’t Learn This From Your Math Textbook – And Your Grades Will Go Up For It
Math textbooks typically organize their practice problems in a logical way.
If the chapter teaches 5 different procedures then the textbook will give all the problems related to procedure 1 in the first section of the practice problems. In the second set of practice problems they’ll use procedure 2.
And that logic makes your life easier but it sure as hell doesn’t help you when the test shows up.
Does the teacher ever tell you – on this problem, use procedure 3 from chapter 12?
You’re thrown in the water and you’ve gotta’ start kicking hard or you might just drown.
During practice, you got to relax using one procedure 20 times in a row. During the test, you’ll have to mix those procedures up a bit. It’s kind of like being able to remember the lyrics to a song when you can’t remember the first word. But… if you hear that first word – it just flows out of you. When your math textbook tells you “use this,” it’s handing you the solution to every one of the problems in that list.
Instead of being required to use active recall, you’re being handed a list of stuff to read and hopefully remember based on repetition.
This is why you need to use active recall instead of the logical ordering your textbook introduces you to.
Okay… I’m Done Teasing
Remembering when to use each procedure in class is a declarative problem for most of us. It requires we recognize the problem and can identify which of the procedures we know should be used to solve it.
Using active recall to master this process requires you intentionally avoid using the textbooks logical ordering of similar problems.
If you’re assigned to complete problems 1 through 30 then follow these three steps to complete them.
1. Learn all the required procedures (to a basic level.)
If the first 10 problems use one procedure then do a single one of the problems in the middle of those 10 problems just to prove you know how to do it. If you do know how to do it then repeat that for the next procedure in the next section.
Make sure you know how to use each procedure.
This is kind of like reading your flashcards when you know that you don’t know what’s on the other side. You’re goal is to familiarize yourself without using up all your problems.
2. Randomly cycle through all of the problems (if possible, obscure or ignore which section each problem is in.)
Don’t do the problems sequentially.
Do them randomly in whatever way you feel comfortable. The more random you make it, the more difficult it will be BUT you’ll also be making it more powerful.
So… you could write all of the problems on flash cards without their associated numbers. Then you’d shuffle those flashcards. Pull one card out at a time and try to solve the problem before looking up what number it is. (Repetition is an option to improve your abilities but it can be time consuming.) You can even put the number of the problem on the back for later reference. Just don’t look until you solve it.
In fact, in a perfect world, you’d ask someone else to write the flashcards for you so you don’t accidentally remember which problems go with which procedure.
That’s a best case scenario.
If you’re more like me then you might choose the lazier approach. When you’re doing the problems and randomly selecting them – don’t focus on repeating the same procedure. Every time you do a new problem, try and forget how you solved the last one. Treat each problem like a blank slate that you need to think about to discover the procedure to solve. This is less effective though.
The more you can disassociate the procedure selection from repetition, the better off you’re going to be.
3. Increase The Power 1000% (estimated)
If you’re dead set on improving your math skills then combine this active recall approach with some spaced repetition.
Spaced repetition is the idea that you should learn something multiple times to remember it better.
After you learn something using active recall, you should try to review it within a couple days. Then after that, you should review it another week later. And a month after reviewing it that third time then you should review it again. You should repeat this process indefinitely until it’s second nature (or until you don’t care if you’ll forget it.)
If you choose the flashcard approach then save those flashcards to use for practicing before your next test. If you can’t solve the problem later then you know you have review that particular procedure.
This is how mediocre math students can painfully turn themselves into extraordinary math students.
Eventually, the familiarity with selecting procedures will become second nature.
Turning The Declarative Into Something Procedural
Over time, using this method will help you develop an instinct similar to that of a naturally gifted student because it forces you to use pattern recognition to solve the problems. Once that pattern recognition kicks in, you’re going to be able to look at problems you’ve never seen before and recognize which procedure to use (or even if there are multiple ways or steps to solve it.)
That is the ultimate goal of a math education.
There is a pattern behind all of math and your goal is to develop an understanding of how that pattern works.
This is the understanding that “gifted” students have. This is the kind of skill level you can develop if you’re dedicated enough.
Taking the declarative aspects of this learning process and separating them in a flashcard format is just making something that’s hard to recognize and making it a more measurable procedure itself.
The key is: learn to recognize the problems using active recall and the procedural aspect just requires practice (and not as much as you might think.)