Test days can be your easy days if you study right.

Active recall is the most powerful study strategy ever discovered.

Okay… That sounds a bit sensational.

Here is the thing:

It is sensational!

Active recall is just that damn good.

Researchers have been heavily invested in experimenting with every study strategy you can imagine. It’s been a subject that scientists have beat to death. (They’re academics. It’s natural they’d want to find the best ways to learn information.)

There have been hundreds of quality experiments done on active recall because it’s the strategy that’s always coming out on top. It has been compared to virtually any study strategy you can imagine. It’s better than reading. It’s better than highlighting. Active recall crushes just listening. It’s better than watching. In short: active recall helps you remember better than any other strategy known today.

Simple enough, right?

If you want to improve your grades, the best place to start is by using active recall.

Do you want to learn 12 Active Recall Strategies? Access the full list (and our other exclusive articles) in the subscribers only area. It’s currently free for all readers.

How To Use Active Recall

1861 – Pre-photography – Post-odd guy staring at the camera

You can find a more fancy explanation on the active recall Wikipedia page but I like to keep it simple:

Active recall is practicing remembering stuff.

If you want to remember something then you should practice remembering it.

Let’s say you want to remember:

Lincoln was inaugurated in 1861.

If you want to remember that fact, don’t just read it. Don’t reread it. Don’t underline it and put a star next to it (seriously, why would you write on your monitor?) To remember it: close your eyes and try to remember it.

Ask yourself, “what was the year Lincoln was inaugurated?” (Make sure your eyes are closed.)

Try this!

Can you remember without cheating and looking at the page? If yes, you’ve successfully used active recall. If not, look up at the year and try again.

You’re more likely to remember something when you’ve successfully remembered it in the past. (You can be confident it’s lodged somewhere in your brain.) You can remember it even better by practicing more.

How To Use Active Recall For Studying

The key to using active recall for studying is making a distinction between recall and review.

1. Review

This is the step prior to using active recall. You can’t practice remembering something unless you know it well enough to remember it!

Imagine I ask: what is the Capital city of Myanmar?

You probably can’t tell me that without first having some idea what the capital city is. (You’ll also need to figure out how to say it… Naypyidaw. Good luck with that.)

Reviewing is the first step to using active recall. It’s also what you do when you can’t quite remember something. It’s what you go back to when you fail to remember it.

2. Recall

This is the step where you ignore your resources and focus on remembering.

Don’t have your textbook with the information right in front of you (unless your eyes are closed.) Don’t peek at the other side of your flash card. If you can’t remember something without cheating then you aren’t recalling it. Go back to step one and try again.

The main reason most students suck at studying is this:

They fail to make the distinction between review and recall.

They look down at their information and think that’s helping them remember it long term. It’s easy to think you remember something when it’s right in front of you. The difference between success and failure is this difference.

The only way you can be confident you’re using active recall is to eliminate any ways you might “cheat” while studying. Separate review and recall.

You can get a full list of 12 Active Recall Strategies in our subscribers only area. You will also gain access to all our exclusive articles. It’s currently free for all readers.

Typical Active Recall Strategies

They are one of the easiest ways to think about quality studying.

Flash Cards

Flash cards are Smart Student Secret’s classic example of active recall.

On one side of the flash card you write a cue.

On the other side of the flash card you write what you want to remember.

Studying is just looking at the cue and remembering what is on the other side of the flash card. (And maybe looking at the cards the other direction too.) After you’ve tried to remember it, flip it over and review the fact.

They’re great because they’re hard to cheat with. You either know what’s on the other side of the flash card or you don’t. You can’t accidentally peek at the other side. You’ll know if you know or not. If you don’t know then it means you’re not prepared for the test.

Key Points:

  • Use flashcards regularly!
  • Write them fast. Writing them can be a time drain.
  • When you’re done writing them, you should be able to recall 10%-50% without any review.
  • Review cards you can’t remember.
  • Take cards out of your stack when you always know them perfectly.
  • Review cards you take out of your stack later.

Read & Remember

I don’t think there is a purpose of this image but it is a nice picture so…

Most students reread their textbook thinking it will help them remember. That’s virtually never the case. Given my experience, I rarely even recommend doing assigned readings for most classes. (I do recommend reading fiction for literary classes.)

Reading gives you the illusion of knowledge (Koriat, Asher; Bjork, Robert A 2005). When you just looked at something, it’s inevitable you’ll kind of think you remember it. When you read it a second time you’ll think, “Yea… I remember that.” That’s probably just your brain fooling you. Never trust this feeling without testing it first.

If you really can remember it then cover your textbook and remember what it says.

Do you remember it? Good. Now wait five minutes and try again.

This is how you turn reading into active recall. You don’t need to make flashcards. You just need to be willing to move your eyes off the page for a couple minutes.

Key Points

  • Close your eyes (or the textbook) to ensure you don’t cheat yourself.
  • Remember large chunks of information at a time. Remembering the last sentence is expected. Remembering the last paragraph is productive. Remembering the last page is proof you’re learning it.
  • Don’t remember it word for word. Remember the important points.

Bonus Tip:

Try covering important words in your textbook with adhesive tabs like post-its). Try to remember the words being covered. Use that to prepare for the test.

Fill In The Blanks Of Your Notes

Your own notes are one of the better study resources you have.

Don’t take too good of notes in class.

I know that sounds funny but it’s important.

Most people think a good set of notes is a set of notes that includes every detail the teacher went over. In my experience, that’s not the case.

A good set of notes is a set of notes that helps you prepare for the test better. Details can help but they aren’t absolutely essential. If you capture too many details on paper then it will just distract you from capturing the details in your mind.

You need to balance out how many notes you write.

Your goal shouldn’t be to capture as many ideas as possible on paper. It should be write enough to know what you need to remember and nothing more. You shouldn’t constantly be writing notes in class. Listening requires effort. The more you’re focused on writing, the less you’re listening.

Use those notes to study.

Read through your notes and try to remember the stuff you didn’t write down from class. You might even want to write that stuff down outside of class.

This is a great way to use active recall while focusing on the most important points in class. The more you remember from the lecture, the better off you’ll be during the test. (It’s not quite that simple with textbooks. The textbooks rarely perfectly align with the tests. Notes almost always do.)

Key Points:

  • Don’t take notes of everything. Use class time for thinking more than writing.
  • Fill in the missing sections of your notes after class to study.
  • Focus your energy on learning the points your teacher spent the most time on.

Practice Testing

Practice testing makes the regular testing easier.

Taking a test is hard.

There is a ton of pressure.

Most students struggle during tests because they’re not used to that kind of pressure.

Reading stuff is easy. Reading it repeatedly is easy. Highlighting is easy.

Active recall is hard.

Sure… using active recall for two seconds is easy but try using flashcards for 20 minutes. If they’re a tough set of cards then you’ll feel it. You’ll be a little tired.

Increasing the stress level during a study session can be a good thing. It can help you prepare for the actual exam. I’ve said this a number of times and most readers still don’t believe me:

When you know how to study for an exam, tests are your easy day.

Seriously! My study routine is tough to the point that testing seems easy. I sometimes even enjoy it. I like my hard work coming together.

You make this happen by testing yourself regularly.

Practice tests are a great way to do this.

If possible, take practice tests.

If you’re taking a test like the SAT’s then this won’t be tough. Get some practice tests. Sit alone with a timer. Do the practice tests and follow all the rules. (No cheating!)

If you’re taking a more typical class exam then you could use practice tests from resources online. Usually they won’t be a good comparison to your final test but they’re still good practice. You can practice test with exams that aren’t related well to the test. You’ll just score low on those practice tests. (They’re practice. That will just make your real exams easier.)

You just shouldn’t study with material to learn for those practice tests. Focus on studying for your own test. You just can use those practice tests to test your overall knowledge on the subject.

Key Points

  • Practice taking tests.
  • Aim to make tests easier than studying.
  • Take related practice exams but focus on studying for your particular test. Never study for the practice exam.
  • See Khan Academy for awesome free practice resources.



One reader uses visualization to study better.

This is a particularly useful strategy when you can’t study traditionally because you don’t have your stuff.

Try imagining the subject. Picture the stuff you want to remember.

Do you want to remember how to solve a math problem? Try doing it in your head. Draw it out in your brain and try to figure it out. If you can do a math problem in your head then you’ll have no problem doing it with paper.

Do you want to remember an obscure word like transmogrification? Read this and you’ll know how to visualize it in no time.

Key Points

  • Picture what you’re trying to remember
  • Pay attention to the details. What are the distinguishing characteristics?
  • You don’t even need your resources until you want to check your work.

Draw It!

One reader sent us an awesome idea to activate your active recall while having fun.

Try drawing what you need to remember. Drawing it will help you look at the information in a different way. If you’re trying to remember a historical figure then try drawing them (even if they do look a little wonky.) This process can help you remember important characteristics of what you’re trying to remember.

If you’re trying to remember Abraham Lincoln was assassinated then you might draw him in a bulletproof helmet.

Yes. That’s super silly/crude but I promise it will help.

Your brain loves to remember stuff that makes you feel something. Draw what you’re trying to remember then take note of the details that can help you remember important facts.

Then review your notes on the subject and make sure you included everything that was important. If not, put down your notes and continue to doodle your drawing until it’s accurate. (Or as accurate as I can draw my ugly stick figures.) For example, you don’t want to draw a historical character that can’t walk standing up.

Key Points

  • Draw what you need to remember without referencing your notes until after.
  • Be silly or funny or crude or anything that makes you feel. That helps you remember.
  • Don’t get caught up trying to draw perfectly but aim for factual accuracy.

Use Active Recall!

This is the most important thing you need to realize:

Active recall is the fundamental study strategy you should use to learn.

Sure… you can experiment with other ideas. Play around with the surface details of how you use active recall. You can change it up every once in awhile for fun. Still… come back to active recall.

Active recall should be your go-to strategy. The only times you don’t use it are times when you have an excuse not to use it:

  • If you have an easy test coming, you might want to try something new.
  • If you have a few weeks before the exam, you can change things up a little.
  • When you’re terribly bored with your current strategy, it can be fun to change it.

Those points being said, active recall is your simple solution to a complicated problem.

Use it!

You can get a full list of 12 Active Recall Strategies in our subscribers only area. You will also gain access to all our exclusive articles. It’s currently free for all readers.

Image Sources: KF, Circe Denyer, US AF, Cali4Beach, Andibreit

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  • June 5, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    I like your idea about reading and closing your eyes to use active recall. It saves a ton of time making flashcards. I feel like it’s only 90% as effective because it misses out on the writing portion but it works good for most stuff.

    • June 5, 2017 at 5:27 pm

      That sounds about right.

      Writing stuff out can improve your memory of it but I think you’re right in factoring in the time. 100% effective doesn’t matter if it takes twice as long. I’d prefer 90% in half the time. That makes it way more tolerable long term.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • June 5, 2017 at 4:44 pm

    Khan Academy is awesome. I used it to catch back up in Algebra 2.

    • June 5, 2017 at 5:25 pm

      Agreed. It saved my butt when I was trying to relearn some Calc concepts.

      I’m surprised but I think this is the first time I mentioned it.

      Thanks for the comment!


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