Productivity

Active Recall and Spaced Repetition – How to study for exams?

I will be discussing about why spaced repetition and active recall are the best techniques instead of passively taking notes for your exams.

โ€œStudy hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.โ€

~ Richard P. Feynman

Remember that we were forced to make notes since our childhood? Girls and Boys were given extra marks just for spending time and making notes look beautiful. Of course, I’m not discouraging anyone from making notes but my point is we should STOP glorifying this practice as one of the best study tips!

Why? Because it does not help them. It does not make them become “intelligent” or facilitate them in retaining the knowledge for a very long time. It just simply eats away time. Their ego is unnecessarily boosted for no good reason by giving those extra 2 marks. How am I confident in saying this? Well, I shall back my claims with proper data and research papers. Check them out by reading more about it. ?

Why should you practice Spaced Repetition?

Before I give you any techniques to study for your exams, let’s reason why you should be implementing these techniques. Instead of simply going through your notes over and over passively, use these to take your learning skills to the next level! Also, make sure to encourage others to do the same if you agree with me after reading this post. ?

Research says that humans tend to halve their memory of newly learned knowledge in a matter of days or weeks unless they consciously review the learned material. Sorry to break this to you but you already forgot about that interesting fact which you’ve read 2 days ago on a random website. What was the use of spending that time only to forget?

Check the below graph on how a typical forgetting curve looks like:

Ebbinghaus's Forgetting Curve
Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve

Now, this seems pretty obvious based on our own previous experiences as students, isn’t it? So, what can we do to counter this forgetting curve?

Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist who pioneered the experimental study of memory, hypothesized that basic training in mnemonic techniques can help overcome the speed of forgetting.

What exactly is a mnemonic technique? Without going into much detail, I will explain this with one picture here:

Mnemonic to remember days in a month
Mnemonic to remember days in a month

This is a technique that’s taught to younger kids to remember the number of days in any given month. It’s going to be pretty confusing and a heavy load on our mind just to by-heart or rote learn these number of days according to their months. But with a simple picture like this, where each knuckle represents 31 day month, it becomes easy to remember, recall, and retain the knowledge for a longer time.

That is one simple example of how mnemonic techniques work in retaining your knowledge.

But, can we come up with mnemonics all the time? As we level up our knowledge at every stage of life, do we have enough time and creativity to come up with mnemonics that would help us to retain our knowledge? The answer is no! It’s absolutely impossible to have mnemonics for every single thing.

Hermann Ebbinghaus asserted that along with a better memory representation technique (like the mnemonic technique), we also have something known as spaced repetition based on active recall.

Spaced repetition, simply put, is nothing but you space your repetition of a particular subject over a period of time. Spaced repetition is the exact opposite of cramming which most students tend to do to pass the exams the next day. Cramming is not an ideal practice (we all know yet we do!) if you want to retain your knowledge for the longest time possible. It is so deeply rooted in ourselves since childhood that we keep practicing the same even in adulthood.

Let me explain the definition of Spaced Repetition with an example. Let’s say, you’ve learned about a topic called Classification of Data. There are several other topics that you’ve to cover after this topic, say like, Organization and Visualization of data, Permutations and combinations, Probability, etcetera. What usually happens is, as soon as you finish studying Classification of Data, you jump on to the next topic and finish that and then next and then you finish all those topics until you reach the end of your syllabus.

By the time you finish your syllabus, you would be recalling very little or worse, forgotten completely about Classification of Data (unless you’ve an Eidetic Memory)!

I mean, what was the use of spending so much time on that topic only to forget it eventually? With Spaced repetition, what you can do is, once you’ve finished Classification of Data, or any topic, you simply start reviewing the notes of that topic at the end of the day before going to sleep. You schedule another repetition of the notes after 2 days and then maybe after 4-6 days depending on how difficult you find that topic. Eventually, the forgetting curve is flattened using spaced repetition and thus leads to retaining knowledge or information or whatever the heck you want for the longest time possible!

Forgetting curve after implementing Spaced Repetition
Forgetting curve after implementing Spaced Repetition

Ideally, spaced repetition should be done using an active recall technique. Now, what is that?


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Practice Active recall along with Spaced Repetition

Stop passively re-reading your notes and start practicing active recall along with spaced repetition!

Active Recall with Flashcards
Active Recall with Flashcards

Active recall is a principle of efficient learning, which claims that one has to actively stimulate memory during their learning process.

What is passive reading and how is it different?

Passive reading is simply going through the notes you’ve written and not making any effort to actively “recall” what you’ve just read. Passive reading includes simply reading, watching, listening, etc.

For example, reading a text about Rajendra Prasad or about Pratibha Patil with no further action is a passive review. Answering the questions “Who was the first Indian President?” or “Who was the first female President of India?”, is active recall.

Research says that active recall is better than mind-mapping and note-taking since it is extremely efficient for committing details and ideas into one’s memory. It is one of the quickest and most efficient ways of studying or learning new things. It also exploits the psychological testing effect and is very efficient for retaining something in our long-term memory.

Please do not confuse active recall with rote learning. Rote learning simply forces you to remember the exact words and exact answers for a given question. However, active recall is all about recalling the idea behind the question and retrieving the information which is deep inside your mind. You absolutely do NOT have to by-heart or rote learn something to remember it. Couple this with spaced repetition and you’re good to go!

Apps for Spaced Repetition and Active Recall

We’re addicted to phones all the time! So, why don’t we leverage our time spent with phones in the right way by downloading the right apps to facilitate our learning? Here are some apps which I can vouch for in aiding your learning and studying time.

Google Sheets – Spaced Repetition

Yes, this simple free tool comes in handy when you want to keep track of your Spaced Repetition schedule. Simply note down all the topics in your subject and record the day of your repetitions (set a reminder on Google Calendar to review this sheet, it helps!). Every time you are done with reviewing a topic, mark the date followed by how easy it was to actively recall the questions you asked yourself in that topic. You need not pre-define your schedule but just make sure you’re not stalling the repetition process for a long time unless of course, you’re finding that topic too easy to have any more review sessions.

See the picture below for further clarity.

Google Sheets for Spaced Repetition
Google Sheets for Spaced Repetition

Anki Flashcards – Anki

Using flashcards for active recall is the best and quickest way! Stop making those never ending notes and passively reading them every time you sit for a revision. Instead, start creating questions for yourself about a particular topic and an accompanying answer. Before looking at the answer, try to actively recall the answer, write it on a piece of paper if you need, and then have a look at the original answer. Mark whether the answer was easy to recall or hard to recall. This helps Anki how often it should show you that particular card based on how difficult it was for you to recall something. See? You don’t have to do anything as long as you just create those questions and answers.

Anki for Flashcards
Anki for Flashcards
Anki for Flashcards
Anki for Flashcards

You can even experiment by creating ‘fill in the blank’ questions. I promise that it’s going to get easier with time! ?

You know what? You can use Anki on the go! Learn anywhere, recall anywhere! Learning can be made fun using this app by making quizzes for yourself instead of simply making notes and passively reading them.

You can even see some beautiful graphs to visualize how fast you’re learning and retaining the knowledge. Isn’t that cool?

Anki for Flashcards
Anki for Flashcards

Instapaper or Pocket or Readwise

Often we come across many interesting articles every single day. You open that article, scroll through it, and close it. But what do you gain from that? Few even bookmark that article but NEVER re-visit them. That’s where Instapaper or Pocket or Readwise apps come in handy.

These apps are also available as a chrome extension along with Android/iOS version. Whenever you come across an article just click on the share button and save them to any of these apps and they’ll remind you time to time to check upon the saved articles! You can even take notes and highlight sentences you want to skim through when you review them.

I especially love using both Instapaper and Readwise together since Readwise has its own ‘flashcard’ system built into it and syncs all my Instapaper notes. Make sure you give them a try before dissing them!

Conclusion

To conclude, we’ve discussed how there’s something known as the forgetting curve and learned few techniques like spaced repetition and active recall which are backed by research to counter the forgetting curve. We’ve also learned how passively reading notes and making notes don’t amount to much if they’re not put to good use by practicing active recall.

Finally, we took a look at the apps and to leverage our time spent on mobile phones to facilitate our learning and thereby increasing retention of the information we care about.

If you’re interested in more such material, you might consider subscribing to my weekly newsletter! ? Follow me on social media for instant updates on what I am discussing about learning new things. ?


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References

  1. Karpicke, J., & Bauernschmidt, A. (2011, September). Spaced retrieval: Absolute spacing enhances learning regardless of relative spacing. Retrieved October 10, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21574747
  2. Dunlosky, J. (2013, January 07). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Retrieved October 10, 2020, from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/publications/journals/pspi/learning-techniques.html

5 thoughts on “Active Recall and Spaced Repetition – How to study for exams?

  1. Hey i found this article of ur really helpful . Keep up this good work ( read ur other articles too ?)
    And its really good to know ur doing the iit madras bsc programme .( I am in it too ??โ€โ™‚๏ธ)

    1. Hey Abhishek! Glad to know you found this article helpful! ๐Ÿ™‚ Planning to share more.
      I’ve followed you back on Twitter ๐Ÿ˜€
      Good to connect with classmate of online course haha

        1. Hello Vinod!

          I’m so glad you found this helpful. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thank you for reading the article.

          Please subscribe to the newsletter if you want more such articles in your inbox. For example, you can have a look at last week’s newsletter ๐Ÿ™‚ https://t.co/RxCjfp5RDx

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