Monthly Archive for January, 2015

How to use Active Recall to become a Problem-Solving Machine

Don’t confuse recognizing information with being able to recall it.”
~ Adam Robinson, author of What Smart Students Know

What are some things we typically do when we “learn” or “study” during the semester?

  • Listen to your professor’s logical, organized explanation of a new concept and thinking, “oh ok, got it”
  • Read through your lecture notes while nodding and murmuring, “makes sense”
  • Do problem sets with the textbook open to the example problems, and plug-and-chug until the correct answer pops out

These things may make us feel warm and fuzzy, but the truth is, these things are embarrassingly ineffective when it comes time to put pencil to paper on an exam.

And tragically, they end up convincing you that you understand everything, until you show up to the test, where it feels like you’re seeing the material for the first time again.


Because all of these things are PASSIVE.

Passive vs. Active Learning

Think of what we typically do in lecture.

We like to think of ourselves like sponges: we’ll somehow absorb what the professor is saying as it washes over us like a warm bath.

But remember: the brain will always conserve energy when possible, so unless there is a specific problem for it to solve, unnecessary information is quickly discarded.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, and what top students embrace and practice on a daily basis, is what we call “active learning” (or more specifically the technique of Active Recall).

Active learning is just as it sounds. In order to truly learn a new piece of information, you need to somehow trick your brain into working on it, activating new neural pathways and building new connections.

If you put in short bursts of hard work doing active recall (solving problems from scratch), you can save yourself hours and hours of wasted time mulling over useless material.

Active Recall: How do we do it?

Step 1: Start with a question

This can be conceptual or an actual practice problem.

Do NOT look at your notes.

And do NOT review any problem solutions. (*Note: you will need the solution in step 3 though so have it on hand, hidden away.)

Step 2: The struggle

Struggle with it.

This is going to be tough, especially if this is the first time you’re trying to solve a particular type of problem from scratch.

Try your best, and guess if you have to. But again, no peeking at your notes or the solution.

Once you’ve given it your best effort, then comes…

Step 3: Check yourself

Bust out your problem solution and see how your answer lines up with it.

Don’t skimp here! You want to catch any gaps in your understanding and address them as soon as possible.

So find your mistakes, and go back and correct them.

Remember: finding your mistakes and fixing them NOW means that you won’t make those mistakes LATER on the exam when it counts. So the more mistakes you find, the better!

Step 4: Repeat at different time intervals

Studies show that the most effective spacing for performing this type of practice is…

#1 – Right after you’ve learned something

and then…

#2 – 2-3 days after you’ve first been introduced to the material

So for you that means the following:

After class for the day, immediately test yourself using active recall, when you’re still uncomfortable with the material. This is where you get the biggest bang for your buck, because you’re really forcing your brain to work hard.

Then, do it again ~2 days later.
So get out there, and start ACTIVELY learning your course material, and watch as your grades and understanding skyrockets.

(Feature Photo Credit:  Bryan)

Tom Miller is an engineer and physics tutor, obsessed with independent learning. He writes about unconventional study methods at WTF Professor, aimed at simplifying the learning process for engineers and technical students.

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