How to Study for Exams - Evidence-Based Revision Tips - Active Recall

How to Study for Exams - Evidence-Based Revision Tips - Active Recall

If you're anything like me when you arrived in secondary school it was the first time you ever needed to or bothered to open a book outside of school.

And if your anything like me you probably wondered what's the best way to study. and luckily this article will hopefully break down everything you should and shouldn't do.

What not to do

There are two sides to everything so before I talk about how to study I will talk about how not to study. I will mainly quote from a study conducted by Prof. Dunlosky and his colleagues.  

1. Rereading

From experience (aka asking everybody I know how they study) rereading seems to be very popular but the evidence suggests that it isn't a very good one. Here is what Dunlosky and his colleagues have to say about rereading:

"Based on the available evidence, we rate rereading as having low utility... although re-reading is relatively economical with respect to time demands... when compared with some other learning techniques re-reading is typically much less effective. The realative disadvantage of re-reading to other techniques is the largest strike against re-reading and is the factor that weighted most heavily in our decision to assign it a rating of low utility."

As you can see this technique is not very feasible as it has a high intensity in respect to time demands and doesn't produce the results to show for it.

2. Summarising

This is also popular as it is seen as "active" and some of my teachers have also recommended this technique. Here is a quote from the study:

On the basis of the available evidence, we rate summarization as having low utility. It can be an effective learning strategy for learners who are already skilled in summarizing; however many learnings (including children, high school students, and even some undergraduates) will require extensive training which in turn makes this strategy less feasible.

This technique can be useful but only closed book because you are using cognitive brain effort to retrieve the information rather than just copying it down.

3. Highlighting

Highlighting is probably the most popular technique as it is widely recommended by teachers and our intuition believes it to be useful. It looks nice if you have a load of stuff highlighted and it makes you feel like you have accomplished something when in reality you may have been wasting your time. Here is what the experts have to say:

"On the basis of the available evidence, we rate highlighting and underlining as having low utility. In most situations that have been examined and with most participants, highlighting does little to boost performance. It may help when students have the knowledge needed to highlight more effectively, or when texts are difficult, but it may actually hurt performance on higher-level tasks that require inference making."

What I recommend is using highlighting in class to pinpoint what you should study at home but I do not recommend using it as a technique itself.

Now that we have got that out of the way we can talk about all the joys of Active Recall.

The Evidence behind Active Recall

There is a ton of evidence to back active recall and I could be here all day but I will list three studies that I believe are the most useful. Spitzer 1939

Spitzer 1939

In this study, they conducted an experiment where they split students into two groups the first group was to study the material as they normally would and then they would have a test on it a day later and a week later. The second group did the same except they had a practice test at the end of it here are the results. The students were separated into the top and bottom thirds decided by other factors.

Here is the graph:

Karpicke & Blunt 2011

For this experiment, they split people into 4 groups the first read over the material the second read it four times the third drew spider diagrams and the fourth used active recall. This study is also useful because it didn’t just ask them verbatim questions they asked inference as well. As you can see here are the results and once again active recall wins it out. However, that was not all they had the third phase of study where they asked students what they thought was the best technique and as you can see from the results of that our intuition as to the best method of studying is often very misjudged.

And if you would like to look at graphs this is for you:


So say you're convinced on the idea of never rereading, highlighting or summarising anything ever again and sold on active recall how do you implement it.

Cornell Note Taking

A useful way of implementing this is the Cornell Note Taking System. This is where you divide a page in half; on one side you write notes and then write the corresponding questions on the other side. You cover the notes while you answer the questions.

Closed Book Spider diagrams

Lots of people draw spider diagrams however most people draw them open-book and then they read over their notes which is the worst possible combination of summarising and rereading. What I propose is to make one "master spider diagram" from the book and then what you can do is you can try to draw out the spider diagrams without the book or master spider diagram in front of you and once finished read the master spider diagram close it again and draw it again from scratch. Do this until you have it completely memorised. (This is good for memorising essay plans).


Anki is a really useful flashcard app that is useful as when you are confronted by a flashcard you are being asked a question and therefore directly taking advantage of active recall. Digital flashcards are more useful than physical ones as physical ones have to be organised and can be easily lost and digital ones automatically do spaced repetition (which if combined with Active recall is the ultimate study combo).

Practice Papers

Practice papers/past papers are endlessly useful as you are confronted with the exact type of questions that will be on the exam and in certain subjects, the same questions come up all the time so you might as well. I use studyclix for this although there are many free options like


If you are getting good results and you are perfectly happy with the time and style of studying then by all means go ahead but maybe your not getting good results or you are but you want to spend less time studying or want to increase efficiency then you should implement active recall