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BCBA Exam Test tip: Get active with active recall!

Updated: Jan 9

Active recall is a study technique to increase recall (or "remembering"). Research suggests that active recall is an effective strategy; here's how to incorporate active recall methods into studying!

So what exactly is active recall?

Active recall is a process of learning new information and maintaining fluency. Research suggests that active recall is an efficient way of moving information from short-term to long-term memory so that you can quickly retrieve it for application or exam purposes.

If you want to recall a fact, don't just read it and reread it and reread it and reread it! Don't just underline, highlight it, draw pictures, and add stickers! Read the content, close the book, close your eyes and try to recall what you have just read without looking at your notes. Speak it out loud! If you can successfully do so, you have used active recall. If you can not recall the targeted information, reread the content and try again. Don't worry about reciting the definition or concept verbatim; you can use your own words.

Why does active recall work?

When students are studying, they don't often practice how to commit information to memory. With active recall, we focus on remembering without using any additional notes or tools, drawing only on your memory. This tool can be used during the acquisition phase as a learning tool and the fluency phase to ensure maintenance.

Key concepts

During active recall, restate key concepts in your own words. Restating key concepts helps check for comprehension (can you explain it?) and will help you remember those concepts more concretely. Remember that restating concepts can condense and promote focus. As you restate, make sure you prioritize the key concepts.

Review everything you've read as soon as you finish the chapter or study set

Close your learning materials and recite everything you can remember. Provide definitions, examples, and non-examples! Take percentage data and graph it! Practice makes perfect! If you miss a concept, review the materials and try again.

Is there evidence that active recall works?

In a study by Karpicke and Roediger, "The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning" (2008), A group of college students were each given 40 foreign language vocabulary words to learn and were then tested on all of them. The students were divided into four groups; the consequences for incorrect responses for the groups included:

  • Group one: The student continued to study and be tested on all 40 words.

  • Group two: The student no longer studied the targeted word but continued to be tested on it.

  • Group three: The student continued to study the targeted word but was no longer tested on it.

  • Group four: The student no longer studied and was no longer tested on the targeted word.

In this study, the students returned for a follow-up test. The results showed that students who used active recall could remember about 80% of the new terms compared to 34% for the control group who passively went back through a series of cards again!

The researchers concluded that active recall rather than repeated studying (passive learning) promotes correct recall. Why? While passive learning methods involve simply taking in information in a one-dimensional process, active recall allows for interaction and mastery. This interaction forces the brain to retrieve, process, and respond correctly.

Try it and let us know what you think!

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Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. (2008). The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning. Science, 319(5865), 966–968.

Lindsey, R.V., Shroyer, J.D., Pashler, H., & Mozer, M. (2014). Improving Students’ Long-Term Knowledge Retention Through Personalized Review. Psychological Science, 25, 639 - 647.

Trudy Georgio is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Licensed Behavior Analyst in the state of Texas. She is the founder of Tru Behavior Development, LLC who is motivated by effecting socially significant behavior change and disseminating the science of behavior to the next generation of behavior analysts!

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