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My Exam Strategy, Part 1: Active Recall

Updated: Mar 18, 2021

If you watch any video on how to study for exams, you will probably come across the term active recall. Active recall is the idea of taking information out of your brain (ie testing yourself), in contrast to passive review (note-taking, highlighting) which involves trying to put information into your brain. There are studies that show that using active recall is the best way to learn content and amongst people who write about studying, this is also the general consensus. I personally find that using active recall is a much more effective method than reading/ writing notes and highlighting.

I will write about how I developed a system for studying around the concept of active recall and later in part 2 on spaced repetition. Bear in mind that this system works well for me but may not work well for you. I would recommend following this guy- Ali Abdaal- from whom I discovered the concept of active recall.


Around year 8 or 9, when I started to care about exams, I adopted the flashcard system (before which I just read through my notes) and carried on using them through GCSEs and stopped only a couple of months ago.

The idea of flashcards is to use active recall (though I did not know about active recall at the time) by writing a question/ key word/ key phrase on one side of the card and then writing the answer on the other side. When it came to revise, one would simply look at the question/ key phrase on one side and come up with an answer, then checking the it by turning the card over. As you can see this is comparable to having a question in an exam where you have to 'actively recall' the answer.

A benefit of this is that when you write the flashcards, you will start to learn some bits because you are writing them. So, when you come to test yourself, you should know some of the material. A very counter-productive way to use flashcards is just writing out material without understanding or internalising any of it. When you come to test yourself, it is very likely you will get most of it wrong.

The main problems with flashcards is that they take ages to write and if you use them for everything like me, you will end up with boxes and boxes of them, which I found out during my GCSE year. It's also hard to use spaced repetition with flashcards- but more of this in part 2. These are the reasons why I stopped using them and moved to the app Notion- see point 3.


Quizlet is ideal when it comes to learning languages. I found that its write function was especially useful when learning vocab. In addition, one can find lots of premade sets on Quizlet, saving you a lot of time.

Quizlet also has a flashcard function, which is also useful for learning content in a subject. My only problem with this, is that often you have to make your sets yourself which takes a while, in comparison to Notion. It is also harder to deal with images and spaced repetition on Quizlet, although apparently the paid version makes this easier.


Notion is one of the greatest apps ever made and I really wish I discovered it earlier. Not only is it great for studying for exams, it's one of those apps with which you can use to sort out your life such as a notebook, to-do list, spending list etc. With its countless templates, it is very easy to do these things (a post on this coming up.)

Using active recall on notion is very easy too. On Notion you can create toggle lists where you can create a toggle which can be used to hide a list, image or any text and one can simply toggle and untoggle to reveal the list, image or text. So, with a similar concept to flashcards, you can write a question and underneath that, write an answer which you can hide in the toggle. Unlike flashcards, if your typing speed is fast, you can take much less time typing out the notes. Notion's format also means that its faster to type out notes here than on Quizlet. Additionally, using spaced repetition with Notion is pretty easy and its much easier to work with images and diagrams than in Quizlet.

A more more detailed post of how I use Notion will appear soon. There are just too many ways of using Notion to fit into this post.

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