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How not to blank on exam problems: The Practice of Active Recall

Click here to download the free Active Recall PDF Guide

Take a look at the quote below, from an engineering student, who just barely managed to pass her Physics 1 course.

“I went to every lecture and felt like I understood all the concepts he was talking about. When I went to do the exams though, I would have no clue what to do and just half-ass it.”

Imagine your thoughts as you sit down in the dark, dungeon-like, 1980’s-style lecture hall for your first Physics 1 midterm.

Photo: Kenneth Lu


You’re already nervous, and slightly edgy from getting 4-hours less sleep than your usual, and downing a double-espresso at the student cafe an hour prior. The professor is intimidating, and slightly condescending as usual.

The test begins.

Multiple-choice question 4: “Uh oh, don’t remember seeing that before. Let’s check the free response.”

Free-response question 1: “Shit – I didn’t think that was going to be on here.”

Panic sets in, and it’s all downhill from there.

The story is so common, and the memories so seared into our brains, that almost all of us can still feel the pain and anxiety from taking exams in school, regardless of how long it’s been since graduation day.

Some of the worst nightmares I’ve had have been about never going to class, and then showing up at the final with no clue how to do any of the problems.

Like I mentioned in my last post, it seems like exams are a crap-shoot. How is it possible to study all of this stuff? And whenever I sit down to take one, I feel like I completely blank on how to solve it. What gives?

Well let’s break down some of those questions.

I feel like I know it, but it’s not there for me on test day…

You feel like you’re learning the material, but when you’re on your own with a difficult problem to solve, the material isn’t there for you. You can’t retrieve it.

Here’s the problem though, you never really “learned” it in the first place.

  • Listening to your professor’s logical, organized explanation of a new concept and thinking, “oh ok, got it”
  • Mindlessly reading through your lecture notes while nodding and murmuring, “makes sense”
  • Doing problem sets with the textbook open to the example problems, and plugging and chugging until the correct answer pops out

These are all things we do when we “learn” during the semester.

They make us feel warm and fuzzy.

But the truth is, these things are embarrassingly ineffective when it comes to put pencil to paper. We’re setting ourselves up for failure.


Well partly because that’s part of the delusion the school system has so graciously burdened us with from age 6 onwards.

But really, it’s because all of these things are PASSIVE. It’s just surface-level tidbits. The information isn’t getting through your thick skull.

Passive Learning

Is this you?

Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 7.49.26 AM

We run into this unfortunate situation because we think of ourselves like sponges – we’ll somehow absorb this new (albeit extremely uninteresting) information as it washes over us like a warm bath.

As the professor keeps droning on, it’s a battle to stay with it. Your attention drifts. Your brain is shutting down.

This is what we call passive learning.

You are sitting there as the recipient of the information, comprehending what is being said, but not necessarily doing anything with it. Remember that the brain will always conserve energy when possible, so unless there is a specific problem for it to solve, unnecessary information is quickly discarded.

That’s why you can walk out of a lecture you think you understood, until someone asks you to describe what you just learned, at which time that feeling of doom and despair sets in, that often accompanies the thought that you really don’t know much of anything…

Don’t be Jackie Chan: (Photo: http://troll.me?p=63374)


You’re generally able to recognize similar information, and regurgitate what you have associated with that information in your head, but won’t be able to do much more than that.

This is why listening to lectures and reading through the textbook can lull us into a false sense of security. When we see an example in the context of related information, it’s relatively straightforward to retrieve and apply formulas related to it. But in the absence of the professor’s slides, and the diagrams and explanations in the text, we’re mostly at a loss.

“Don’t confuse recognizing information with being able to recall it.”

“Most of the time students spend studying for exams in the traditional way is wasted because they aren’t practicing what they’ll have to do on the test.”

~Adam Robinson, What Smart Students Know

Active Learning

Active learning, on the other hand, 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 that make it easy to access when needed.

Listen to Cal Newport, author of How to Win at College, break it down for us:

What he’s saying is: if you put in short bursts of hard work (solving problems from scratch), then you can save yourself hours and hours of wasted time mulling over useless material.

Click here to download the free Active Recall PDF Guide

Yes, I know what you’re thinking:

NO SHIT SHERLOCK! Solve hard problems off the top of your head and you’ll do well? Tell me something that doesn’t make me despise you, and everyone else who’s ever done well in Physics.”

Or even for those of you who might have bought in to the idea, I bet you’re thinking:

“Well I’m sure that works for some people, but I just don’t get it. I don’t know where to start and none of it makes sense to me.”

But what about people like this?

Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 8.44.21 AM

Clearly they weren’t “naturally good” at the subject. They didn’t just “get it.” But damn, they sure figured something out.

Imagine what they were thinking during the first semester they failed Physics…

Now imagine what it felt like the second time they failed that same Physics course!

But lo and behold, something changed. And over time they experienced a dramatic improvement in their level of understanding of the material.

Turnaround stories like this one illustrate that it’s possible to make a small tweak to how you do things, and get MASSIVE results over time.

So here’s how I would approach it:

Step (1): Copy it all down

Copy down every step of the example problems the professor or TA solves in class. That’s all you have to do at first. Don’t worry if you don’t understand it just yet.

Step (2): Start solving what you can

Start small. Start with the most basic problems from that lecture, and go through them step-by-step. Break down each piece of the problem until you feel comfortable with drawing out the concepts, figuring out what the variables and equations are, and putting it all together in a solution.

This is what I designed my Problem-Solving Guide to do.

So for example, let’s say you’re trying to figure out Kinetic Energy. A good problem to start with for developing a basic understanding might be:

From The Physics Classroom

Screen Shot 2014-08-04 at 5.50.42 PM

From this point, I’m sure most of you can recognize that they’re plugging in 625 kg for m and 18.3 m/s for v in the equation for KE, and then plugging into a calculator to find the energy. You’re starting with a basic understanding of the problem solving mechanics. Here  you can break down each step, draw it out, identify your variables and equations and units, and begin to learn the “rules” of the concept, like so:

Screen Shot 2014-08-04 at 6.10.13 PM

Work your way up from this point through slightly more difficult problems, still taking your time to understand the variables, relationships, and steps.

Eventually you’ll reach more complex problems like the one shown below, and can further enhance your “mental model” for Kinetic Energy, setting the foundation for mastering the concept.

From Knight’s Physics for Scientists and Engineers (2nd Edition)

Step (3): Do active recall

Once you feel comfortable that you understand the fundamentals of how to solve a particular type of problem, take advantage of active recall.

Start with a problem and no solution. Try to come up with the solution method and steps off the top of your head, without any supporting materials.

Do the best you can and even guess if you have to. Write down what you can, and then go back and verify whether you were correct with a provided solution.

Repeat this process throughout the semester with a diverse variety of problems and you’ll build your preparation for seeing and responding to tough questions on the exam.

Click here to download the free Active Recall PDF Guide

You might even be able to sit down to a problem like this, and not cry.

Screen Shot 2014-08-04 at 6.35.18 PM

So throw away the lecture slides, do the work of breaking down problems step-by-step, replace your useless passive review with active recall, and joyfully chuckle to yourself as you pass by your classmates, still toiling away in the study lounge late into Sunday night…

  • Brandon January 12, 2015, 8:16 pm

    You sir, know what’s up. I’m in my Junior year in Civil Engineering currently. I used to blank on tests, memorize, etc… (For reference, I am (or was in easier things) one of “those” students that can generally do little or nothing and get straight A’s). The thing is, just a hope and prayer stopped working about the time Statics rolled around. That was the semester I learned how to actually “study”, i.e everything said above.

    I constantly see people memorizing previous tests, cramming, etc and still failing or at least doing below average on their tests, where as I take little to no notes, and study little. The reason it works is because I’m efficient and actually learn the process of solving the problems. The biggest lie students are telling themselves is they “know” the material, just because they can recite the formula or have memorized how to solve one problem.

    • Tom January 13, 2015, 7:18 am

      Brandon, awesome. Thanks for the anecdote! What I’ve found is some students come across best practices out of necessity, but it’s not always straightforward what we should be doing to learn more effectively. Sounds like you figured it out early.

  • Musodiq March 4, 2015, 11:38 am

    Thanks a lot Tom your articles have been very helpful. I have improved so much and i have less panic attacks during tests. The study techniques have also been effective in letting me understand the material.
    Thanks a bunch

    • Tom March 4, 2015, 5:48 pm

      Dude, that’s awesome. Congrats!

  • Max April 19, 2015, 5:37 pm

    Somehow, I know this article is the truth. I feel like I’ve known this for as long as I can remember. Why I study passively, repeatedly get mediocre grades and then do it again honestly beats me. I feel like I’ve just had an epiphany. I believe this article would be the game-changer. Thank you.

    • Tom April 20, 2015, 1:30 pm

      Glad to hear it, Max. Let us know how it works out for you.

  • raymond September 21, 2015, 4:28 pm

    So basically the best way to learn something is by explaining the concept correctly the first time and even if you explained it incorrectly the first time, you learned from your mistake and know why it’s wrong. Learning is actually a really simple thing.

    • Tom September 22, 2015, 6:00 am

      Yup. Simple but not easy.

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