Passive and Active Revision


Many, including me, have found a Thursday Night Virtual Quiz to be a regular way of spending an evening (and as a marker of another week passing as lockdown continues). And whilst taking part last night I was reminded of an important distinction between recognition and recall of knowledge. There was many an answer that I knew, was able to recall and with a smug sense of satisfaction happily jotted down the correct answer. (Round One, Question Eight – Gizmo was in ‘Gremlins’). But equally there were many questions to which I sat with my quiz paper blurting out “It’s on the tip of my tongue…. I just can’t quite remember the name”, and when the answer was given thought “yep, that was what I was thinking”. These were the answers I merely recognised

This distinction is critical when it comes to learning and especially revision. The distinction between recognition (remembering once you’ve been given an answer) and recall (giving an answer without prompts) has been related to the concepts of passive and active revision respectively. Passive revision, the act of reading notes and copying material, often forms the foundation of revision for a great deal of students. It’s easy and comforting but it’s also considered to be much less effective than active revision. Passive revision alone will lead to recognition of knowledge – seeing information on a page and being tricked into thinking you’ve learnt it. It’s much easier to read through a page of notes you’ve written and think “I know all that”, than it is to cover the same page and give a talk about the information on it. Whilst there’s no harm in starting with passive revision (as mentioned, it is the foundation of revision for most learners), in order to encourage an ability to recall information, revision would need to ultimately become active. This active approach to revision is associated with using and organising material. 

Useful words to consider when setting, encouraging or undertaking active revision include:

  • organise
  • select
  • interpret
  • link
  • explore
  • use
  • calculate
  • explain
  • recall
  • categorise
  • teach
  • reorganise
  • develop
  • argue
  • diagnose

Actively revising (or learning) means you are making a real effort to understand and embed information so that the recall and retrieval of that information becomes much more fluent.

With that in mind, perhaps if I’d actively been trying to sing her back catalogue rather than passively listening to the radio, I would have been able to know that Round One, Question Six was ‘Firework’ by Katy Perry.