Why Forced Recall is Important

Suppose you’ve just asked a student a question, and now they’re thinking about the answer. It’s one they should know, but they’re having trouble remembering it. You can see them searching their minds for the answer, but it doesn’t come to them immediately, and meanwhile the rest of the class is waiting in silence. How long go you wait before you either turn the question over to another student or answer the question yourself?

We naturally want to fill silences — or at least those moments filled only with ums, ers, and uhs. While five seconds doesn’t seem like a long time, it’s hard to do nothing in front of a classroom of people who are waiting for five whole seconds. Don’t believe me? Try it yourself; find a time in your next lesson for a brief pause, then silently count off five seconds before moving on. In that short amount of time, we get antsy. Maybe it feels a little awkward, or maybe it feels like a waste of time, but either way we’re eager to move forward with the lesson.

But if a student is genuinely trying to remember something, it may be best to wait a little longer.

We’ve blogged before about cognitive associations (see for example this post on vocab-building using related terms). The idea is that our memory makes connections between related ideas. For example, there’s a particular song that my family use to listen to a lot whenever we took a vacation when I was young. Now, whenever I hear that song, I still think of family vacations. Most people associate green with go and red with stop.


When we search our memory, it’s because we know the answer is somewhere in our memory, but it’s not immediately available. Since we’re having trouble ‘locating’ it in our mind, we instead identify a related idea. “I know it has something to do with _____”, or “I think it starts with the letter ___”, or “It sounds kinda like _____”. We keep returning to related ideas, hoping that we’ll find a connection that’ll lead us to the answer we’re looking for. Whenever you have that tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, you’ve identified concepts that are closely related to your answer, but the connections you need simply aren’t strong enough. Not yet, anyway.

Forced Recall is the process of probing those associations and tapping into their connections, intentionally pushing yourself to get closer and closer, and hopefully you’ll eventually find the answer. If you’re successful, those connections you explored will get stronger, which means it’ll make it easier for you to return to that answer next time.

When someone else reminds a student of the answer they’re looking for, that does help their memory a little bit, but not as much as if that student had strengthened their own associations through Forced Recall.

So while waiting for the student to remember doesn’t feel like the best use of the class’s time, it may help that student’s memory in the long run.

Of course, you’ll need to use your own discretion. Is the student genuinely close to the answer somewhere in their mind, or do they not actually know it? For another thing, how long is too long to wait? If the entire class is waiting on this student, maybe you’d want to draw the line at ten seconds. But if the other students can work on other things while this one student remembers, maybe give them twenty seconds or so. It’ll vary on the situation, and even on the student, so you’ll have to use your own judgement.

But now that you know the value of Forced Recall, you can at least be conscientious of how much time you’re giving them. My first week of teaching, I hardly gave students more than two or three seconds; it was simple natural for me to want to keep things moving. But once I thought of about the student’s perspective, I realized it’s nice to have a little more time to come up with the answer.

And finally, encourage Forced Recall. If you’re sure a student knows the answer, prompt them to think about it a bit longer before letting them give up. You can even guide them by pointing out associations you expect them to have (in other words: drop hints).

Give the students time to remember, and their memory will improve.

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