How Your Brain Works: Recognition & Recall

Recall is a much tougher memory task than recognition, as illustrated by two everyday examples:

  • It is easier to remember someone’s face than to remember someone’s name. This is because you recognize a face, but have to recall a name.
  • Reciting something by heart is tougher than reading something out loud. This is because you have to a recall something learned by heart, but only have to recognize written words.

Let’s use test taking as an example. All else equal, it is much easier to answer a multiple choice question (recognition) than it is to answer an equivalent short-answer question (recall). Compare the relative difficulty of the following:

Test design based on recall…

What are three synonyms for the word “enthusiasm”?

  1. ________________
  2. ________________
  3. ________________

Test design based on recognition…

What are four synonyms for the word “zeal”?

  • A. faith, philosophy, metaphysics, religion
  • B. anger, hatred, malice, jealousy
  • C. ardor, passion, fervor, enthusiasm
  • D. joy, happiness, contentment, peace

Notice that the recall test requires active processing, searching, and connection of relevant information in the absence of any external memory cues except for the word “enthusiasm”, while the recognition test contains multiple memory cues and enough hints that I need not work so hard to find to the answer.

Implications for Students and Teachers

Studying for recall requires much deeper understanding, processing, and elaboration than studying for recognition. Since there are no multiple choice tests in music performance, it should be clear that teaching and studying methods should be tailored to facilitate recall.

LEARN MORE… The Power of Patterns

About Frank J Peter

A uniquely burdened and blessed citizen of the world thinking and acting out loud!
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