Want to get better grades? Be an ACTIVE learner!

by Kevin Wong

Active Learning: What is it?

Active Learning forces students to interact with information in the learning process. Instead of trying to learn by simply listening to a teacher or reading text and attempting to mindlessly commit as much information to memory as possible (passive learning), the student engages in activities such as asking/answering questions, writing, or engaging in discussion related to the material during the learning process.  These simple activities force the student to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information, which promotes deeper understanding and longer term retention of the material.

[Continue reading to learn how to implement ACTIVE learning strategies for yourself]


In class: When taking notes, instead of just copying what the teacher is saying, try some active note taking strategies.   The key here is to use note taking as an active discovery process.

  1. Cornell Note Taking System: this system forces the student to record notes, ask himself/herself questions about the material, summarize ideas, and review the material in a systematic way.   Here’s an explanation of the Cornell note taking system.
  2. “Study Hacks” Question/Evidence/Conclusion note taking system: instead of taking down line after line of raw information, take notes in the form of questions and answers/conclusions to yourself. Support the answers with factual evidence.  Check out Cal Newport’s excellent blog, Study Hacks, for details and more note taking advice.
  3. Concept Maps: this is a very popular “active learning” tool, especially for visual learners.  Concepts are represented as nodes, and relationships among concepts are represented as lines linking the nodes together.   This is a powerful learning aid, since the human mind is much more adept at perceiving complex information systems in graphical format than through text. Here’s an example of a cell biology concept map.


At home: Read and review notes/books/text/passages with an active mindset

  1. Constantly test yourself: When studying, constantly test your understanding of important concepts.  Try to emphasize understanding important concepts over recalling basic facts.  For example, instead of asking yourself “When was the Boston Tea Party?”,  ask yourself to draw a timeline of key colonial events that led up to the American Revolution and try to see how the events tied into one another.  Write your responses down. Instead of telling yourself, “Oh I can do that, that’s easy,” write down the response and prove to yourself that you know it.  Also, some fascinating research published in Science journal demonstrates that the act of actively retrieving newly learned information through writing cements this information in your brain and aids with long term memory retention of the information.
  2. Pretend you have to explain the material to someone else: After reading a text, instead of saying, “Ahh… done!” and moving onto your next assignment, spend 30 seconds pretending you have to explain to someone what you just read.  This forces you to digest and summarize the material, which exercises critical thinking skills.  Also, if you cannot explain the key points of something you just read to a friend (or to yourself) immediately after reading it, you certainly won’t be able to retrieve the key points of an article come test time…
  3. Write in the margins of books: Read a book like you’re actually having a conversation with the author, and write your comments or questions in the margins.  Mark Twain would have one-way arguments with authors in the margins of the books he was reading!  The act of writing in margins forces active, engaged reading and thinking as you read.

Try it out!

These are some studying strategies of elite students, and adopting these techniques will help you learn more effectively.  Of course, the hard part is not learning about the technique, but having the courage to try something new and the discipline to continue using the new system until it becomes habit.

Our challenge: Start with one class.  Change the way you take notes in this class to an “active” method, e.g. the Cornell method, and utilize some of our “active” study/reading techniques, such as self-testing (with written or spoken responses), and keep this up for a month.   Your results should speak for themselves.  Let us know how it goes!

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