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Be Active, Not Passive: Study Strategies That Promote Real Learning

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

Have you ever listened to a presentation, read through a textbook, or feverishly crammed information to pass a quiz or test? If so, chances are you have plenty of experience with passive learning and utilizing passive study strategies. When students employ passive study strategies, their brain is not deeply engaged with the material, so, unfortunately, even though they’re spending time studying, only a fraction of that material, if any, sticks. However, when students apply active study strategies, they place information piece by piece into their brains, grapple with new learning, and form new neural pathways, maximizing the chances of retaining new information.

Identifying the differences between active and passive study strategies can help improve learning in all areas for students–and help them learn to study smarter!

Passive study strategies are the most popular because they tend to feel like the “easiest” methods to learn information but often leave the learner disengaged in the process. It may seem more straightforward because the study strategies require less effort, but this also means that the understanding is at surface level, never diving into the content in a meaningful way.

Because our brain likes to take the path of least resistance, passive study strategies can be enticing, but they don’t lead to active recall or long-term memory storage.

Examples of PASSIVE study strategies:

  • Highlighting text

  • Listening to lectures

  • Reading through textbooks without engagement

  • Watching information through PowerPoint, video, etc.

  • Using formulas and examples to solve problems without understanding the how and why of it all

  • Taking notes verbatim

  • Reciting definitions with no real understanding

  • Studying for the sake of studying

Active study strategies build connections in the brain.

In the brain, there are neural connections, pathways that are built and changed through learning. These pathways are formed and organized when information is learned, and experiences received. The more students actively study new information or skills, the stronger the pathways become, and the faster information gets from point A to point B. In other words, the more students practice something, the more they understand it and get comfortable with the new skill.

Learning is similar to walking on a pathway. When we walk across a pathway several times, the pathway is paved, formed, and walked across easier; however, when we stop walking the path, plants and grass begin to take over and it gets harder to walk across- tantamount to how neural connections are strengthened when used and weakened when unused— practice paves the path to new learning! For new learning to stick, you need to use it, or you’ll lose it!

Active study strategies include:

  • Retrieval–persuading your brain to remember information

  • Interleave–mixing up new, old information, or different subjects

  • Spacing–shorter and frequent study blocks

  • Focus and growth mindset–limiting internal and external distractions, building confidence in self and in the process of learning.

  • SLEEP and reflection– new information is consolidated when we sleep, reflecting on learning (what went well, what needs improvement)

Active study strategies can feel counterproductive when learning new material because they're hard and uncomfortable! Students are left to wrestle with the new learning, but it is during these times that neural pathways are forming. Because of this, active learning strategies require more from the learner. Being engaged, making connections, seeing relationships, translating the learning, and asking questions to gain a deeper understanding takes time, effort, commitment, and enduring some discomfort.

Examples of ACTIVE study strategies:

  • Comparing and contrasting

  • Summarizing and organizing

  • Posing self-created questions

  • Self-testing

  • Paraphrasing information

  • Creating charts or visuals

  • Making sense of materials through drawing

  • Teaching information to others

  • Practice extra problems and understand the purpose behind steps

  • Studying to learn and understand

  • Getting a solid amount of quality sleep

  • Reflecting on learning through journaling or discussion

We often think of sports, activities, and hobbies as areas students quickly improve in over time. Yet, they engage in active study strategies in these areas without even realizing it! To alleviate some of the notions and icky feelings that come with “study,” replace the word study with “practice.” Students are much more familiar with the term practice and will find their preferred methods to practice actively. As with any sport, activity, or hobby students want to improve in, they’ll need to put the time into practicing. And like no one learns a sport by passively sitting on the sidelines, new skills in school and life also require practice!

Check out this podcast episode from Jenny Aguilar, Founder at WeThrive Learning to learn about some practical ways to encourage and support active study strategies to promote learning!

Written by Jenny Aguilar (ET/P) and Geneva Walsh (M. Ed.)



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