What is Active Learning?

Active learning is all about learning through the experience of doing something.  While this may seem like a fairly simple concept on the surface, it has some subtle complexities that can make it challenging – as they say “easier said than done.”

  Active learning reminds us that by practicing the application of information & knowledge learned in books or through lecture (doing something), we learn the same information & knowledge at a deeper level.  And, that this deeper level of understanding gives us a powerful tool in using information & knowledge in a variety of settings and situations – such as exams.  We see active learning in everyday life all the time – getting behind the wheel of a car (instead of just reading about driving), baking a new kind of cookie (instead of just writing down the recipe), hitting golf balls (instead of just watching a golf video) and are all examples.  In each, we learn something through reading, writing or watching, but the learning goes deeper through our involvement.

It’s also important to know about passive learningPassive learning occurs by not having to do anything to get information or knowledge – the learning comes to you.  Watching TV is a good example for most people – you can learn a lot of interesting material from sources such as the History Channel, news, or ESPN.  You might be thinking “OK, makes sense – but why should I care about active vs. passive learning?  Learning is learning, right?”  In general, the answer would be “yes, on some level, learning is learning.”  The importance comes in the difference between testing in high school vs. college.

Most exams in high school test for the understanding of material which lends itself to passive learning approaches.  By contrast, college professors, rely heavily on application-based exams which lend themselves to active learning approaches.  Because of this, students taking an active (or applied) approach to exam preparation will have a clear advantage over students taking a passive approach.  Applied approaches also improve memory of material – giving students who use them even more advantage. 

The Bottom Line:  When it comes to college study, it’s not a question of whether you ‘need’ to use active learning strategies (because you don’t – passive learning such as showing up for class still helps you learn); however, to maximize your efforts, remember material better & increase your interest, you should ‘want’ to use these approaches – be active!