University Essentials: Active Vs. Passive Learning

Not until a painfully underwhelming A-Level performance (that cost me my first choice university) and a horrible first college semester (where I was unable to retain any of the material I was taught), did I realise it. 

I was doing something wrong.

My introspection only came after a lot of (very reasonable) crying and grovelling over my less than ideal circumstances. With that introspection, I came to the realisation that my failings could be attributed to one of two things – I was either not putting in the work, or I wasn’t studying the right way. With the hours of effort I had put into A-levels, paired with the sheer decisiveness I had to rescue my first year from the calamity it was, I was able to deduce that my problem was the latter. Working hard was not the problem; it was just that I wasn’t working hard the right way, on the right things. So out of curiosity, I found myself on Youtube, browsing through a genre I had never ventured into before – StudyTubers. After a few videos on active learning, everything fell into place. I immediately knew what I was doing wrong. 

I had been passively learning my entire life. Instead of active learning, i.e. trying to practically apply the concepts I had learned, approach my material with practice questions for consolidation, or even learn the topics in new ways to identify gaps in my understanding, I predominantly focused on re-reading, re-writing notes and highlighting to prepare for testing. As I realised how greatly I had negated the quality of my studying, it began the turning point to how I approach learning now. 

Doing well academically, from what I’ve learnt, has to do with three primary aspects – comprehension, memorisation and interrupting the forgetting curve. Analysing how active and passive forms of learning stimulate these three aspects can conceptualise why passive learning is vastly inferior (but not completely unimportant) to active learning:

  • Comprehension is the understanding of the content that needs to be learnt. It is worth noting that different subjects need different levels of comprehension, i.e. fact-based subjects like anatomy require little to no comprehension (relying primarily on memorisation) whereas in concept-heavy subjects like neuroscience, comprehension is vital to performing well.

Highlighting and note-taking, as passive learning forms, may help with short-term comprehension and understanding, but tends to focus your brain into specific details (e.g. The Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919 ) and not the interconnections those details have on a larger context (e.g. the implications of the Treaty for WW1). In contrast, active learning forms (such as flashcards and the Feynman Technique) have been proven to help contextualise and remember information that is denser and more complex.

  • Memorisation is the “process of committing something to memory or learning something by heart”. As mentioned in comprehension, different subjects have different distributions of how much there is to be understood and remembered.

Passive learning such as re-reading textbooks and re-writing notes has been time and time again proven to be ineffective in memorising and recalling information for application. Your brain is not configured to store information based off of familiarity, rather, it is wired to memorise best via recall. And that is precisely what active learning methods such as self-testing focuses on. When you are actively trying to apply the knowledge you have understood, you commit these concepts to memory much easier than re-reading the material you have read many times.

  • The Forgetting Curve describes the decrease in ability of the brain to retain memory over time. Although this is technically a subset of memorisation, it’s vital to ensure that your study workflow proactively focuses on interrupting the forgetting curve. Put simply, Ebbinghaus’ theory suggests that after acquiring new knowledge, 40% of the information learnt is lost within the next few days unless referred to and called upon. 

Active learning is most vital in this respect. Techniques such as spaced repetition (a method I’ll be talking more about in next week’s article) and retrospective timetabling greatly ensure that your forgetting curve is interrupted. And even though passive learning methods, with the right intervals, could help disrupt the curve, it will certainly not live up to exercising the application and contextualisation of information the way active learning does. 

University is an entirely different ball game to sixth form and secondary school. Adapting to studying smarter than harder has been an adjustment even for me, and I hope this article does something to lighten that load. I highly recommend the following videos that started my journey on productive learning:

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