10 Steps to Active Learning

I was looking through Stella Cottrell’sThe Study Skills Handbook” the other day and came across a piece on ‘Active Learning’. I believe this is one of the most important factors in studying at university. After going through GCSE and A-Level experiences, there is too much emphasis on passive learning.

With passive learning, the student waits to be given what is supposedly important. It’s more a case of take the information that’s put in front of them and try to remember it, or copy it down without really knowing what the overall picture is.

Active learning, on the other hand, is about engaging with the subject and taking on the bigger picture. The student gets involved with the information and seeks out further ideas for development.

Another kind of active learning! (photo by EUSKALANATO)

If you’ve ever heard a student say, “I couldn’t answer the question because the teacher didn’t teach us that,” then you’ve seen an effect of passive learning. Maybe you’ve said that yourself in the past. The learning tends to be in isolation.

When you get to university, you’re propelled into a setting that relies strongly on doing your own work, conducting your own research, using your own initiative. This is why active learning plays such a strong part in studying toward any degree in Higher Education.

So I’d like to share with you 10 strategies that Cottrell suggests to take your learning further and my thoughts and agreements with the suggestions:

1. “Prepare for lectures” – While many turn up for lectures, possibly without even knowing the title of it, let alone the subject matter, you can walk in with a 20-minute basic understanding of the topic of discussion for that day. When you hear the lecturer speak, the words will make sense and you will sense the direction in which the talk is going. The content may be more focused and technical in manner, but your initial search on Google, a brief read of the main Wikipedia page, and flicking through the topic in your textbooks will be worth it’s weight, because you can get on with processing the information and asking questions as you go along, while others will be writing down whatever they hear, because they haven’t had the basic insight that you have.

2. “Set yourself questions” – If you don’t know what you don’t know, how do you know what you need to know? Put more simply, challenge yourself to answer questions and ask yourself if you really know what’s going on. Be interested in what you’re doing and consider the concepts you don’t understand. You’re not expected to know everything inside out, but you are expected to find the time to research and discover the clouds of knowledge that you haven’t floated across yet.

3. “Rework your notes” – Initial sets of notes are building blocks to help create a main structure. After getting the notes together, it’s time to shape them into something workable. The first notes you make can almost always be improved upon, with further references, clearer presentation (bullet points, headings, outlines, etc.), greater understanding, and less information that doesn’t require prompting. All the while, you’re more likely to store the information while you’re reworking the notes, so it’s a productive move too.

4. “Link ideas and information” – Every piece of research we do, every lecture we attend, every website we read, every handbook we receive, every programme we consume, it can all be pieced together as part of our unique set of experiences.

Linking the information that comes our way can make the processes of learning much easier. It’s how we go about much of our lives. If we didn’t make links, everything would be random nonsense.

5. “Discuss with others” – Talk to friends about a hobby and you’re more likely to continue actively participating in that hobby. Chat with people about news events and you’ll probably learn a bit more about the stories, as well as other people’s opinions. So it follows that discussing your work with other classmates can also open up the way you learn. Your enthusiasm will automatically grow and you will feel more inclined to research outstanding questions and develop your understanding of the subject.

6. “Mull things over” – Just sitting alone and thinking can be a boon to study. Quiet moments aren’t just an excuse to fill the time with other activities. Ponder over what you’ve learned so far. Think about the things you are having difficulty with. Why might that be? What are your strengths and what would you like to learn more about?

7. “Organise information” – When our work is in a mess, our productivity drops immensely. As soon as you achieve reasonable order, lights start switching back on in the head. Put things in order and arrange ideas in whichever way you work best. You may prefer flashcards, mindmaps, bullet points, lists, and all sorts of things. With organisation, your mind can run free.

8. “Draft and redraft work” – While it would be nice, none of us are going to be able to finish our coursework in one take. Don’t be a perfectionist; just get writing, see where it takes you, and treat your first draft as a first draft.  There’s plenty of time to redraft afterwards. And then redraft some more. It will take you closer to that goal of finishing and getting a solid piece of work handed in.

9. “Evaluate your own work” – Even after it’s been handed in and marked, that essay is still important. Examine your grade, check the tutor’s comments, re-read the essay now you’ve got it back. Does it still read the way you felt it communicated before you handed it in? Could you do anything to improve it?

And even before you’ve handed the work in, can you read it and feel proud that you’ve put the effort in? If you know it’s a half-hearted attempt, you’ll probably evaluate it that way too.

10. “Use feedback constructively” – If someone tells you you’re taking the wrong direction with your work, ask them what’s missing and what they need to do to get back on track. If you get a bad mark in some coursework, don’t feel down, don’t take it personally, and don’t moan.  Instead, read the feedback and see if you can put it into perspective for future work.

The Study Skills Handbook” is one of the best books I have seen for developing an academic mind and a critical approach to study. There are many books out there for students and they are great sources of help. But Stella Cottrell’s book is probably one you would find yourself dipping into throughout your time at uni.  See what you think yourself and check out the first chapter of the book.

The book is published by Palgrave Macmillan.  Palgrave’s Skills4Study website is also a fantastic resource, so I advise you to get all you can from that site too.

And it’s an actual book too. One you can put on your book shelf. You can’t do that with electronic text, can you? Yes, yes, you at the back…very clever, you could print it out on paper and keep it lovingly in a folder. Isn’t that already what you do with all of my blog posts? ;-)