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Active Engagement: Working Smarter, Not Harder

November 28, 2023

Have you ever highlighted passages in a text that you thought were important, only to discover later that you have little recollection of what you just read? How about writing down or copying key words dictated by your teacher and reviewing them before an exam, only to discover that the content you studied does not accurately correlate with the test questions? These are very common occurrences and examples of how passive learning strategies adversely affect performance.

When we rely on passive learning strategies, we attempt to absorb, consider, and assimilate new materials. Taking notes and reading them over a few times before a test or quiz may work when there is a limited amount of content being tested or the learner already has a strong understanding of the concepts, such that relying on past learning or established associations to succeed.

However, as students become responsible for more depth and breadth of content, relying on passive learning strategies becomes less beneficial. Having strong recall skills may be enough for a particular test, but they are less helpful in the long run when tests are cumulative or concepts require practical application.

Active learning requires students to think, discuss, challenge, and analyze information. Active learning is student-centered and personalized. When using active learning strategies, the learner is encouraged to converse, question, and debate.

Instead of merely writing and re-reading notes, the active learner uses their own words to clarify concepts into meaningful groups, sorting through familiar and unfamiliar ideas. Factual or abstract information may be written in their own words, through visual cues, pictures, or symbols, creating greater comprehension and/or emotional value. When information in dictated or copied notes is unclear, the active learner may rewrite notes or jot down questions in the margins, approaching the instructor for further clarification.

Helpful Questions

When engaged in active learning, students who demonstrate the ability to work independently may chose to ask themselves the following questions prior to and during studying:

What do I need to learn?

What do I need to do first to feel more confident?

How can I tell when I am prepared?

Where can I look for the information I need?

What strategies will I use to help me remember the information or actions required?

What parts of the material do I already understand?

How does the material relate to information I’ve already studied?

Active learning does not imply that all materials will be learned quickly or without memorization. Rather, the processes of learning and studying need to be repetitive, strategic, routine, and personalized. Students need to be in the “driver’s seat,” rather than along for the ride. Actively learning means engaging in plans to prioritize and study in meaningful ways.

For a list of active learning and study strategies, I'm attaching a wonderful article that summarizes several research-based methods, titled, “6 Active Study Techniques that Actually Work” ( You will find specific information on using flash cards for long-term repeated learning (The Feyman Technique), the SQ3R (Survey-Question, Read, Recite, and Review), The Pause Procedure (to help maintain focus and create meaningful short breaks), active retrieval, and chunking methods.

Benefits of Active Learning

Active learning keeps students engaged, promotes retention, and enhances content relevance. In the words of John Dewey, “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.

If your child or adolescent needs support practicing or learning effective study strategies, COGMOTION LEARNING can help! Through an intake interview and discussion about their current study habits, including what’s working and what’s not, we can incorporate active learning practices into their daily routines, working smarter, not harder!


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