Active Vs Passive Learning: Maximising Your Study Time
22 January, 2021
We only have 24 hours in each day, which are easily filled by eating, sleeping, attending uni, attending work, and the myriad of other activities that we have throughout our day. Our study time is therefore limited, so it is important to use effective study strategies to make the most of that limited study time.
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Study strategies can be broadly categorised as either active or passive learning. Active learning strategies require actively engaging with the material—for example, by testing yourself. Passive learning strategies, on the other hand, do not require active engagement—for example, re-watching lectures. Often passive learning strategies are appealing because they can appear easier, as they don’t require actively recalling material. However, in the long run, active learning strategies will help you retain the material more efficiently and effectively.
Active learning strategies include (but are not limited to) the following:
Active learning strategies require quite a bit of brain effort, as you need to actively recall material as you are doing so. As you attempt to actively recall material, you may find that you don’t remember everything or fully understand everything and have to constantly refer back to your reference materials. This is okay! Every time you hit a stumbling block and work to rectify it, you are helping to consolidate those connections in your brain.
- Testing yourself with flashcards or quizzes
- Discussing the material with classmates
- Drawing diagrams
- Writing summaries
- Answering practice questions
On the upside, active learning strategies do not require any specialised equipment. Drawing diagrams, writing summaries, etc. are easily done with simple pen and paper or with a computer. Flashcards can be done with index cards that you can buy in bulk from essentially any shop that sells stationery, or with free flashcard software such as Anki (note, not free on iOS but is free on other platforms). Personally, I prefer the software route as you can have all of your cards on your phone and I find it less effort than making physical cards, not to mention that flashcard programs generally bring up your older content every so often to keep it fresh (a process known as spaced repetition). Of course, at the end of the day it is up to you.
Active learning strategies also lend themselves well to both individual and group studying. For example, if you are studying in a group, you can write questions to test each other. You can also practice summarising textbook chapters or lectures to each other. In trying to summarise to and teach others, you will quickly find out where your knowledge gaps are, making it easier to then go forth and correct them.
Some of the most common passive learning strategies that are used include underlining or highlighting textbooks and re-watching lectures. While these strategies are “easier” in that you do not have to actively recall material at the time, relying on these strategies alone can make it more difficult to recall material later on (e.g. during your test) as you haven’t already practiced recalling the material.
In your educational journey, you will encounter a certain amount of unavoidable passive learning, including lectures and required readings. This is fine, as long as passive learning is not your only method of learning and that you use active learning strategies to help consolidate what you have learned from the textbook or lecture. There are several ways to go about turning your passive learning experience into an active one, which I will discuss below.
If you are studying from a textbook, an easy way to turn that study into an active learning experience is to do the questions at the end of the chapter. If your textbook doesn’t have questions at the end, you can turn the headings, sub-headings, etc. into questions. As an example, I opened the textbook next to me to a random page with the heading “Information commonly available from an echocardiogram.” I could change this heading to the question, “What is some information commonly available from an echocardiogram?” Diagrams and figures are also good sources of questions. You can practice drawing a diagram from memory, or cover up the labels with small pieces of paper or “flag” sticky notes and try and see how much you can recall.
If you are studying from lectures, you can turn the lecture outcomes into questions or write lecture summaries. When I was doing my undergraduate degree, I blogged about my lectures by writing as much as I could remember under each of the lecture outcomes and filling in the gaps in my knowledge by reviewing the relevant slides or the notes I took during the lecture. Some people like to re-watch lectures; personally, I would refrain from doing so in lieu of consolidating my learning with active learning strategies. If there is something that I didn’t quite get from the lecture, and the slides and my notes aren’t helping, then looking at another source (e.g. textbook) is likely to be a more time-efficient way of filling in that knowledge gap than re-watching an entire lecture.
In short, using active learning strategies, where you are forced to actively engage with and actively recall the material, may require more effort in the short term, but this effort will pay off in the long term. There are many methods of active learning; try them out and see what works for you. In the event that you are required to use some passive learning strategies, consolidating your learning with active learning will also help in learning the material long-term. These strategies are all very general and will hopefully help you on your journey to conquering the GAMSAT and achieving a high GPA, both very important factors in medical school admission.
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