On active learning

On active learning

We've seen many guides on how to learn, here is my story on what worked in past for me and what's not. Yet I have to practice more techniques and adjustments to pick the best path to learn.

My history of learning

While studying at school I used conservative techniques to learn.

  • Reading helped to get acquainted with information for the first time.
  • Re-reading helped to solidify data.
  • Doing practical tasks(and homework) to understand the gaps.

Reading is great. We may retrieve a lot of info from it. The issue is: how well the information sticks? To answer this question, school teachers, parents advise us to re-read again. If you didn't remember something again, repeat re-reading. I didn't use re-reading often. It either stuck with me for the first time or not. And, of course, if it did stick, it wasn't all 100%.

Doing practical tasks at school classes benefited a lot in understanding connections of what we tried to learn. The same applies to homework. While it was helping, it was boring. But that's for other reasons. We don't like to learn what's dull.

At university, I did all the same. But once I read the Moonwalking with Einstein book. It opened to me the world of mnemonics. I was encouraged by the author describing how he mastered some cool mnemonics techniques in a year. What was eye-opening to me is the method of loci.

I thought I could use the method to prepare for the exams. It would be more beneficial to use it for the information itself, not just for preparation for the specific questions. Though the questions weren't yes or no, and I had to describe more complex stuff.

It worked awesome for the exams. A bit later, I learned how to remember large amounts of numbers. The method helped to remember something quickly, but it wasn't about learning.

While mnemonics may help us a lot in quick memorising, it doesn't encourage the learning process. Re-reading doesn't help in retaining much information.

A huge problem I had was the profit of reading books. I wasn't remembering much(diminishingly saying). I could read a book, get the main idea and forget all the other information after a while. Yes, the idea I got from a book might alter my worldview to some extent. The problem is in other key points. If I were to look at them today, I would have a different perspective and then maybe a book's core idea could be other for me.

Re-reading helps in the immediate moment. You can read a book again, gain new perspectives. But isn't it time-consuming? Again, it helps only at the moment. After a while, the problem remains.

What's wrong with re-reading

You only get familiarized with text, not the meaning of it. The process creates an illusion of knowing (because a lot of people told us to re-read if we didn't pick up from the first time, it's merely a popular practice).

Reading is easy. We look at words, run our eyes from side to side, sometimes thinking about other topics and get lost. Building new connections in a brain isn't so simple. For that, we should make mental attempts. By passively looking at symbols we don't get much of the information.

What is active learning

I wish I knew earlier that asking myself questions about the information I tried to learn is what makes the process more meaningful and better. It's one of the forms of active learning - when you engage in the process.

We, humans, have limitations regarding our memory. The forgetting curve describes a decline in memory retention in time.

To retain more, we need to recall the information periodically. Thus, we crystallise neuron connections responsible for the kind of data we attempt to learn. Recall often. It's the goal of active learning. By asking questions and pondering about meanings, we involve our brain more than solely reading.

I have a notebook around myself once I take a book to read. Read something interesting to me? I think of a question I can ask myself later to engage with the material more. Read a complex phrase? I take a pause and think about what I understood. Maybe I rephrase the words.

The first trap is to write down key ideas and not questions. If it doesn't make you think, then it's the same as reading and re-reading - it's just passive learning.

The second trap is to have a notebook with questions, but not looking at it periodically. We don't need to do this every day, see the forgetting curve.

Usually, I read multiple books. It may help to out load thoughts from every book to the "background processing", thus solidifying newly created neuron connections. Making a pause and doing other activities assists our brain in finding problems while we don't think about them.


  • Conservative learning methods don't work efficiently enough. E.g. re-reading isn't so good as we were taught.
  • Recalling information boosts our learning.
  • Engage more: ask questions, think of meanings you've read/heard.

Recommended book: Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

Follow me on Twitter where I share related materials.

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