Active learning

Many students find that applying active learning helps them to move beyond remembering and understanding towards engaging with ideas in a more complex way.

What's the difference between active and passive learning?

In passive learning, you ‘receive’ information (such as re-reading a text or re-listening to a lecture).

Active learning requires you to do something meaningful with the information.

The aim of active learning is to make deep connections in your brain rather than weak associations.

The three Ms of active learning

  • Motivation: you have to want to learn the material.
  • Making connections with the material, not just memorising it, helps you to form a deeper understanding of the content.
  • Matching the strategy to the material being learned: reflect on what you need to learn and how you need to demonstrate your understanding; then, experiment with different ways of engaging with the content.

Active learning strategies

Think about strategies that are creative and have meaning for you. While you might need to start by memorising information, don't forget to move onto strategies that test your understanding.

  • Use memorisation strategies

    Consider renaming or reforming information in ways which help you remember it. For example, you can create a mnemonic. These are memory aids created to retrieve or retain information. They are often funny or personal in nature.

    Example of a creative mnemonic:
    The 12 pairs of cranial nerves are quite difficult to memorise, so many students devise creative solutions to remember this list. People often use the first letter of each word in a list to create memorable mnemonics.

    Cranial Nerve


    Olfactory nerve (I)


    Optic nerve (II)


    Oculomotor nerve (III)


    Trochlear nerve (IV)


    Trigeminal nerve (V)


    Abducens nerve (VI)


    Facial nerve (VII)


    Vestibulocochlear nerve (VIII)


    Glossopharyngeal nerve (IX)


    Vagus nerve (X)


    Accessory nerve (XI)


    Hypoglossal nerve (XII)


  • Change the format of information

    Use this for tables, lists, theories or systems:

    • Turn a list into a table.
    • Turn a paragraph into a list of bullet points.
    • Draw a flow chart to track the stages in a process.
    • Construct a mind map to visualise the relationships between pieces of information.
    • Use columns to compare and contrast information
  • Write (and draw) frequently
    • Write summaries to consolidate understanding.
    • Make a glossary: explain a term’s meaning, how it arises in situations; draw pictures to explain it; give examples of its use; and note down ideas it relates to.
    • Sketch pictures or diagrams to visualise what is happening to help with problem solving.
  • Work collaboratively with friends
    • Make a study group; work with your peers to solve problems.
    • Share and test your ideas and knowledge with other students. The act of explaining a technique or approach to a problem is an active learning strategy.
    • Explain what you know to a friend or someone who doesn't know the content. Use diagrams and notes the first time, then try it on someone else from memory. Encourage the listener to ask questions.
  • Create missing links or ‘information gaps’

    This is useful for material that you need to know in sequence.

    • Make separate copies of parts formulae or an equation or a set of procedures.
    • Write out different steps on each copy, and during different study sessions, try to re-write that section or step.
    • You could also incorporate movement:  write out all the steps on big pieces of paper and as you move from one piece of paper to the next, shout out the step as you are moving. Then, remove pieces of paper, and try to recall the information before you can move on.
  • Practise labelling a diagram, figure or structure
    • Try to learn what you have been taught from a different visual perspective. For example, if you have been studying the structure of the muscles of the right leg, try drawing them in the left leg. The point is to draw, recreate or imagine the image or concept from a different perspective.
  • Increase your associations
    • Look up the topic on the Internet to make links with course content. You may find research, pictures or even an interactive page that approaches the same material in a new way.
  • Test your understanding
    • Use past exam papers; look at how similar questions may have been asked in different ways in the past. Try to answer the questions without notes. This will help you work out your strengths and weaknesses in the subject.
  • Create an ‘immersion’ environment
    • Put key terms, vocab, hard-to-remember equations on sticky notes and put them up around your home in places you often go; e.g. the fridge, the bathroom.
  • Explore how you learn

    We all learn and process information differently. There is no perfect way to study. Instead, it’s helpful to apply a range of learning approaches and reflect on how these approaches help you to engage with your studies.

    Visual approaches:

    • Create diagrams and mind maps
    • Turn diagrams or mind maps into jigsaws and piece them together again

    Verbal approaches:

    • Use mnemonics
    • Teach the topic to others
    • Record yourself explaining the topic and listen to it

    Global approaches:

    • Use a ‘big picture’ summary or mind map based on lecture notes, concepts and theories
    • Use real-world examples to understand concepts

    Reflective approaches:

    • Stop and periodically review new work
    • Write summaries
    • Create possible questions about new information

    Sequential approaches:

    • Go through problems methodically, step-by-step

    Kinesthetic approaches:

    • Apply hands-on activities with objects that can be manipulated, for example, make or use flashcards, charts, graphs, posters, models, concept maps
    • Incorporate dance
    • Make clapping chants to help you remember
    • Make a video about the topic

Final tip

These ideas will get you started and help you to develop active learning techniques. However, the best learning strategies are those you make yourself –that is when you mentally engage with the material.

Why not apply an active approach right now? Select 2 to 3 strategies that align with your study goals. Experiment with using these during a study session. After the session, ask yourself: how did this approach help me to engage with the material?

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