Study Less, Study Smart – Tip 3: Practice Active Learning

Active learning? What on earth is that, and how can it help you study less and study smart?

This is part three in a series of Dr. Marty Lobdell’s advice for studying smarter (and less!). The previous post was about creating a designated study space, and Professor Lobdell’s third tip is all about active learning.  Dr. Lobdell says, “The more active you are in your learning, the more effective you’ll be.”

He says you should try not to memorize. Also, he says you should not just read and then reread chapters from your textbook if you want to learn fast and effectively. A better way is to first ask yourself, “What is it that I’m learning?” What you’re learning will be in 1 of 2 categories, either facts or concepts.

A fact is just something you need to remember. “What is the name of this bone?” is an example. A concept is something like, “What does this bone do in the human body?” Concepts are more important than facts, because after you learn a concept, when you truly understand something in detail and how it works, you will remember it. Once you’ve learned a concept, you’ll never forget it.

Facts, on the other hand, are easy to forget. Fortunately, we have Google, so we can look up facts very easily. Unfortunately, during a class test, you have to remember both facts and concepts, and your teacher probably won’t let you use the Internet during a test.

Regardless, concepts are going to be more important to learn first. The best way to learn these concepts and be sure you know them well is to paraphrase. Paraphrasing means changing something into your own words, either orally or in writing. If you can explain something to someone in your own simple English without using prompts such as your notes, or the textbook, or images, then you probably understand the concept well. If you can quickly and easily write or say an original English sentence using a new word or phrase that was presented to you in your English class, then you probably understand at least one meaning and use of that word or phrase. Test yourself by paraphrasing through sentence-making. This is a kind of active learning.

Another type of active learning can happen when you read. When you read something, you need to engage with the content by interacting with it. Annotating is the way to do this. You can highlight or underline important parts, take notes, write synonyms, or even translate something into your own language. Be careful, though: Most learning actually occurs when you’re doing these activities, not when you go back later to look at the annotations that you made.

What do I mean? Well, if you highlight what you think are important words, and then go back to look at your annotations later, you’ll recognize the words you highlighted before, right? You’ll say, “Oh yeah, I know that word,” but actually, do you really know it? Maybe you recognize it, but recognizing and knowing are not the same thing.

The human brain is really good at recognizing things. We can recognize people’s faces, even if we haven’t seen them for a long time. To recognize something, people need an initial trigger (or a cue). In this case, you need to see the person’s face, or at least a picture or a photo of that person, to remember who they are. If someone says a person’s name, and you can’t easily create an image in your head of what that person looks like, then probably you don’t know that person very well. Right? Right?

This is why multiple-choice tests are often (but not always) easier than essay or open-ended questions. In multiple-choice tests, you just have to recognize the correct answer. You don’t have to recall anything (most of the time, anyway). When you answer an open-ended question, have to recall the information from your memory, and then write so that your teacher can understand you. This is much harder because there is no trigger (or cue).

To summarize Dr. Lobdell’s 3rd tip, if you really want to learn something well, you need to test yourself by paraphrasing. With new vocabulary and grammar, you need to apply the new language to your own original example sentences. Doing this activity will help you recall the language later, instead of just recognize it. Yes, active studying and learning is really hard, but it’s also very effective.

In the next post of this series, we’re going to look at note taking.

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