Active vs. Passive Learning

Elaborate. Monkey.
Thinking about our thinking is an important step to maximizing our potential for learning.  Metacognition during learning allows us to evaluate our own learning to determine if it is being effective.  Am I really learning the material?  Do I really understand the material?  Thinking about our own comprehension is an important part of any learning process.

I recently read an article by Kathrin Stanger-Hall, a biology professor at UGA who has an interest in evaluating the effectiveness of teaching strategies.  This article points out the difference between active and passive learning strategies.  For example, passive learning may be limited to the following mindless study habits:

  • Reading the material
  • Going to class
  • Making index cards
  • Highlighting
  • Looking up information
  • Reviewing notes

On the surface, these behaviors seem like learning.  However, while these activities may be parts of a successful learning process, they do not include an active awareness where the student is working to connect the information within a larger context or to evaluate self-understanding of the material.

Active approaches to learning would augment these activities with the following sort of thinking:

  • Asking "How does it work?"
  • Drawing the process or system
  • Writing study questions to evaluate self-understanding
  • Reorganizing information into new categories
  • Comparing and contrasting information

This type of approach to learning leverages the concept of elaboration that we've discussed before:  somewhat non-intuitively, our brains seem to encode information better with more details and comparisons, rather than less.

As we learn, metacognition should be simmering in the background.  Are we learning?  How can we connect this with other information we understand?  How could we distill the essential elements?  This self-awareness is essential for learning to remain productive and efficient.

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