Helping Students Become Active Learners

Part 1: It takes time, effort, and patience.

Posted Oct 25, 2019

The transition from high school to college can be tough, especially the academic piece. In high school, students often see the same teachers every day. They follow the same daily schedule where expectations in classes are similar. In college, those things often are not true.

The differences are startling. Even within a major or degree program, students often customize their class schedules. Classes may meet only a few times each week, rather than every day. Class instructors’ expectations also vary in college. And, the kind of work students are completing is at a much higher level.

With these differences, it’s no wonder that so many students struggle in college. Figuring out how to do well can be challenging. One secret to succeeding is to become an active learner. But, what does that mean exactly? How can we cultivate active learning in students?

It’s critical to view learning as a process and to understand how people learn. Active learners do not wait for an expert to impart knowledge; they seek it out. Active learning helps move new information from short-term (or working memory) to long-term memory.

These five tips can help students improve their learning and memory. Learners remember information best when…

1) They focus their attention on the new material.

As an example, try to remember the words and images on a dime. This task is relatively difficult. When looking through our loose change for a dime, we select it by size, not noticing the other features. We’re not paying attention to the markings on the coins. Students need to be aware of where their attention is (or isn’t), and focus with intention on the new material.

2) They’re interested in the information.

 Active learners find ways to make the information interesting. Students should ask themselves, “What excites and motivates me?” For example, to study history, an active learner who likes films might imagine which actors would play the historical figures. What works for one student may not work for another. Each student needs to make the information meaningful and interesting to them.

3) They find an emotional connection to the subject matter.

Our brain’s limbic system processes both emotions and memory. So, information with a strong emotional component is easier to remember. Many people have no trouble remembering their first kiss or their first rejection. Active learners will identify ways of connecting the new material to an emotional experience.

4) New information fits with previous experience.

It’s also important to link new information with something already familiar. Students can think about this linking as creating routes on a map to find a destination. By connecting new information to a reference point, learners help their minds to sort and store it. Later, they’ll have an easier time accessing this new material.

5) They practice.

Learners must practice new information, like an athlete practices for a game. When studying terms and definitions, students should re-write the definitions using different words. They should talk through the material with classmates and complete practice tests. By practicing many times in many ways, new learning becomes routine.

Becoming an active learner takes time, effort, and patience. It's worth it! Applying what we know about learning and memory can lead to academic success.


For additional tips, check out this article, "How to Remember Things Better"