Active vs Passive Learning

Not all studying is made equal. There are actually two different types of learning, active and passive. This post will discuss the differences between them and explain how you can use active learning to get the most out of your study sessions.


Passive learning is when you’re merely sitting back and absorbing the information, like a sponge absorbing water. This includes:

  • reading a textbook
  • rereading/rewriting notes
  • highlighting
  • listening to a lecture
  • watching a documentary or demonstration

All of the above methods essentially involve just exposing yourself to the material and naïvely hoping some of it will stick. This is not effective for long-term retention or critical analysis.

Of course, quickly skimming over your notes might be helpful the morning of an exam, and it is certainly better than not studying at all. But if your tests involve writing essays, analyzing arguments, or building off of concepts to create new ones, passive studying is not recommended. Instead, you should use…


You learn best when you are forced to actively engage with the material. Active learning strategies include:

  • testing yourself with flashcards
  • answering practice problems
  • identifying patterns and cause/effect relationships
  • creating connections between topics
  • explaining concepts to others
  • formulating questions that push your learning further
  • revising notes (Note that this is different from rewriting, which is a passive learning technique. Turning your lecture notes into different forms, such as mind maps, sketchnotes, and summaries is an effective learning method. Copying your textbook onto lined paper and going over it with gel pens + Mildliners is not.)
  • discussing, debating, and challenging

These methods require you to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information, strengthening both your memory and comprehension. That sounds a little intimidating, but active learning is easier to implement than it sounds. For example, my favorite way to study for history is to pretend I’m the teacher and explain a topic out loud to my invisible “students”. Flashcards and writing unique sentences is great for foreign languages. For math, I’ll always try to prove every formula or theorem I use instead of merely memorizing it. If you’re not used to using active learning methods, the extra effort may present a challenge at first, but I promise it’ll lead to improved understanding and better grades in the end!



The learning triangle ranks learning techniques based on how much information we retain afterwords. I’m not sure I agree with all the exact percentages, but it’s safe to say that the general order and concept is correct. If you want to improve the effectiveness of your study sessions, try to use learning methods near the bottom of the triangle, as well as all the active learning strategies I mentioned earlier. Personally, I created a list of my favorite active learning strategies to hang up above my desk as a constant reminder to be an active studier.

And there you have it! Active learning will help you improve recall and comprehension in a very short amount of time. It’s one of the best ways to study smarter, not harder. Next time you sit down to study, go give those active learning methods a try!

Thanks for reading! All of my reader interactions and personalized advice can be found on my Tumblr. If you have questions, feedback, or post requests, feel free to drop a Tumblr ask or contact me.:)



3 thoughts on “Active vs Passive Learning

  1. Marilu May 30, 2017 / 5:26 pm

    Ja, svei – ekki veit ég hvort það gleður mig að þetta skuli þegar vera í lögunum.Það er víst ekkert skárra að hafa búið í vitlausu samfélagi en að munu búa í vitlausu samfélagi.En ég þakka áadneingarnbr.


  2. June 7, 2017 / 6:21 am

    Passed by a line of cars westbound on Rt 3 waiting at a Sunoco…apparently waiting for the tanker delivery…. had to take alternate route from Ridgewood since Maple ave was essentially shut down as it turned into a gas line only….


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