In high school, taking notes during class and reading over them a few times was often enough for me to do well on exams. However, using the same strategy in college did not produce the same results. Too much information was thrown at me in a short amount of time, and I was unable to filter the important information much less retain it. Unknowingly, I had fallen into the trap of passive learning as opposed to the far more effective active learning. 

What is passive versus active learning? 

Passive learning is instructor-centered. This means you as the student will attend a professor’s lecture and then internalize the material through re-reading notes or highlighting large chunks of information when reviewing. However, this often leads to a very surface-level understanding of the key concepts, creating an “illusion of knowledge.” This means you think you are familiar with the material because you have been exposed to it several times. In reality, you have done little to no further analysis on what you just learned, and the information is not stored in your long-term memory for you to recall during an exam. 

Active learning, on the other hand, is student-centered. In other words, you as the student will internalize the material through hands-on and interactive engagement such as teaching the material to someone or using the Anki (flashcard) method. Research shows that students with higher performance scores may not necessarily study longer than their counterparts are instead likely to study differently by using active review and repetitive rehearsal for storing information in long-term memory.  

Passive versus active strategies for studying 

Below is a comparison of some passive learning strategies to avoid as well as active learning strategies to try out! 

Material to study Passive strategy Active strategy 
Powerpoint slides Print out and follow along during class. Highlight key slides as the professor goes through them. Print out and read before class. Take additional notes in your own words during class. Condense each slide into a flashcard to repeatedly quiz yourself with. 
Lecture notes Write down exact words that the professor says during class. Look through notes a few times before the exam. Summarize key points in your own words during class. Write questions you have in the margins and go to office hours asap to clarify. Re-write the same concepts in different words when reviewing. 
Textbook/homework problems Look at examples from class as you complete problems. Write down what the TA tells you to write during office hours. Try to solve problems on your own without looking at examples and take note of where you get stuck or make a mistake. Rework the problem by yourself after asking TA for help. Try to “teach” a similar problem to the TA so they can understand and correct your thought process. 
Readings and articles Highlight headings and topic sentences as you read. Change chapter headings and topic sentences into questions and look for key points throughout the paragraph that address those questions. Summarize each paragraph in 1-2 sentences in your own words. Discuss the reading with a classmate and ask each other questions. 
Lab reports Read through the lab manual for the first time as you complete the experiment during class. Read through the lab manual and write down the procedure to understand the goal and expected results of the experiment before class. Ask the TA about the reasoning behind certain steps/reagents as you complete the experiment.