When you think about studying, is the first thing to pop into your head reviewing notes? This is a common train of thought. Even if it’s an ineffective approach. 

Just re-reading your material and notes doesn’t count as studying (at least to your brain). That type of studying is considered too passive for your brain to engage. To learn and retain the information, you must engage with it actively. But what does that mean exactly?  

Active vs. passive engagement 

When it comes to learning, there are two main approaches: active and passive. In most classroom settings, passive learning takes place. The teacher introduces material that the student then will internalize through reviewing the same material later on. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with this, you don’t always gain a full grasp of the information. 

Passive engagement doesn’t test your knowledge or understanding of the material and will only minimally help you retain information. Generally, passive engagement takes less time, effort and feels easier because you’re not challenging your brain.

Think of passive engagement as only having a surface-level understanding of information. You’re familiar with it because you’ve been exposed to the material but lack the ability to engage and recall it because it hasn’t been stored in your long-term memory. 

A 2019 Harvard University study found that despite students feeling like they learned more through a traditional classroom setting (passive engagement), they actually learned more when using active engagement strategies. Students were tested on material learned from both passive and active methods. The test scores showed that students scored significantly higher after using active engagement strategies than when they relied solely on passive methods.

 As the name suggests, active engagement is an active involvement in the material. Students internalize the material through hands-on and interactive techniques that put them in control of their learning. You can apply knowledge more strategically because you’re using higher-order thinking skills. 

Quick Fact: 

Higher-order thinking is part of something called Bloom’s Taxonomy which is a framework to look at learning. The idea is that there are multiple levels of thinking that we move through to truly learn information. We start at the lower levels — remembering and understanding — before moving on to the higher levels — application, analysis synthesis, and evaluation — that allow your brain to actually learn. These higher levels involve active engagement and are usually referred to as critical thinking.  

One way to think about active engagement is to see it as a way of building connections between prior knowledge and new information to enhance understanding. You’re teasing out your current understanding of information, making sure you understand it, and then creating opportunities to integrate the new information into other established information. 

Close up of desk with two people studying using multiple books, pencils and post it notes.
When you actively engage with the material, you create elaborately encoded memories that are more likely to be remembered.

Put simply, active engagement is the process of constructing meaning from material by making connections, forming examples, and being in charge of your learning. When you actively engage with the material, you create elaborately encoded memories that are more likely to be remembered.  

6 Active engagement strategies

Active engagement strategies challenge you to manipulate words, symbols, and ideas to reframe and understand new information better. 

It might take a little more effort initially, but active engagement strategies have been shown to increase exam scores by 6%. 

You’re probably familiar with a few of these strategies. Here are active engagement methods (some of which we cover more in other posts). 

1. Assign meaningful context

Create and assign meaningful context to the material. It’s easier to form memories when attached to a personal connection. Next time you’re struggling to remember information from material, try to make a connection to something personally meaningful. It could be a memory, location, or whatever, so long as it’s something you’ll be able to recall during an exam easily. Tying information to locations is a pared-down version of the memory palace technique.

2. Utilize the PQ4R or SQ3R method for readings 

These methods make reading which is generally passive into active engagement. This is done by having you turn chapter headings and topic areas into questions that need to be answered. So instead of just reading, you’re using the reading to solve questions by pulling out important information. It takes more time but has been shown to improve comprehension and retention of text.

3. Study with a friend

Find a study buddy with someone studying the same subject. By ensuring it’s someone learning the same material as you, you’ll be less likely to be distracted since both of you are motivated to study the same thing.

Explaining and teaching concepts to another person furthers your understanding of the material. There’s actually a name for this learning method, and it’s called the Feynman Technique.   

4. Using color coding

Color coding is a way to dynamically engage with the material and pull out critical nuggets of information before writing notes. Remember, though, just highlighting notes is a passive technique and it’s only when you write out and engage with the color-coded material that it becomes active engagement. 

Active engagement strategies have been shown to increase exam scores by 6%.
Active Learning Study by Scott Freeman, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDough, and Mary Pat Wenderoth

A recent study found that warm colors (reds and yellows) create a learning environment that positively motivates learners to engage and interact with the material. Essentially, these colors make your brain pay attention and retain information more quickly because they are appealing.

Keep these tips in mind when incorporating warm colors into your study routine:

  • Stick to the most essential information. Focus on the information that will jump out to you when you’re reviewing it later and spark your memory. 
  • Assign specific colors to specific topics so you can more easily group the information together.
  • When writing notes, use red to indicate critical points you want to stand out. Otherwise, take notes in the standard color you’d usually use.   

5. Mind mapping ideas 

Mind mapping works by starting with a central topic and then connecting ideas, keywords, and concepts back to it. This technique is similar to how brains store and retrieve information. Mind mapping your notes lets you see the big picture by showing how concepts and ideas relate.

Here’s how you mind map:

  • Grab a piece of paper and write down your study topic in the center. Make sure you leave plenty of space to be able to spread out. For example, let’s use the topic of Positive Psychology.
  • Connect a central idea to the study topic. These can come from your material, class lectures, or notes. Using our example, this could be techniques on how to use positive psychology. 
  • Then connect sub-branches of supporting ideas to this idea. At this step, you put the association of the idea. Make sure the associations are unique to the topic to decrease confusion. For instance, you could associate techniques with focusing on your strengths, being grateful, showing gratitude, and developing skills to increase positivity. 

Rinse and repeat until you have all the crucial ideas down. You can use different colors for each idea branch to help differentiate them. Check out our blog on Mind Mapping to deepen your understanding.

6. Elaborative Interrogation

Despite having interrogation in the name, this study method doesn’t involve interrogating yourself. Instead, you interrogate the material. Elaborative interrogation works by asking how and why things work then seeking the answer to the questions. The questions should be catered to the specific topic. They can’t be too general; otherwise, you aren’t engaging with the material actively. 

Elaborative interrogation is effective because it encourages you to create explanations for new information and integrate it into existing knowledge and experiences. Integrating new ideas into existing information ultimately helps you organize them so you can easily recall them later on. Recalling the information can help you answer exam questions and expand your background knowledge. 

Here’s how to use it during your next study session:

  • Make a list of all the ideas and concepts you need to learn from the material. Create questions about how these ideas work and why. Review the study material to gain answers to these questions. 
  • Next, find a connection between these new concepts and existing things you already understand or know. Review and explain to yourself how they work together. Think about the ways the ideas are similar and different. You can also expand upon this by connecting ideas across topic areas in a unit. 
  • The end goal is to be able to explain and connect these ideas without the material in front of you. The material functions as a tool to fill in gaps in your knowledge, but you don’t want to rely on it as you study. You won’t have access to your material during a test, only your mind. Retrieval Practice will help fortify the elaborative interrogation technique, making you more prepared for your exams. 

There are a variety of methods to try as you figure out what works best for you. Regardless of what you end up choosing, you’ll benefit from active engagement.