Want Learning to Stick? Take an Active Approach

By Jacob Connell

We’ve all been there. You have a test tomorrow, so you spend an hour the night before looking over your notes. And you know what? You feel confident! All the concepts are familiar and there are no points of confusion. Plus, you’ll definitely remember how to do that complex problem. Yet when you get the test, your confidence starts to dissipate. You remember some material, but a lot of what you studied the night before is nothing more than muddled memories now. Maybe you remember the first few steps for the complex problem, but those final two steps remain just out of your memory’s reach. It is one of the most frustrating experiences for a student to study for a test and simply not remember what you studied. So what can you do differently?


If you ask your teacher, they will most likely say that you should begin studying well before the 24 hours prior to the test (they are absolutely correct). However, that is only half of the story. In addition to shifting the timeline of your studying, it is important to change how you study. There is no singular study method that works for all students, so rather than listing a bunch of different ways to study, I’d like to instead put forth a question that you should keep in mind while preparing for a test. “Is what I’m doing active or passive?”


“Is what I’m doing active or passive?”

Passive studying is great for a daily review session, but it should not comprise the bulk of your studying. The most common example of passive studying is looking over your notes. While you are looking at relevant information, you are not building any strong connection with the information. Passive studying creates familiarity with the material, not a firm understanding that will carry over into a test. As my calculus teacher always told me, “Every problem looks easy when you’re just looking at it.” Additionally, passive studying does not provide a way to measure whether or not you know what you need to know. You might get a feeling or sense that you know everything, yet that is very rarely the same as actually knowing you have mastered the material.


On the other hand, active studying is much more impactful when preparing for a test. Active studying requires you to interact with the information in some capacity.

A clear example of active studying are the review games that teachers often organize. When a teacher splits the class into teams and generates a bit of competition, not only is it fun, but it’s an effective review method! You are no longer simply reading words on a page. Instead, you are listening to the question (maybe writing it down, so you don’t forget it), discussing possible answers with teammates, and eliciting an emotional response to whether or not you are correct. This is the essence of active studying. You want to study in a way that forces you to repackage, engage with, and communicate the material.


It is important to remember that active studying means different things for different subjects and students. For math, maybe you find that doing a timed practice exam is extremely helpful. For literature, you might discover success with turning your notes into a full-fledged outline. Also, not everything demands extensive amounts of active studying. Flashcards are about as passive as active studying gets; but if you’re picking up a new language, perhaps flashcards are sufficient to help you master new vocabulary. Be patient, try multiple studying tactics, and don’t be afraid to get creative!


Let’s circle back to the importance of shifting the timeline of when you study. It is so valuable to begin studying well before a test because ideally, you want to have enough time that you can utilize multiple study methods. For example, I take a lot of history courses nowadays, and I find that using a variety of active study methods is significantly more effective than only studying one way. I make Quizlets for all the definitions, names, and dates. I write outlines based on the larger themes that I notice from my notes.

And as the test approaches, I find a study group (or partner) to help me ensure that I can communicate what I know. Verbally explaining a concept to a friend is a great way to check if you know as much as you feel you do, and to practice how you will write your answer on the test. I am able to study in this manner only because I give myself the time. Regardless of how effective your studying approach is, you need to have enough time for it!


The next time you are preparing for a test, ask yourself whether you are studying actively or passively. If the answer is that you are studying passively, I strongly encourage you to switch it up. Not only will your grades thank you, but you’ll find studying more enjoyable!


Jacob Connell is a junior at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University.