Active Learning Strategies & Tips

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As kids we went to school 5 days a week, 9 or 10 months a year. We got up early, crammed in some homework we forgot to complete, and trudged 5 miles to school. Uphill. Both ways. In the snow. We sat on hard chairs, raised our hand to go to the bathroom, memorized things we were pretty sure we’d never use again, completed assignments, and took tests. We may not have liked it, but we did it because that’s what kids do.

Then life happened. In fact, life happened so much that we found ourselves going back to school.

This time around our chair is ergonomic and heavily padded and our bathroom is 10 feet away from our office space, but the perks end there. We can’t remember what we had for breakfast, much less a list of Greek- and Latin-derived roots and definitions, we would be able to complete assignments if we only could remember what the instructions were, and tests? I don’t know about you, but I’ve been self-diagnosed with test anxiety. (With all the stuff MTs have to learn, I’m pretty sure I’m qualified to do that.) So how can we make the experience easier for ourselves now that we have an actual choice in the matter?

In the years between being a school kid and becoming an adult learner, more has changed than our shoe size. Our teaching and learning needs have morphed from pedagogy to andragogy. Thinking back on elementary school, you probably remember the teacher standing at the blackboard for a good portion of the day, instructing the class. Students didn’t have much control over what they learned, when they learned it, how they learned it, or when they moved on to the next concept or subject. For the most part, school kids are dependent on their teacher for learning because they lack life experience and internal motivation. Somewhere along the way, that changes; and we start to benefit more from active learning.

The basics of active learning are talking and listening, writing or typing, reading, and reflecting. Online education provides the near-perfect setting to incorporate all of these elements.

Talking and Listening: It sounds easy enough, but who wants to listen to us talk about anatomy or word building or anything else in the objective portion of the course for that matter? Moms and dads, your babies and infants love to hear you talk and they really don’t care much about what. As you change that diaper or rock them to sleep, tell them all about the digestive system or what bones are in the legs or rattle off comma rules. Don’t have little children? How about a dog or a cat? No pets either? I’m sure you’ve talked to yourself a time or two before… The listening part can present a bit of a problem, but you still have some options. People love to talk. YouTube and other video sites have no shortage of short clips with people talking about medical topics that you can listen to, and while the Career Step forums might appear to fit into the writing or typing and reading categories best, they could probably almost qualify for the listening category as well. After all, you’re not really reading textbook-type instruction when you engage in a discussion about learned course content; rather, you’re taking in key concepts as explained in the words of another who is also trying to make use of talking and listening. When you talk, your brain organizes and reinforces what you’ve learned. When you listen, your brain relates what it hears to what it already knows.

Writing or Typing: Another way to process and reinforce new information is to write or type it out in your own words much the same as you would verbally explain it. After you complete a section, take a bit of time to write or type a brief summary of what you learned. This will also give you a good indication of how much information you’re retaining and what you might need to go back and review or read more carefully. If you save these summaries, you’ll provide yourself with a handy review tool when it comes time to prepare for the midterm or final exam. Also, don’t be afraid to start a thread on the forum that explains what you’ve just learned in hopes that others will join in. Sometimes the only thing holding others back from engaging in an open discussion is there not being someone willing to open it.

Reading: Unless you’re brand-new to the course and haven’t taken a glance past Keyboard Kinetics, you’re sure to know that we’ve got this one covered for you. So instead of focusing on how much you’re reading, try to focus on reading effectively. Before you start reading a portion of course content, remind yourself that there will be exercises to complete along the way. As you read, try to anticipate what might be included in those exercises and read key concepts slowly, even repeatedly, so that your brain has time to absorb the information. You don’t just swallow your food, do you? In order to digest it, you have to chew it and chew it well. Taking notes might also help you read more effectively, as will participating in the talking and listening and writing or typing activities already mentioned.

Reflecting: Leave time in your study schedule to think about what you learned that day or even over the past several days. By accessing this information in your brain shortly after learning it, you’re letting your brain know that it’s information worth remembering. If you’re able, try to recall the information a few hours later as well. This will contribute greatly to long-term retention.

Tomorrow morning get up early, help your kids cram in some homework they forgot to complete, and then start trudging that 5 meters to school. On level ground. Both ways. In your slippers.


-Heather Garrett
Skills Assessment Team


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  1. Shellie Holmes October 15, 2013

    This was extremely helpful.  I am printing it and putting it on my wall.
    I haven’t started any courses yet, but since its been 43 years since I graduated high school, this is a GREAT study guide to go by.  Thank you!!!!


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