Becoming an Active rather than a Passive Student

To become an active learner is to arm oneself against incompetent instructors, tedious texts, and soporific subjects. When you take charge of your own education, you can conquer any topic regardless of how much you enjoy the teacher, the book, or the content. This applies both to the courses you take while a student and the endless things you will need to learn after graduation. Here are a few suggestions for becoming your own tutor.

1. Preview the topic of each class before going.

Summarize what you understood from the reading. Make a list of questions and points of confusion. If you still have questions after class, try talking to the instructor or a classmate. Now you can leave class ready to start the assignments instead of having to sort out what your notes mean. It takes some self-discipline to do this, but it does save time overall.

2. Know your learning styles (plural!).

Copying the study habits of a successful peer or adhering to the advice of a teacher may produce disappointing results if you’re not taking into account how you learn best. Choose strategies that match your learning style, but don’t be afraid to try other ideas as well. No human being is simple enough to describe completely with a label, and most of us use different learning styles for different subjects. No matter how you learn, embrace silly mnemonics and goofy gimmicks if they work for you. There is, after all, only one right way for you to learn- your way!

Visual learners like to “picture” everything. Use imagery to remember new terms. Mentally “cast” actors or people you know as the historical figures you need to remember. Pay attention to the diagrams in your text or find other reading material with better illustrations. When you take notes, make sketches, even if you aren’t a good artist. Use graphs and charts as much as possible in math, and show all your work on paper, never trying to skip steps. When you need to memorize something, use flashcards instead of having a friend quiz you. Use a search engine to find black and white diagrams and charts for your science classes. Print them out and “color code” them.

Auditory learners prefer lectures, which can make it difficult to self-teach from a book. Find an isolated location and read your book out loud, or study with a classmate so you can talk about the material. Take turns quizzing your study partner by asking each other questions. Make rhymes, puns, and plays on words to memorize terminology. Take a catchy song and change the lyrics so they help you remember something. Find educational videos in your subject area rather than buying “study guide” books. There may even be video content that accompanies your text and contains spoken explanations.

Kinesthetic learners need to involve their body in the learning process. When learning a foreign language, study with gestures. For example, raise your hand when you say “arriba!” (Spanish for “up”). Learn terms and facts by recopying them multiple times. As you read your text, jot down key ideas on paper and make sketches. The act of writing the word is a type of kinesthetic learning, as is drawing a picture or diagram. Kinesthetic and visual learners both benefit from drawing and writing, but for kinesthetic learners the hand movement, not the fact that you are looking at the page, is what matters. Just drawing or writing something once and then looking at it will not be sufficient. To memorize lists, raise a finger as you count each item. You’ll be a natural at learning physics if you reinforce your reading with small “experiments”. Toss a ball, push against the wall, twirl a weight on the end of a string, whatever illustrates the concept at hand. Buy molecular models if you take a chemistry class.

3. Seek connections.

When you find yourself struggling to stay motivated in a class, relate the course material to things you enjoy or care about. Bored by history? Read about the religion, science, fashion, music, technology or entertainment (whatever it is that interests you) during the time period you’re studying. You’ll still have to learn all those facts and dates, but at least you can relate to them in some way. Make chemistry class more personal by finding out what compounds are in your favorite products. Even basic math can seem abstract until you realize it’s simply the study of relationships. How is profit related to the price of the items sold? How does the blood level of a drug change over time? How does the length of the skirt affect the amount of fabric needed? Those are all algebraic relationships. If classic literature is putting you to sleep, try to find modern parallels. Many movies, books, and TV shows recycle classic plots or characters or examine long standing philosophical debates.

4. Turn your discontent into an advantage.

It’s fine to be critical of an instructor or text (although not necessarily bright to voice complaints). Instead of expending your mental energies on wishing your class were different, ask yourself what you would do better. Mentally put yourself in the position of having to teach the course or write the book. How would you explain and organize the material? What would you put in your lecture notes? How would you word your explanations? Even if your course is going well, you probably have a few ideas. Use those ideas to make notes and study guides for yourself. You may want to share them with classmates or even your instructor, although be tactful when you do so. The idea is to turn your dissatisfaction with others’ work into a sense of pride in your own.

5. Be demanding.

If you truly are making your best effort outside of class, you should expect to have an educational learning experience in class. Ask questions if the teacher says something unclear, and don’t hesitate to verify your understanding. It never hurts to ask a question that starts with, “So what you mean is”. Keep this demanding approach to education for the rest of your life and use it when you get advice from professionals like lawyers, doctors, or accountants.