Limit on your learning
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Can’t study on a bad day? Can’t concentrate sometimes?

Don’t know the content because you have a bad teacher/lecturer?

Find it hard to learn in class/reading textbooks?

These are just some of the many symptoms of a passive learner. Most students just accept that this is how it is.

“It’s just the way my brain works”

But, what if I told you that you can change that?

Learning is, despite what many people think, an incredibly modifiable process. We, as individuals, have an enormous amount of control over our learning efficiency. The “genius” that students pine for is actually achievable for most typical students.

It isn’t straightforward or intuitive sometimes, but when we learn to apply our brain the way it evolved to be used, we stop holding it back. I like to explain it to my students with this analogy.

Imagine you have this amazing supercar. It does 0 to 100 km/hr in 2 seconds. Its top speed is so fast that you’ve never even counted that high before. There’s just one catch – it’s a manual, and you don’t know how to drive stick 😐.

You haphazardly chuck it on first gear and floor it. When you’re going downhill, it’s not bad, but maintaining speed uphill is a struggle. Eventually, you sort of forget that you’re only on first gear and you accept that this is just as fast as you can drive.

Obviously, your brain is the supercar here. And learning to change gears is what we call active learning.

Active learning honestly doesn’t feel as cool as this photo, but you get the gist.

Time to change your life

Active and passive learning; these are terms you’re going to get familiar with. Passive learning is the devil. So what’s the difference?

  • Active learning is when you consume information and process it in a way that you know your brain prefers to handle. It refers to a type of learning that includes reasoning, rationalising, conceptualising, and questioning. It is an inquisitive process that requires effort and concentration, often paired hand-in-hand with more varied learning techniques. Active learning is more difficult but incomparably more effective.
  • Passive learning is when there is no effort put into processing the information. We assume we’re learning because you are reading, writing, watching a video, or listening to something, but your brain activity is equivalent to the battery on your dad’s laptop, i.e. imminently dying. Passive learning requires no effort, yet makes you more drowsy. It is an entirely ineffective method of studying.

So, you might be thinking “what the heck are you talking about?”

Too cool for success type

What the heck I am talking about

Examples time:

Dan has a really lazy teacher that just gets him to fill out his workbook in class. Sometimes he writes up endless notes on the board for him to copy.

A passive Dan would…

… feel drowsy and sleepy in class, do as the teacher says and go home to study if he feels like it. He’ll read through his notes and write them out a few times. Near the exam, he might do some past paper questions.

An active Dan would…

… realise that some of the information being presented in class can be put onto flashcards, while other pieces of information can be summarised in keywords. He would make keyword summaries instead of copying mindlessly and prepare a list of questions that he can use to study from later. At home, he would review his notes and try to connect the important information together, separating superficial detail from important core concepts. To answer some of the questions he is curious about, he finds additional videos and resources.

The end result is markedly different.

Passive Dan is dependent on factors outside of his control. Because of a lack of awareness about his studying process, why he uses certain studying techniques, or how effective his techniques are, he is powerless to take control of his studying and learning.

Meanwhile, active Dan’s learning is entirely in his control. The quality of a teacher makes no real difference to him because the learning happens purely inside his head. He recognises that techniques and notes are simply a supplement to what’s going on inside his brain, instead of replacing the challenging types of thinking that are necessary for deeper learning. Active Dan is not lazy with his learning.

Stay in control of learning and studying
Like a pilot stays in control mid-flight, active learners are able to stay in control of their studying to always stay optimum.

So how can we become more active?

This can be a complicated process, which is the reason why we can spend months with students to develop this correctly. However, the good news is that there are a few basic principles that you can follow:

  1. Develop keen self-awareness – You can’t improve if you don’t even know what you’re doing. Be as detailed as possible. In our evaluations, we sometimes even ask the colour pen you use to write with, or whether you use lined or unlined paper!
  2. Enhance critical thinking – Question everything about your studying. Ask yourself “why do I do this?” and remember not to accept that you do something a certain way, just because that’s how you’ve always done it, or that’s how everyone else does it. Is it the most effective technique or option? What are the alternatives and how does it compare? This is the toughest part.
  3. Evaluate often – No matter how right you are about your studying methods, you’re always a little bit wrong. Evaluate any changes you make in your studying system frequently and don’t be afraid to experiment. Time spent on developing strong foundations pays off over time.

Nah, make it even easier for me

If it seems like those three steps are going to be a challenge, then my friend, I’ve got news for you.

Yea, you’re totally right.

It sounds easy but it takes some serious work and dedication. So let me give you some immediate, practical techniques you can start applying today, to speed up your studying and get you studying smarter 😎

1. Increase variation

Study in different locations, write notes a different way, test yourself in different ways, teach your friend, pretend to teach, teach yourself, spend longer thinking curiously about that test question/flashcard.

Add variety to your learning
Variety is the spice of life, and when it comes to studying, you want it spicy!

All of these methods have been shown to increase learning efficacy and retention. It means you need to try harder, but the benefits will far outweigh the costs and eventually, you won’t be able to stand passive studying ever again!

2. Relax

Interestingly, trying to focus too hard can actually detriment your learning. There is a lot of learning psychology here and we aren’t entirely sure why yet, but giving yourself the mental freedom to switch between subtopics, categories, facts, pages, books, and concepts has been shown to dramatically increase the rate that connections can form between ideas. And connections = learning.

Relax when you're studying
Not that relaxed.

The combination of increased variation with more flexible thinking is called “interleaving” and is used by learning experts internationally. Elite athletes, musicians, boxers, and your everyday academic all use interleaving in their ability to learn their speciality. This practice has been studied for years and has recently made the rounds in a popular blog post by PsyBlog.

“When interleaving, tennis players might practice forehands, backhands, and volleys altogether. Interleaving for musicians could mean practicing scales, arpeggios, and chords all in the same session”

The downside, as mentioned by PsyBlog and as experienced by all of our students, is that it feels much slower and more difficult to learn. We touch on this often in our courses, but you counter-intuitively save time despite it feeling slower. Part of this is because we’re used to measuring our progress of studying from left to right. If we had 20 pages to read, we’re almost done if we’ve covered 15 of them!

Unfortunately, that’s not how our brain learns. Sometimes, what will really help us learn what’s in the middle of page 4 is actually the diagram on page 12. Allowing the progression of our learning to be dictated and led by what we want to know instead of what we’re given empowers our brain to build the types of connections it’s hungry for.

To help recalibrate that feeling of slowness, try to imagine your studying like you’re sculpting something out of a block of stone. First, you get the general shape, and with each layer of detail you add on, the sculpture starts getting more and more detailed. You wouldn’t measure your progress by how detailed a single patch of the stone is, you’d measure it based on how complete the entire piece is as a whole.

Studying is like sculpting
You wouldn’t measure your progress by how detailed a single patch of the stone is, you’d measure it based on how complete the entire piece is as a whole.

3. Experiment with routines

Normally a night person? Try the morning. Like the morning? Hello, darkness your new friend. Switching up your routine has two distinct benefits. The first is that by actively choosing to experiment with different times of the day, you become more aware of how your learning is performing in different situations and stimuli. This is called meta-cognitive learning and is one of the greatest indicators of long-term success.

The second is that your brain is able to explore a different pattern of thinking at different times. By breaking out of habit, you put your brain a touch outside of its comfort zone, introducing a need to adapt, which in turn can improve creativity and learning. Changing routines every couple of weeks is a great top-up for the lifelong learner.

Why you might still fail 😧

The way you’ve been studying up until now is the result of years and years of experience. You’ve developed certain habits that you feel safe and comfortable with.

Changing these habits can be ridiculously difficult and to be honest, most students fail. They give up too early, even with coaching!

So I challenge you!

Give it a go and try your best for just 30-days. If you can manage to do it for 30 consecutive days, you’re in the minority.

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About the author
Justin Sung
Justin Sung
Justin is a medical doctor, University of Auckland graduate, published research author, certified teacher, and founder of JTT. He has assisted thousands of students into healthcare careers since 2011, making him New Zealand's individually most experienced medical entry expert. He regularly works with schools and organisations to help students and professionals learn more effectively.

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