Active Learning on Your Own

Learning Objectives

  • Identify strategies to engage active learning outside the classroom

Many instructors conduct their classes mainly through lectures. The lecture remains the most pervasive teaching format across the field of higher education. One reason is that the lecture is an efficient way for the instructor to control the content, organization, and pace of a presentation, particularly in a large group. However, there are drawbacks to this “information-transfer” approach, where the instructor does all the talking and the students quietly listen: student have a hard time paying attention from start to finish—the mind wanders. Also, current cognitive science research shows that adult learners need an opportunity to practice newfound skills and newly introduced content. Lectures can set the stage for that interaction or practice, but lectures alone don’t foster student mastery. While instructors typically speak 100–200 words per minute, students hear only 50–100 of them. Moreover, studies show that students retain 70 percent of what they hear during the first ten minutes of class and only 20 percent of what they hear during the last ten minutes of class.[1]

Thus it is especially important for students in lecture-based courses to engage in active learning outside of the classroom. But it’s also true for other kinds of college courses—including the ones that have active learning opportunities in class. Why? Because college students spend more time working (and learning) independently and less time in the classroom with the instructor and peers. Also, much of one’s coursework consists of reading and writing assignments. How can these learning activities be active? The following are very effective strategies to help you be more engaged with, and get more out of, the learning you do outside the classroom:

  • Write in your books: You can underline and circle key terms, or write questions and comments in the margins of their books. The writing serves as a visual aid for studying and makes it easier for you to remember what you’ve read or what you’d like to discuss in class. If you are borrowing a book or want to keep it unmarked so you can resell it later, try writing key words and notes on Post-its and sticking them on the relevant pages.
  • Annotate a text: Annotations typically mean writing a brief summary of a text and recording the works-cited information (title, author, publisher, etc.). This is a great way to “digest” and evaluate the sources you’re collecting for a research paper, but it’s also invaluable for shorter assignments and texts, since it requires you to actively think and write about what you read. The activity, below, will give you practice annotating texts.
  • Create mind maps: Mind maps are effective visuals tools for students, as they highlight the main points of readings or lessons. Think of a mind map as an outline with more graphics than words. For example, if a student were reading an article about America’s First Ladies, she might write, “First Ladies” in a large circle in the center of a piece of paper. Connected to the middle circle would be lines or arrows leading to smaller circles with visual representations of the women discussed in the article. Then, these circles might branch out to even smaller circles containing the attributes of each of these women.

The following video discusses the process of creating mind maps further and shows how they can be a helpful strategy for active engagement:

You can view the transcript for “How To Use A Mind Map” here (opens in new window).

In addition to the strategies described above, the following are additional ways to engage in active reading and learning:

  • Work when you are fully awake, and give yourself enough time to read a text more than once.  
  • Read with a pen or highlighter in hand, and underline or highlight significant ideas as you read.
  • Interact with the ideas in the margins (summarize ideas; ask questions; paraphrase difficult sentences; make personal connections; answer questions asked earlier; challenge the author; etc.).

As you read, keep the following in mind:

  • What is the CONTEXT in which this text was written? (This writing contributes to what topic, discussion, or controversy?  Context is bigger than this one written text.)
  • Who is the intended AUDIENCE? (There’s often more than one intended audience.)
  • What is the author’s PURPOSE? To entertain? To explain? To persuade?  (There’s usually more than one purpose, and essays almost always have an element of persuasion.)
  • How is this writing ORGANIZED? Compare and contrast? Classification? Chronological?  Cause and effect?  (There’s often more than one organizational form.)
  • What is the author’s TONE? (What are the emotions behind the words? Are there places where the tone changes or shifts?)
  • What TOOLS does the author use to accomplish her/his purpose?  Facts and figures? Direct quotations? Fallacies in logic? Personal experience? Repetition? Sarcasm? Humor? Brevity?
  • What is the author’s THESIS—the main argument or idea, condensed into one or two sentences?

Foster an attitude of intellectual curiosity. You might not love all of the writing you’re asked to read and analyze, but you should have something interesting to say about it, even if that “something” is critical.


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  1. Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Teaching Center. "Active Learning." n.d. Web. 10 Feb 2016.