6 Active Study Techniques That Actually Work

Looking to improve your study habits? Start the new academic year equipped with a range of active study techniques to help you become a more efficient learner.

Katie Broadbent - 27 July 2021 · 15 min read

Do you ever feel like your study habits aren’t quite cutting it? Finish a study session without much knowledge of what you’ve actually learnt? You’re not alone. 

When it comes to self-guided study, either when studying online, revising at home, or preparing for A-Level or seminar classes - it can be easy to spend hours doing what we perceive to be active studying, only to realise that we’re not actually doing much to really engage our brains and long-term memory. 

However, when you begin to actively engage yourself with the very material you are learning, you’ll become a more effective learner; finding a focus and motivation to move through the material, as well as increasing the amount of information you are able to recall.

Active learning is a process that puts you at the centre of everything you learn. Rather than focusing on what you learn, it works on the premise of how you learn - encouraging you to think about the material you’re learning, rather than passively receiving it from a teacher or textbook. 

Throughout history, much research has demonstrated that it’s not easy to learn by just simply telling students what they need to learn. Instead, we need to challenge ourselves in the way we think, helping to build knowledge and understanding of the content.

Fortunately, there are many active study techniques that have been known to help students learn more effectively - and we’ve collated 6 of our favourites in this article. Implementing these into your regular study routine will help you to learn content more efficiently and effectively. Experiment with a few and you’ll soon find the techniques that work best for you.

What is an active study technique?

How often do you find yourself re-reading textbooks and notebooks only to realise you’ve memorised almost none of it? When we study in this way - without really engaging our brains and asking them to retain the information, it’s called passive learning

Although passive learning strategies may take less headspace and feel like they take less time, active study techniques are by far more effective because they help you to process information and move it into your long-term memory more quickly. 

An active study technique asks you to take a more hands-on approach with your learning, either by encouraging you to actively recall information you’ve recently learned, or pre-empt the content you are about to learn - giving your brain an opportunity to construct meaning from new information, drawing connections between what you already know and new information. It also allows you to focus your learning better and remain engaged during regular study stints. 

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6 active study techniques that actually work

Now that we've established the importance of using active learning techniques as part of your regular study routine, let’s take a look at some of the most effective methods available to you. 

Below, we’ve collated what we believe to be a list of 6 of the most effective. Read them in detail and take note of any that seem most appealing to you. 

1. The Feynman Technique

Have you ever sat in class with a teacher who has explained something with such complexity that you’ve left having learnt almost nothing? You’re not alone. 

In the late 20th Century, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman evolved an active study technique for teaching and communication, which bases itself on learning via concise thoughts and simple language. 

Called the ‘Feynman Technique,’ the process serves as one of the most popular self-learning techniques, helping you to overcome some of the most commonly reported problems during learning:

  • Not understanding the concept in detail

  • Quickly forgetting what you have learned

  • Failing to learn detail

Essentially, the technique is a quick and targeted learning method to help you learn new concepts, cover knowledge gaps, and revise ideas you don’t want to forget. 

One of the most defining features of the Feynman Technique is that it bases itself on the premise of “if you can teach it to a child, you’re way ahead of the game.” 

Why? For two central reasons: a) speaking in plain terms forces you to explain everything in detail and, b) the attention span of a child is short - you’ll learn how to recite all necessary information quickly and succinctly - capturing the most important details in your long-term memory.

How does it work?

You can apply the Feynman Technique to your studying in just 4 simple steps:

  1. Identify the subject: Before picking up a textbook, refresh your understanding of the topic by writing down everything you already know from memory.

  2. Teach it to a child: Start with a fresh piece of paper and write down everything you know in plain English - as if a child could understand everything you’re talking about. 

  3. Review knowledge gaps: Read through the textbook or learning materials and add any information you missed to your notes. 

  4. Organise and simplify: Spellcheck, colour-code, and organise notes in a clear yet concise way. Add images and diagrams where possible to stimulate your visual memory. 

When you then next come to sit down and revise that topic, you’ll already have a condensed set of notes with which you can start with. From these, you can continue to build on your existing knowledge, adding more notes and ideas as you ‘re-teach’ the topic. 

So, the next time you find yourself sitting down to an empty notebook page, think about how you can turn that page into an opportunity to test what you already know and evolve new ideas - helping you to continue along a part of ongoing learning critical to the fundamentals of deep, meaningful work. 

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2. The Leitner System

Are you someone who always turns to flashcards during revision season? How do you know you’re using them in the most effective way possible? 

Let us introduce you to the Leitner System. 

The Leitner System is an active learning technique, designed to help you retain more information in the long-term. Tailored towards  students who are already familiar with content and are revising for an assessment, it uses flashcards to help you learn fast, memorise more, and get into the routine of revising material at regular intervals.

So, how does it work?

First and foremost, the Leitner System relies on the use of flashcards. So, if you haven’t yet started condensing your notes down into this format, you need to do so before trying to attempt this active study technique. You then need to set yourself up with five separate boxes to store your cards in - we recommend labelling 1-5  them to keep-track of your progress. 

As a process, the Leitner System is quite simple. Every card begins in Box 1. If you test yourself on that card and discover you get it right, you move it along into Box 2 or the next one along (if you are already at Box 2). If you get the card wrong, you either move it down a box, or keep it in Box 1 (if it’s already there).

Each box determines how much you will study each set of cards, based on how well you already know the content: 

Box 1: Every day

Box 2: Every 2 days

Box 3: Every 4 days 

Box 4: Every 9 days

Box 5: Every 14 days

Then, you incorporate the ‘boxes’ into your study schedule, remembering to test each box within the time daily time bracket that’s recommended. 

It’s important to note that these time frames are just a rough guideline, and you can move your study schedule at a pace that may be more suitable for you - just practice a few different lengths and see which one works best at helping you to retain the most amount of information. 

The act of regularly testing your knowledge and using active recall is effective at helping you to memorise more content over a longer period of time - ultimately, improving your long-term memory. By the end of your revision period, you should hopefully have the majority of your cards in box 5, meaning you are able to retain information for longer periods of time without prompt. 

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3. SQ3R

How often do you find yourself reading through pages of information in your textbooks, only to remember - well, almost none of it?

Too often, students find themselves absent-mindedly scanning pages of text, with the ability to recall very little to almost none of the information they have read. But the SQ3R method can help those who struggle with this. 

Evolved from a prominent American psychologist, Francis P. Robinson in the 1940s, the active study technique is designed to enhance the learning process involved with reading material, which is often a passive process. 

SQ3R is an acronym, which stands for: Survey, Question, Read, Recite and Review - which refers to the steps involved when trying to actively read, understand and memorise a piece of text. Through this sequence, you’ll be engaging with your reading before, during and after the process - leading to an increase in your understanding of the text. 

Let’s take a deeper look at what the process involves:

  1. Survey: Initially, you need to start by reviewing your piece of text in order to gain an initial understanding of what it is about. To do this, quickly skim through and look for headings, bolded text, charts, and diagrams. 

  2. Question: After reading this initial preview, start generating questions about what you want to learn from the content of the text. For example, can you convert any headings into questions? If there aren’t any, can you convert these into more general questions such as “what is page 14 about?”

  3. Read: As you begin to read through the text again, do so actively, bearing in mind the background work you’ve done in the previous steps. The questions you’ve written down should help to focus your reading.

  4. Recite (also called Recall): As you move through the text, recite or rehearse information to each question, using your own words. This can be done either through spoken or written form - as long as it's you formulating the content of the text, it doesn’t matter.

  5. Review: Once you have finished reading your section of text, review the content by repeating back to yourself what the main ideas were, as well as any important terms and definitions.

By following the process in this way, you’ll be able to pre-empt what you can expect to learn, have a clear direction with which to focus your attention whilst reading, as well as take the time to review what you have learnt - helping you retain information in the long-term.

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4. The Pause Procedure

Another simple yet relatively effective active study technique is referred to as the ‘Pause Procedure.’ 

As the name suggests, the concept works by adding regular ‘pauses’ or ‘breaks’ into your learning, so you can re-focus and recite everything you’ve learned. 

By placing interspersed, strategic pauses into your learning, you’ll have an opportunity to review the information you’ve learnt so far, fill in any knowledge gaps, and recite the content into your long-term memory. 

Recent research has found that this study technique is effective at helping to increase student attention and learning outcomes, helping students to “review their notes, reflect on them, discuss and explain the key ideas.”

To use the pause procedure yourself, arrange for pauses of two to five minutes between every 15 minutes-stint of study time. During these breaks, take the opportunity to review what you’ve learnt, using one of the following methods:

  • Rework and organise your notes

  • Write a list of questions you still need information about

  • Discuss the topic with a study buddy (if working with another student)

  • Answer end of chapter questions

  • Write a paragraph about the key ideas from your study session

This method is effective as it adopts some elements of the widely-used Pomodoro technique - which encourages you to work in short study stints to maintain focus - while also encouraging you to use your break time to review what you have learnt and guide the focus for your next study session. 

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5. Active Retrieval Quizzing

Now, when you hear the word ‘exam’ or  ‘quiz,’ it can be easy to shudder at the very thought of having to put your subject knowledge to the test and assess how much you do (or don’t) know. It’s not surprising; in educational settings, tests and exams are usually considered devices of assessment, and can fill even the most confident and able of students with dread. 

However, the very act of self-quizzing or answering questions after studying a particular topic can be a positive act for students, helping you to identify any knowledge gaps and focus on where to direct later study. This is because quizzes are a form of active retrieval process, helping you to recall the very information you have learnt and manipulate it in a way that it answers the question in front of you.

As a study method, active retrieval has been found to help improve the long-term retention of information for students, and is often a popular study method used by those revising for exams. Taking a memory test not only assesses your understanding of information, but also enhances your memory retention - a phenomenon known as the ‘testing effect.’

As you read through your textbooks or finish a lesson, try self-quizzing yourself to see whether you have understood the content you have just learnt. You can do so by finding questions at the end of each chapter in a textbook, by looking at past papers online, or simply making up questions that you think may be asked or used in a formal examination. 

As you begin to incorporate testing into your study routine, you’ll become more familiar with knowing how much understanding you have of a topic; if you find yourself gliding through with ease, then great! But if you find yourself scratching your head or finding the temptation to go back and flick through the textbook, then it’s obvious you need to revisit the topic. 

Benchmarking yourself in this way can be highly beneficial when it comes to revision and managing your time effectively. You’ll know how to monitor your revision progress and be able to identify any areas that require further study with ease. 

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6. Chunking information

When it comes to revising, many students find the process of condensing their content into flashcards effective at helping them to memorise and recall lots of information, with only a small prompt or question to activate their thinking. 

So when it comes to tackling new content in the classroom or when you are studying online, why not begin to implement this process from the very beginning, and reduce the amount of notes and information you need to produce and sift through at a later date?

Taking your notes and ‘chunking’ it into a less word-dominant format can be an effective way to take a lot of information and condense it into one or two pages of words, symbols, numbers, and/or diagrams that instead prompt you to think about and retrieve further detail about the topic - rather than turning to streams of pages of notes.

To do this most effectively, we recommend that you take a chapter of text at a time - or a lecture at a time - and summarise it into a page of short symbols, words, or diagrams that jog your memory into recalling what that section of content was about.

You can chunk information in the following ways:

  • Summarise notes into a storyboard

  • Drawing diagrams to represent processes

  • Condensing long processes into short, numbered lists

  • Create charts to display data

  • Draw lines between related content (like a mind map)

Visual stimulants in particular are very effective when used in conjunction with text. Much research has been conducted into the relationship between symbols, words and pictures and memory retention - with a striking correlation found between memory retention and those who use images  while studying. 

So, wherever possible, try to use a combination of words, images and other diagrams to summarise your notes - rather than just condensing pages of writing into fewer pages of text. 

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Summary

As a method for learning more in a faster and more efficient way, active learning is a process that puts you in the centre of your learning - focusing more on how you learn and not simply what you learn. 

Supported by a whole range of research studies, this type of learning method has been found to be especially effective for student learning, when compared against more passive study strategies, such as simply reading a textbook or listening to your tutor. 

In contrast, active learning techniques encourage you to fully participate in your learning by thinking, questioning, discussing, and creating content about what you are learning. Whether it’s pre-empting the content you are about to learn, or testing what you’ve learnt straight after studying it - there are so many methods that you can use to become a more effective learner. All you can do is put them into practice! 

Experience active learning, online

Looking for a new academic challenge? Study online with Melio and discover the benefits of an active learning environment. 

With 2-week Academic Programmes that combine live interactive classroom sessions with quizzes, tests, class debates, tutorials and more - our online courses are the perfect way to experience active learning with a world-class tutor and really gain a deeper understanding of your subject.

Find out more about Melio and the online learning experiences we have available, or contact us for further information on how to get started. 

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