5 Active Learning Mistakes You’re Making (& How to Fix Them)


Active learning allows you to learn the most information in the least amount of time–but only if you use it correctly.

Here are 5 active learning mistakes you’re probably making and what you can do to fix them.

  1. Using Active Learning Passively
  2. Not Using Sufficient Intensity
  3. Not Matching the Technique to the Topic
  4. Being Too Structured
  5. Not Optimizing Your Physiology

Active learning techniques are the best “bang-for-your-buck” study strategies. Instead of reading through textbooks or notes, you should challenge yourself to organize, recall, and apply information through active recall, practice problems, and the Feynman technique. But just using these strategies isn’t enough to maximize your learning. You also need to apply them effectively.

Let’s discuss some of the most common mistakes students make when applying active learning strategies and what you can do to fix them.


1 | Using Active Learning Techniques Passively

The first mistake is using active learning techniques passively.

Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, students are taught to use passive learning techniques. They’re told that if they just read the textbook, listen to lectures, and review their notes, they’ll do well in their classes. Over time, these strategies are reinforced and passive learning becomes the default setting.

As a result, it can feel incredibly difficult to break the cycle of passive learning–even when you start adopting active learning techniques.

Let’s say you’ve just incorporated active recall with spaced repetition into your study routine. You’ve created your perfect Anki deck and start blasting through 100, 200, or even 300 flashcards daily. But you run into a problem. Even though you’re reviewing the information daily, it’s still not sticking. The mistake you’re making is that you’re using flashcards passively.

If you read the question and immediately flip to the other side without genuinely attempting to answer it, it’s no different than reading through your textbook or notes. The same can be said about practice problems.

Reading the explanation without actually attempting the question is still passive learning.

Whenever you sit down to study, you need to be focused on the task at hand and treat every flashcard and practice question as if it were the real thing. If you’re not doing that, then you’re not using active learning effectively.


2 | Not Using Sufficient Intensity

This brings me to the next mistake, which is not studying with sufficient intensity.

According to the misinterpreted-effort hypothesis, students often perceive study techniques that require greater mental effort to be less effective for learning. As a result, they gravitate towards study techniques that feel easy and avoid ones that feel challenging or difficult. In short, when learning feels hard, students often become discouraged and quit.

The truth is, effective learning should feel uncomfortable because it requires you to push yourself beyond your comfort zone. If it doesn’t, then you’re probably not studying with enough intensity and are leaving learning gains on the table. To grow and improve as a student, you must train your brain to work through difficult problems and deal with intense cognitive loads.

Another reason that students avoid studying with higher intensity is that it sometimes feels inefficient. Although it may seem better to go through 40 practice questions instead of 20, quantity is not always better than quality.

Reading through a question, formulating an answer, checking it, and then reviewing what you got wrong will always more time than clicking through and reading an explanation. However, that time isn’t wasted.

By approaching practice questions in this way, you end up learning much more per practice question than you would if you were to cruise through as many as you can. Instead of understanding the answer to one specific question, you’ll understand the underlying concept and be able to apply it to many different questions and situations.


3 | Not Matching the Technique to the Topic

Mistake number three is not matching the active learning technique to the topic that you’re trying to learn.

When it comes to learning, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each active learning technique has its strengths and weaknesses. You need to find what works best for each topic given how you’ll have to apply the information.

For instance, topics such as anatomy and psychology are heavily dependent on rote memorization. For these topics, you need to get your reps in and expose yourself to the information enough times to make it stick. As such, active recall with spaced repetition in the form of flashcards is most effective.

Other classes, however, may require less memorization and assess your critical thinking ability instead. For these topics, flashcards may be helpful for learning some of the finer details; however, they aren’t the most optimal method for learning. These topics often require you to make connections between concepts and apply the information to novel situations. As such, you need to be challenging yourself to do the same when you study.

Techniques such as mind maps, practice questions, and the Feynman technique are much more effective for learning complex concepts that require a deep understanding of the material. If your primary study technique for these classes is flashcards, you’ll likely have a hard time making connections and understanding the topic to the level of depth required to do well.

This applies in the reverse direction as well. If you try using mind maps, practice questions, and the Feynman technique to learn subjects that favor rote memorization, you may end up spending so much time trying to understand and organize the information that you fail to get your reps in. With any topic, you need to assess what you’re trying to learn and how you will have to apply that information to determine the best approach.

And don’t be afraid to adapt and experiment with your study techniques if things aren’t working. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Regularly assess your study techniques and consider how you can improve them.

The ability to reflect and adapt is key to becoming a top student.


4 | Being Too Structured

Mistake number four is being too structured with your learning.

Now you might be asking yourself, “isn’t organization always good?” But with learning, this isn’t always the case. When done properly, learning is often messy. It shouldn’t feel rote or routine. Instead, it should feel a bit challenging and even unpredictable at times.

When I was in college, I made the mistake of being too structured with my studying. I thought I had to read through the textbook and lecture in order and do things in a regimented way. It wasn’t until later in my academic career that I realized the power of being more flexible with my approach.

When learning a topic, your goal shouldn’t be to master each concept before moving on to the next. Instead, it should be to build a scaffolding and then fill in the details.

Learning is all about making new neuronal connections in the brain. The more connections you can make between pieces of information, the more likely that information is to stick. By building a framework of knowledge before trying to fill in the details, you give yourself more pieces to connect. So instead of going from A to B and then to C, sometimes it may make more sense to go from A to C and then back to B. Our job as students is to reorganize information in a way that makes sense to us.

You also shouldn’t be afraid to use all of the tools at your disposal. You don’t have to read the entire textbook chapter or all of the lecture slides before you start incorporating flashcards or practice questions.

Too often, students will wait until they’re familiar with the material before they start utilizing active learning strategies because it feels premature. This is a mistake. Let it feel messy. Let it feel uncomfortable. What you’ll end up with is a much more robust understanding of the information. You’ll be able to make connections between information faster, allowing you to retain the information more effectively in the long term.


5 | Not Optimizing Your Physiology

The last mistake is not optimizing your physiology.

We all know the long-term health benefits of good nutrition, sleep, and exercise; however, many people fail to realize that optimizing your health can also make you a more effective student.

Research has shown that cognitive performance and memory are improved when you are healthier. This means that you can not only learn information more effectively, but you can also retain that information for longer periods of time. Staying healthy has also been shown to improve mental health which makes you more resilient to stress and burnout meaning that you can study more intensely and for longer periods of time.

There are three pillars that you need to focus on: sleep, exercise, and nutrition. If any one of these is off, you’re leaving a lot of performance on the table. As such, you should make each one a priority in your life.

Organize your schedule so that you can get 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Schedule time to be active and exercise. And plan your meals ahead of time so that you aren’t tempted by fast food or other convenient options.

If you can do that, you will be well on your way to maximizing your studying.

If you enjoyed this article be sure to check out Why You’re Not a Straight A Student (& How to Become One) or Strategies of the Top 1% of Students.


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