Active vs Passive Learning

Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts

MP 254: Active vs Passive Learning

Session 254

Hunter and I chat this week about what it means to actively learn, how to identify your learning style, and how to turn from passive to active learning.

This podcast is in collaboration with Blueprint MCAT. If you would like to follow along on YouTube, go to

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

[03:13] Passive vs. Active Learning

In passive learning, you’re not sitting there actively thinking about it. You’re not doing critical thinking and not solving things. It’s like you’re a sponge and you’re just absorbing things. Active learning requires students to actively think about things, work through problems, analyze things, and do critical analysis. And so, active learning is learner-centric, whereas passive learning is teacher-centric. 

Taking Notes

Taking notes while listening to a lecture or video, Hunter adds, is not the most effective thing, and there are two ways this could go down.

The more typical one is when you listen for a minute or two, pause it and then write several bullet points of the important information. Ideally, that’s what students do. But most of the time, students write down almost every single thing, even though some of it is not important. So they end up taking an hour or two to go through a 30-minute video because they’re pausing every minute to write. And that’s not super effective.

The other way they take notes during a more passive learning experience is they don’t pause and they’re just listening as they’re talking while writing notes. But they’re not really paying attention so they end up missing things.

Turning Passive into an Active Thing

If this was one of the Blueprint modules, for instance, Hunter suggests not writing down all the background information on where the formula came from. And if there are exceptions, write that stuff down on a separate sheet of paper. Take another sheet of paper and start practicing whatever it is you just listened to.

If you’re just trying to memorize an equation, you don’t need a passage for that. Just make up numbers for the variables and start plugging and chugging that equation, and you’re going to remember it.

[07:55] Keep Your Brain Engaged

Hunter explains that while passive learning is less effective, and active learning is more, you still have to do both. It’s not an all or nothing. There’s no way to actively learn a concept for the very first time.

The underlying thing is to make it interesting for your brain because your brain gets bored if it just does things it doesn’t want to do. This is the same thing with active reading where you try to keep your brain engaged throughout the passage, even the most boring ones. And so, the trick is to keep our brains engaged.

'There are ways to hack yourself and figure out how to best get through the material to understand what you're doing day in and day out so you can retain it for the MCAT.'Click To Tweet

[10:12] Active Learning Techniques

There are tons of different active learning techniques so it doesn’t have to be just one thing. You can choose to pair up with a study partner. Propose a question and the both of you talk out loud and figure out how to solve it. That’s much more active because you’re having a conversation with another human being.

Another effective way for active learning is by teaching others because you’re talking to other people. They might not be as scientifically literate. In fact, if you have somebody that isn’t even involved in science that you can try to teach the stuff to, that’s the best. They will not know what you’re talking about and have so many questions, and so, you’re going to have to try to explain it to them.

'A really good way to learn material yourself is to teach it to other people.' Click To Tweet

If you have somebody that has no idea what you’re talking about, and they’re asking questions, then you actively have to sit there and think about the question they just asked. You have to internalize it and come up with a quick answer they’re going to understand.

Explaining it all to someone else if they’re asking what each step does is so much better than just watching a video of somebody, or listening to a professor walk you through it once and then hoping that you remember it. If you can’t do this back and forth with another person, then even teaching stuffed animals is better than nothing. 

[13:51] How to Make a Solo Activity More Engaging

You can make a solo activity engaging. For instance, when you’re studying the digestive system, after you’ve rewatched the video explaining the digestive tract, you then reread over the notes you took. Both of those are super passive, and you’ve already done them. So

'If you did it once and it didn't stick, chances are, the second time isn't really going to stick either.'Click To Tweet

Hunter recommends that when studying long mechanisms or pathways without a sheet of blank paper, start at the very top and just go mouth, “arrow to the [next thing].” Or if you have a sheet of paper, draw some arrows to connect some things along with some bullet points in between. Just list out all the facts that you know about all the different structures as you’re writing it down.

If you’re a little bit more artistic and creative, try to draw some of the structures. You’re not just passively reading or listening because you’re sitting there actively thinking about things and trying to recall these things.

Once you’re done with your whole sheet of paper, you’ve got this Candyland-looking drawing that’s zigzagging back and forth. Then go back through those notes and see if you missed anything. Add in a different color to those you need to remember for next time. Then crumble the paper up, throw it away, and do it again.

[15:53] Doing Practice Questions

One of the better ways to actively memorize information is by doing question-based and critical thinking-based stuff. Challenge yourself and quiz yourself. This is why Hunter recommends doing six to eight full-length exams at a minimum. 

'Doing questions and participating is so much more helpful for your brain than just passively trying to learn things through osmosis and/or diffusion.'Click To Tweet

One of the biggest mistakes students who do poorly in the MCAT is that they only study content and they don’t do enough questions. They’re staying in passive mode 90% of the time when they should have been active 75% of the time to solidify those synapses in the brain and make all these connections.

Hunter adds that as long as you’re actively challenging yourself to think about stuff and it isn’t just absorbing, then you know you’re in the right place.

[22:38] Letting Go of Your Crutch

Hunter also clarifies what’s going around about learning types like auditory or visual versus tactile, and he says everyone is a little bit of everything. There’s a little bit of here and there and everyone prefers something.

'A lot of evidence shows everyone is a little bit of a visual learner and an auditory learner so don't let that hinder you.'Click To Tweet

Ultimately, you have to engage your brain in asking yourself challenging questions to make it more engaging than just listening to something and writing notes down. And that’s the key between people who do okay on the MCAT and people who do like stellar on the MCAT.

If you think you’re someone who does mostly passive learning, try to switch over to an active learning style to solidify that knowledge in your head and to better on the MCAT and in your courses.


Meded Media

Blueprint MCAT