If we were to tell you that a learner who is not actively engaged, can't possibly learn, you'd probably agree on an intuitive level. But did you know that learning science can tell us why active learners are the better leaners?

Being an Active Learner Begins with Testing

Being an active learner is really all about testing the learning material for yourself. It's kind of like how you can't learn to ride a bike until you get on one. And while many training methods are centered on actual skill practice, skill practice is just one type of testing. 

Testing can be many things, such as seeking out more information on the topic, experimenting with new concepts, applying what you learned to real-world situations, asking specific questions, and consulting experts. Another powerful method to drive active testing is to try to retrieve the learning after some time has past; this is known as repetition and retrieval practices. 


Being an Active Learner Means Thinking For Yourself

Learning science research has shown that when you create your own thoughts and ideas, there is very high activity in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain. This hardworking area of the brain houses your working memory and your executive function. It is your executive function that is responsible for planning and creating new ideas. Your executive function also manages and regulates the flow of traffic, and ultimately, what makes it into your long-term memory. (1) Executive function is like the C-suite of your memory! 

The process of creating your own ideas occurs naturally, but it can also be aided and invoked. There are numerous approaches used to create ideas. Some people make lists, brainstorm, draw, collage, sing, write poetry, and any other activity that puts the content in their own words. When trainers assign exercises, projects, or case studies they are enabling idea generation. 

Active testing of personalized ideas creates permanent memories by laying new neural pathways in the brain. This step is important because you only learn after you have personalized the concepts. You don’t form permanent memories from others' ideas. This doesn't mean the other person's ideas are not important, it just means that you form permanent memories from your own ideas that stem from the other person's ideas. 

To be an active learner is not a simple matter. It requires a unique environment, where you control the direction of your experience (the pace and the length of any learning experience). Furthermore, it needs to enable and promote the creation of personalized ideas, enabling you, the learner, to be active and not passive.

What to do next: 

If you're looking to improve enterprise performance, you may recognize the inadequacies of traditional training methods (while at the same time, still using them).

But there are steps you can take to improve the way you deliver training and increase the likelihood that learners will remember and successfully apply new skills.

You can start by downloading sageCrowd's whitepaper The Brain's Natural Learning Cycles: Implications for Skill Development.

(Psst: If you're not a training professional and simply an individual looking to improve, all these steps apply to your own learning process, too!)


1. Dixon, N. M. (1999). The Organizational Learning Cycle: How We Can Learn Collectively. Brookfield, Vermont, USA: Gower.

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