How to Master Materials Through Active Learning

Published by Klint Ciriaco on

Photo Credit: Dark_shutterz

Here’s the problem with passive learning:

It’s boring 

Listening to lectures or going through a textbook is as painful as selling your kidneys to the black market. I don’t know how it feels to sell my kidneys, but I imagine it hurts. 

It’s ineffective 

Because it’s boring, the materials won’t stick. As Jim Kwik puts it, zero interest multiplied by anything is still zero. 

It lowers self-esteem

The most atrocious thing about traditional learning is this: kids are made to listen to multiple 1 hour lectures in school, which is the most ineffective way of learning. And, when they don’t perform well, they are labeled with a grade that essentially says, “not good enough.” 

It Makes You Equate Learning To Pain 

Bad experiences in school could lead to disdain for learning which is tragic. 

The Solution?

Active learning. It’s a potent way to get your brain firing on all cylinders so you can absorb knowledge effectively in an enjoyable manner.

Here are some ways to do it: 

Divide and Conquer

Every material you have trouble learning is like a beast you have to defeat. Rarely does a direct attack work. For example, let’s look at the definition of a hash table from wikipedia: 

In computing, a hash table is a data structure that implements an associative array abstract data type, a structure that can map keys to values. 

Implied you: WTF.

Right? But no worries. We can beat that monstrous definition to its knees by hacking it to pieces. If we have to Google the sub-parts, then so be it:  

  • Computing – has something to do with computers.
  • Data structure  – a way of organizing data. 
  • Associative array abstract data type (damn that’s long. Let’s break it down even more): 
    • Associative: involving, related to, etc. 
    • Array: a collection of items. Think of a list. 
    • Abstract Data Type:  a tool in software development. You can use it without knowing how it’s built. 
  • Maps keys to values: think of social security number (key) assigned to a person (value) 

So in short, a hash table is a tool in programming for pairing one data to another. Even if our understanding is over simplified (or incomplete), at least we have a better grasp of the definition above. 

Since it takes more effort to go through this process, you’ll have to be patient,…

but it’s better than just hoping you’ll pass a test especially when your grade, certificate, or paycheck, is on the line. 

Use Multiple Senses

Think of your brain as a water tank with multiple hoses attached to it. The more hoses you use, the faster the tank fills up. Now imagine the hoses as your senses. If you can find a way to use most, if not all of them, the more effective you get at learning a material. 

There’s a nerdy explanation for it in the article The Neuroscience of Active Learning if you want to read it, but it does walk you through how neural pathways get connected when you use multiple senses. 

Use Analogies

New concepts can be hard to picture in our minds, but if we relate them to something we’re familiar with, the abstract becomes concrete.

This strategy makes learning super fun because you get to let your imagination run wild.

It’s like being a kid again who’s in a state of wonder.  

You could imagine atoms as building blocks, neural connections as cities connected by highways, algorithms as grandma’s recipes, and many more. Go on, give it a try. It’s fun.  

Use the Information

This is a fantastic way of finding the gaps in your knowledge which gives you opportunities to patch them. 

For example, I took an Intro To Data Analysis Course in Udemy, and I decided to analyze the 2020 CrossFit Open Data as a final project. I thought I was proficient with the material, but I was wrong. I had to re-watch some lectures, rewrite code, and wrangle with the numbers. It was like going through an intense workout for the mind. But after two weeks, it felt like my brain gained bigger “muscles”. 

Ask Yourself, “Why is This Important?”

Another way to point it is to ask “What’s the point?”  If you’re learning something you don’t really care about, then why bother, right?

But when you figure out the context of the material, it makes going through the brain hurt more meaningful. 

Charles Wheelan, a bestselling author, mentioned in his book, Naked Economics, that he hated math, because he didn’t get the point of it all until he started learning statistics. After all, it’s more fun to calculate the probability of a football team winning the Super Bowl compared to finding the absolute max of a calculus function (depending on who you’re talking to, of course).  

Story time:

In my case, I abhorred programming. I hated it so much, I quit computer science in college. It wasn’t until I got a job as a digital marketer years later that I learned to love coding. 

One day, I was given a task that involved repeating the same tasks multiple times with slight variations. It was fine at first, but I made too many mistakes and it got monotonous.

So, I decided to write a program using python to automate the process. I spent a couple of days relearning how to code, but once the app was done, it only took a second to finish a task that would’ve taken me weeks to finish.

Put the Information To The Test

When I did Jiu-jitsu, I did the submission drills as best as I could. But when it was time to roll (spar), the things I learned didn’t work.

The instructor explained that I had to expose myself more to rolls because drills are just safe environments for practice. Sparring sessions on the other simulates the real world where the universe won’t go out of its way to make you win.

So, whenever you learn something new, test it outside the confines of a classroom. Find out if it works all the time, most of the time, sometimes, or never. Then, figure out why.


  1. Test your skills in an ethical way. Just because you’ve learned how to hack doesn’t mean you should try stealing peoples’ information. 
  1. Don’t hurt yourself in the process.
  1. Don’t hurt others in the process.

Ask Questions. Lots of it. 

Questions are bounce boards towards answers. The more you ask, the closer you get to a solution.

Here are some questions you could ask yourself:

  • Do I really understand the problem? 
  • How can I understand it better? 
  • How do I break it down into smaller pieces?
  • Am I missing anything? If so, what is it?
  • Is the solution simpler than I think? 
  • How do I go about taking a different approach?

Improve the Material for Yourself

One day, I decided to test something out. I deliberately told the my class at the gym to do the back squat the wrong way, which goes against everything I’ve learned from my CrossFit Level 1 and 2 Courses. But, I asked them to use PVC pipes instead of the bar to keep them safe. I then told them to do a squat and collapse their knees.

Some of them said, “Oooh, that doesn’t feel good.” 

I then asked them, “If you had 200lbs of weight on your shoulders, should you buckle your knees when you squat?” 

They said, “no,” and opted to push their knees out for obvious reasons.  As it turns out, showing them how it felt to do a movement the wrong way (safely) helped them do it the right way. 

Evolve your knowledge after you’ve mastered a material. It may seem like you’ve hit a peak, but there are higher levels you haven’t explored yet. 

Ending Note

These strategies are like shovels to help you dig out the valuable insights from learning materials. Use them as often as possible in your learning journey so you can enjoy the benefits of broader knowledge and sharper skills. 

You got this.