Are Your Learners Cognitively Passive or Cognitively Active?

There was a guy who lived in my dorm in college who spent a lot of time talking about how much he studied. Since his grades weren’t very high we used to joke that he spent more time talking about studying than actually studying. But, giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming he did actually study for long hours, then why didn’t he get better grades?  It could be that he just wasn’t very bright but I don’t think that was the case. I think he was just studying “wrong.”

What does “studying wrong” mean? Many research papers have shown that traditional learning strategies that many, if not all, of us used in school are worthless. Strategies such as rereading material, highlighting, underlining, etc. are ineffective, no matter how much time we spend studying. As a group we can classify these strategies and the learners who use them as “cognitively passive.”

In contrast are “cognitively active” strategies such as, discovering hidden similarities, self-testing, creating new categories, assembling higher level “big picture” models, and relating the current material to previously learned material.

Many studies have shown that “active” learners outperform “passive” learners.

Most of the readers of this blog train adult learners in corporate settings. By the time our learners appear in our training programs they are probably already either cognitively passive learners or cognitively active learners based upon many years’ experience and prior schooling. So do we just throw up our hands and say “they are what they are” or can we use training strategies that require our passive learners to become active learners? It turns out we can do the latter.

To promote active learning in your training programs try these techniques:

  • Use pre-testing
  • Use pre-reading
  • Organize your learning materials to promote contextual learning
  • Use cumulative testing
  • Provide review and reinforcement exercises after the training event
  • Interleave subjects
  • Space the learning over time
  • Use a “spiral’ approach to the content

All of these techniques require your learners to become cognitively active even if they are by nature cognitively passive.

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