July 9th, 2014

Three Active Learning Strategies That Push Students Beyond Memorization


Those who teach in the health disciplines expect their students to retain and apply every iota of learned material. However, many students come to us having achieved academic success by memorizing the content, regurgitating that information onto an exam, and promptly forgetting a good portion of it. In health, as well as other disciplines where new material builds upon the material from the previous semesters, it is critical for students to retain what they learn throughout their coursework and as they begin their careers as a nurse, engineer, elementary teacher, etc.

So, how do we get students to retain this knowledge? Here are three active learning strategies for pushing students beyond simple memorization.

1. Case Studies and Simulations – Forsgren, Christensen, and Hedemalm (2014) found that case studies stimulate the student’s own thinking and reflection, both individually and in groups. Through reflection, the student gains a broader view, increased understanding, knowledge, and deeper learning. Case studies are a form of problem-based learning that encourage the student to think critically and apply “book knowledge” to everyday practice and problems that will occur in the workplace. A literature review reveals very little research on using case studies in fields other than health, law, and business. However, case studies could certainly be written for any field of study.

Many other methods of assisting with knowledge retention come from healthcare fields but can easily be adapted to other majors. Simulation—whether high-tech as in mannequins or low-tech as in role play—is a good method to help the student apply knowledge to real world scenarios.

2. Concept Maps – Concept maps are graphical tools for organizing and representing knowledge and can be used to help students visualize connections between words and concepts. The first step is defining a focus question or problem which the student then internalizes a strategy for defining and clarifying (Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence, 2014). Concept maps using real world situations can help reinforce key ideas by encouraging students to think both creatively and analytically about previously learned information and apply it to new scenarios.

3. One-Minute Papers – A classic among active learning techniques, the one-minute paper remains a simple yet effective way to gauge student learning. I use these papers as an assessment of my own teaching efficacy but more importantly to get students to reflect on what went on in the classroom that day. My questions are all open-ended so as to encourage reflection and feedback on the subject matter. Possible prompts for a one-minute paper, include:

  • The clearest point of today’s class was:
  • The muddiest point of today’s class (or something that confused me or I want clarified) was:
  • How I prepared for class today:
  • What I liked best that helped me learn:
  • What I wish had been discussed during today’s class:

In summary, we all know that lecturing is not the most effective manner of teaching, any more than cramming is an effective form of learning. Active learning strategies such as these move students from passive to active participation in their learning; boosting retention in the process. As an added bonus, these methods fit well in the flipped learning environment that many instructors are using today.

Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence. Whys and hows of assessment. Carnegie Mellon. Retrieved May 14, 2014, from http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/assessment/howto/assesslearning/conceptmaps.html

Forsgren, S., Christensen, T., & Hedemalm, A. (2014). Evaluation of the case method in nursing education. Nurse Education in Practice. 14, 164-169.

Sydney Fulbright, PhD, MSN, RN, CNOR, is an associate professor in the College of Health Sciences at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith.

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  • bruce

    There was a special issue of the Journal of Political Science Education on simulations and student learning in political science and International relations classes

  • Neil Haave

    These are good suggestions. What I have done in my biochemistry classes is to have students draw out the biochemical mechanisms and reactions that were learned in the previous class while I setup for lecture – I think this would be similar to the concept map suggested above. I encourage students to work with those beside them. Of course this is something that they should be doing on their own outside of class. But at least I know they are being provided one opportunity to test themselves three times per week. In addition, working with others encourages peer teaching and allows students to experience how other students are approaching the material. Often student questions about this pre-class assignment delays that day's class, but that is okay – it allows me to clear up misunderstandings and provide advice and encouragement and study tactics. Plus, it usually provides me with a great segue into the day's topic of discussion.

  • Ken Johnson, DO

    I love the one minute paper concept!! I will be useing it in my OB/GYN lectures this year at NSU-COM. Sincerely, Kenneth E. Johnson, DO, FACOOG

  • Adam

    These are all great, but lecturing is not equivalent to cramming, and it's a logical fallacy and borderline unethical to make this sort of comparison. Also, the author does nothing to examine how this might vary from one subject to the next, or from one school to the next. If you're at a bad school and students have not prepared adequately, these activities are a huge waste of time (you can't play the application game unless you know the rules). Finally, I would have never been able to get through calculus, econometrics 1, 2, 3, etc. without detailed lectures. Also, sometimes I worry that teachers rely on "student-driven" activities to minimize their own work (this will be fun to research). Having said that, these are good suggestions if used in combination with more traditional methods. It is the professor's judgement combined with students' input that should drive process in class.

    • Neil Haave

      My own experience is that in-class use of active learning strategies is much more work than lecturing.

      • noela Bomani

        There are general skepticism of effectiveness of lecturing but I think it is worth mentioning that there are different Instructional approaches and there are times when lecturing is more effective E.g. when the lecturer is the main knowledge holder – calculus/econometrics class mentioned above.

        In general, the matrix approach (mixing teaching/lecturing with participant driven learning) could be more appealing to adult learners as opposed to lecturing alone. Based on Bloom's Taxonomy, lecturing can be more effectively used in lower levels of intellectual endeavor e.g. remembering and understanding but not effective in higher levels e.g. applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating. Based on James J. Goldsmith article (revisiting the lecture, T+D Training & Development) June 2014 issue,

        • ???

          And this seems to be the way many traditional educational models are set up, with largely lectures in intro classes, and project/papers/seminars in upper division and grad work.

    • Liz


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  • Noela Bomani

    The three active learning strategies for pushing students beyond simple memorization are useful. The concept maps in particular, help students/learners organize information that encourages focused learning and formation of patterns, which in my view makes it easier for students to retain information but also to recall it. It has been argued that we have the capacity to remember what we see and that is an effective way to remember (Laureate Education (Producer). (n.d.). Information processing and the brain [Video file]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu Video Program from Dr.Jeanne Ormond). From an information processing perspective, human learning requires attention, perception, encoding, storage and retrieval (Shuell, 1986).

  • JillWaldenu

    I love the idea of using the One-Minute Papers to help with students' metacognition. It takes two steps for metacognition. First, a learner needs to understand the skills required by a task. Second, a learner must know how to use the skills. I like the idea of having my students think about how they think on a personal level. (Ormrod, 2008) It might be extended by placing several prompts into a jar and having the a student choose one for the group at the end of class. Do you feel this can also be used as a self-regulation strategy to keep students focused and motivated?

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  • 7 Generation Games

    I resonate with the idea of case studies and simulations in order to make the material more relevant to students. Especially when students are tackling complex subjects such as advanced biology, calculus, and engineering concepts. Could this be used in grade schools to encourage students to enter STEM careers?

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