Everyone has different learning strategies. In undergrad, I was more of a passive learner. But upon entering medical school, I had to incorporate a lot more active learning to my schedule. What is active and passive learning and how do you optimize both to your advantage?


  • What is Passive Learning?
  • Pros and Cons of Passive Learning
  • Strategies to Optimize Passive Learning
  • What is Active Learning?
  • Pros and Cons of Active Learning
  • Ask Questions
  • Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
  • Practice Questions
  • Teach

What is Passive Learning?

Passive learning is, as the name says, passive. There is not more thought put into it and it is relatively simple to do. It is when the listener receives information, but doesn’t receive any feedback, like watching a documentary, listening to a lecture, or reading nonfiction.

Pros and Cons of Passive Learning

Passive learning has its advantages. First off, it’s easy. Whether you are listening in class or to a video/audio recording, your presence is all you need.

Unfortunately, passive learning is not efficient in the long run, since you will not know whether you are ready to apply the information or even if you really remember it. A few gifted students may be able to read a passage and remember it by heart, but most need more active strategies to achieve the same goal. 

Strategies to Optimize Passive Learning

Even though passive learning may not be the most efficient, there are ways to use it to your advantage. You can listen to audio lectures during the day  while driving, cooking, walking to class, or when you are on the treadmill

During my first semester, usually by the end of the day I was tired and couldn’t actively study. To make good use of my time, I actually rewatched my histology lectures just before going to sleep. Listening to the lectures was a good way to prime my brain into absorbing for the next day.

Another way is pre-reading or pre-watching the night before lecture. For example, for pathology, I watched the Pathoma videos on the topic for the next day. This strategy gave me an overview of the information, so that when I was listening to a lecture I was not lost. 

What is Active Learning?

Active Learning is when a student is involved and cognitively engaged in the learning process. This type of learning takes more effort and interaction, but is a much more durable method 

Pros and Cons of Active Learning

There aren’t many cons to active learning, but active learning is not easy. It takes a lot of practice and discipline since it requires a lot more thinking. 

That being said, the pros outweigh the cons. Active Learning is the most beneficial way of learning. Research shows that when students are engaged, the retention is better, providing long term support. Also, you can further develop collaboration, foster problem solving skills, and improve critical thinking. Types of active learning include asking questions, repetition, doing practice questions, and teaching others.  I will go through each of these below:.

Ask Questions

Application is key. A simple example of application is knowing why the action potential of a muscle is done and why it is different from cardiac cells.  When you understand a concept, the less you have to memorize. One way to do that is to ask questions. 

Everything happens for a reason, and if you don’t know, then look it up or ask someone. Remember, when you understand the concept, the less you have to memorize. Also, answering questions becomes a lot easier through application.

Sitting through a lecture is a passive learning activity, but you can make it more active. If you don’t understand something in lecture, ask about it during or after the lecture. You can also jot down questions you have for your personal study.  If you have a tutor or the professor offers office hours, study the material and have a conversation about it. Collaborating with your colleagues about questions you have can spark an interesting discussion and promote  long term retention and a healthy learning environment.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

After you understand the concept, you have to memorize the rest. Repetition is key. The more you see the concept, the more you will retain it according to the chart. The key is to do it consistently everyday. You can do it through using Anki cards. Throughout a course, you can make our own Anki cards and practice them on a regular basis. Or you can use a premade Anki deck and allocate a certain amount of new cards to do everyday. 

I loved asking a friend to quiz me because it was a lot more interactive than doing flashcards on a screen. At the same time, I set aside thirty minutes to an hour of time at the end of a day to practice my Anki decks as a quick review.

Practice Questions

Practice questions are not only a good way to practice repetition and application, but also to practice test taking. Since multiple choice questions are the most common way of testing, it is important to practice in such a format. 

The first step is to figure out a strategy for how you want to tackle these practice questions and how you want to review them. For example, some people like to read the question first then the answers or read the answer choices first and then the question. Figure out which strategy works best for you.

After answering the question, regardless of whether you got it right or wrong, analyze the answer choices. Understand why you chose your answer and why the other answer choices are incorrect.


There is a common saying in medicine: “See one, Do one, Teach one.” It is true. Teaching is one of the best ways to solidify what you know because you have to know the material and explain it. 

There are different ways to approach this. For example, in one of my study groups, each of us was assigned a topic and were responsible for teaching it. This was a much more interactive way of learning, as each of us became an expert on our topic and learned from each other.

Another way to utilize this strategy of active learning is to become a tutor. During my second year I started peer tutoring and it really helped me refresh topics such as biochem and physiology. Remember, a lot of what you learn in basic sciences comes back for Step 1. It is to your advantage to revisit material you have studied in the past.


Overall, active learning is much more beneficial than passive. Try to optimize more active learning in your study schedule and you won’t regret it. Happy learning!

If you have any questions or want to see my life through medical school, find me on Instagram @future_artist_md

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