Last Updated on January 27, 2021

Top 12 Active Learning Strategies for Busy People to Try

Top 12 Active Learning Strategies for Busy People to Try

Sustained success in any area requires continuous learning. It goes without saying that to succeed in a job or business, one needs to keep learning pretty much nonstop—read books, attend seminars and conferences, and continually seek new responsibilities. You’ll have to find active learning strategies if this is your goal.

The same can be said about parenting or relationships—books, conversations, continuous personal reflection are a must if you want to be fulfilled in this area of your life. The same is true of your health—eating better, exercising better, and understanding and dealing with any diseases that may come your way often requires learning new knowledge.

What learning strategies can one employ, particularly those suitable for a person with a busy schedule? Ideally, learning should be active to ensure you thoroughly process the new knowledge instead of just skimming a book or an article.

So-called New Year resolutions exemplify our common failure to change, and it also pertains to learning new skills. We get carried away by a shiny new idea, be it learning Chinese, taking martial arts lessons, or meditating, only to realize that we have neither time nor motivation to sustain it. Daily sessions become weekly, which then become biweekly, and so forth until the whole initiative is but a distant memory.

How can we—real people with real limitations and obligations of busy adult lives—most effectively use active learning strategies to learn whatever skill we set out to improve?

1. Sort Out Commitments

You should sort out your commitments by making an internal commitment. Decide that the new skill is very important and that you will do whatever it takes to make progress. For best results, write down your commitments.

Also, you should learn to scale down other commitments. After all, we only have so much energy, yet we always aspire for more.

A specific technique is “one in-one out.” If you cannot seem to find time for working on that new skill, pick something else you have been doing regularly that you are prepared to let go of—at least for the time being.


2. Adopt a Long-Term Orientation

Active learning strategies involve adopting a long-term orientation. Daniel Coyle describes a fascinating study of kids studying piano in his bestselling book The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.

The study demonstrated that having a long-term orientation, such as ”I am going to be learning this skill for ten years or the rest of my life,” as compared to a short-term orientation, such as “I am going to be learning this skill for the next few months or years,” had a dramatic effect on one’s learning progress.

While the number of hours invested into daily practice was also significant, children with a long-term orientation who practiced for half an hour each day mastered the skill as well as those with a short-term orientation who were practicing for up to two hours every day! Unfortunately, the study did not detail how one could cultivate this kind of long-term orientation, but knowing it is important is surely a start.

3. Learn Without Motivation

People naturally rely on motivation and make great progress when they feel pumped and optimistic. But then another day comes and they are not feeling it. You must remember that your mind keeps learning automatically, whether you feel like it or not. Therefore, whenever you are not feeling motivated, behave as usual—dive right in!

Moreover, you can try to organize a boot camp for yourself. Whether you are studying Spanish, piano, or meditation, dedicate a few full days or even a few full weeks to focus on the new activity nonstop. For best results, participate in an existing training program or hire a coach.

Continuing with the same idea, joining a regular training regimen is best in terms of both accountability and structure. While not all training programs are high-quality and aligned with your goals, the method is powerful nevertheless.

You can also start reading books about your field. Books are supplementary to more active kinds of learning but can be an important piece of the puzzle. If you feel your progress has been plateauing in recent months, look for a new book, and make sure it’s a good one.

4. Talk About the Skills You Want to Develop

Ideally, you will have experts as your teachers and mentors during the learning process, but even ongoing casual conversations with skilled practitioners can help sustain your progress when employing active learning strategies. Even talking to random strangers about your field can still be helpful.


Don’t be afraid to discuss technical details. If you are learning Chinese, talk to everyone you meet about linguistic nuances. If you are studying martial arts, talk all day long about fighting and self-defense.

5. Be Picky About Your Knowledge Sources

Googling answers is fine for a quick factual question, finding entertainment, or even sparking your creativity. Yet, this is not the way to make consistent, in-depth progress.

Just as you did not learn the high school curriculum by googling random facts, you are also not going to acquire a solid knowledge base by following this method in any other area. Find reputable books or a reputable teacher, and then learn from them.

It’s best to learn from the best. It definitely helps if you have a teacher or a mentor, especially if they are highly knowledgeable in the field. Better yet, find those who are also great at teaching students similar to yourself and who will encourage problem solving.

You can also attend conferences and other events. Meeting others in the same field and engaging in a structured, multi-day program can only boost your progress. While a single weekend event can never bring the same results as sustained daily effort, it can broaden your horizons and help ensure your efforts are going in the right direction with active learning strategies.

6. Participate in Competitions or Performances

Any competition or public performance, such as role playing, will challenge your current level of skill and push you to new heights. If anything, you will discover where you stand. Participating in competitions or performances is a must in having an active learning technique.

You can also aim to obtain certifications. This is not useful if your skill level is high. However, if you are just getting started, many fields have designated levels for beginners. Even if you do not need to get certified, it can be an interesting way to once again test your current level, as well as to systematize your knowledge.

7. Introduce Leverage

If you are not putting in the hours, set some rules to punish yourself, whether by denying yourself certain pleasures or by having to donate a certain amount of money. For best results, use a friend or a mentor who will hold you accountable. If you respond better to rewards, those can work as well.


8. Practice Using Time-Efficient Exercises

Many fields have key skills that can be efficiently practiced in just a few minutes a day, so long as you bring a lot of effort and concentration to this practice. Stay in the forearm plank for 2 minutes. Meditate for 3 minutes. Go through a 10-minute singing warmup.

Such time-efficient exercises are also great in keeping the momentum going during periods when you cannot commit to a more involved regimen of active learning strategies.

9. Volunteer Using Your New Skill

Even if what you are learning is not directly contributing to your income, there may well be a way to do it for free—whether by singing at a charity concert, becoming a language partner for a recent immigrant, or teaching kids at a community center.

Volunteering is an active learning strategy that will help you practice your craft. There is hardly a better way to solidify learning than by using it to help others.

Many different platforms exist for matching volunteers with opportunities. Some, such as VolunteerMatch, are generic and have every kind of opportunity under the sun. Others such as the Taproot Foundation focus on opportunities for volunteers with business, finance, or marketing skills. The United Nations has a wide range of skilled volunteer opportunities in many different countries.

10. Use Visualization

Take a few moments—or a few minutes—to imagine performing your new skill perfectly. This exercise can be practiced in a quiet room, before going to sleep, or immediately prior to performing the activity in question. For some people, this technique works very well, but for such results, it also requires significant effort.

Imagery has long been used in sports and in the performing arts, such as by the dancer Erik Franklin.[1] However, the same techniques have found their way into many other domains—from business to parenting. Visualization has also been used for teaching language[2].

11. Journal About Your Progress

Jot down notes about your progress on a daily basis or when needed. The notes can describe your long-term goals, debrief any particular event, summarize lessons learned and things to do differently in the future, or hone in on important observations.


This technique is highly individual and takes a lot of experimentation, but many top performers swear by it.

12. Never Give Up

Perhaps, the most important strategy is to keep going. If your approach is wrong but you keep trying, keep putting in the work. Eventually, you will make a correction and get on the right track. However, if you give up and quit, future progress is impossible.

Educational theorist Paul Tough became famous largely because of his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. In the book, he argues, citing some compelling evidence, that grit, or perseverance, matter so much more than intelligence.

Adults could also receive Tough’s message and focus on perseverance before considering any other active learning strategies. As success expert Brian Tracy puts it, without discipline, no method for achieving success works. With discipline, every method works.

The Bottom Line

The busier we become, the more important it is for us to keep learning. Active learning strategies can help us use our learning time wisely and build on the skills we already have.

The tips above contain several helpful suggestions. However, the most important one is to commit to finding time for this learning and to never give up. Get started with any of the strategies today.

More Learning Tips and Strategies

Featured photo credit: Daniel Bosse via


[1] Eric Franklin: Dance Imagery for Technique and Performance
[2] British Council. Teaching English: An introduction to using visualization

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Dr. Sergey Orshanskiy

Founder of SocialNerd, Data Scientist at tech startups, and trained dancer.

How to Rebuild Your Attention Span in a World Full of Distractions Top 12 Active Learning Strategies for Busy People to Try How to Unleash the 4 Types of Creativity In You How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

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Last Updated on August 11, 2021

23 Killer Sites for Free Online Education Anyone Can Use

23 Killer Sites for Free Online Education Anyone Can Use

Whether you’re five or ninety five, the internet has a lot to offer. Particularly when the topic is education, the resources on the internet are endless. Best of all, many high quality sites are completely free. From history to coding, excellent, free online education awaits on the following 23 sites.

1. Coursera

Coursera is a website that partners with universities and organizations around the world. This brings a wide variety of topics and perspectives to one searchable database.

Coursera is a powerful tool for free online education and includes courses from many top universities, museums and trusts. This gives the site an extremely wide range of in-depth courses.

Coursera is extremely useful if you’re looking to study many different topics, or want courses from different schools and groups. However, the free courses are now quite limited, so you’ll have to

2. Khan Academy

Partnering with many post secondary schools, Khan Academy offers a useable, well-organized interface. Also curating many courses from around the web, Khan Academy offers impressive depth on many different subjects.

Among the more well-known educational sites, Khan Academy is also incredibly user-friendly, which may make it easier to keep learning goals. If you’re looking for a free online education, you can’t go wrong with Khan Academy.

3. Open Culture Online Courses

If you are struggling to find exactly the material you are looking for, try Open Culture’s listing of free online education courses. The page highlights 1000 lectures, videos, and podcasts from universities around the world.

The site features a lot of material found only on universities’ private sites, all in easy-to-browse categories. This means you can find hundreds of university courses without having to visit and search each university’s site.

Open Culture’s list features courses from England, Australia, Wales, and many state universities around the United States. It’s a very helpful resource for finding many courses in one area of study.

4. Udemy 

Udemy’s free courses are similar in concept to Coursera’s but additionally allows users to build custom courses from lessons.


Working with many top professors and schools, the site mixes the customizable platform of other sites with a heavy emphasis on top-quality content. This is another site, however, that mixes free and paid content.

5. Lifehack Fast Track Class

Lifehack believes in skills that multiply your time, energy, and overall quality of life.

In this rapidly changing world, traditional education skills just don’t cut it anymore. You can’t afford to take years learning a skill you’ll never really practice. Besides offering some paid courses that will help you become a better self, it offers a list of free courses which aim to train some of the Core Life Multipliers including:

These are cross-functional skills that work across many aspects of life.

6. Academic Earth

Another site with courses from many different schools is Academic Earth. Much like the three sites above, Academic Earth brings together top notch courses from many different sources and focuses on offering a wide variety of subjects.

Academic Earth lists courses by subject and school, so it might be easier to find what you’re looking for.

7. edX

Another great option for free online education is edX. Also bringing together courses from many different schools, the site has impressive, quality information for everyone. edX covers a great range of topics from universities such as Harvard, MIT, and Berkeley, meaning a high-quality, free online education is entirely possible here.

8. Alison

Unlike the previous sites on this list, Alison is a free education site offering certification in some areas. Alison offers courses mainly in business, technology, and health, but also includes language learning courses.

It’s a great option if users need a professional certificate for their learning, as Alison also offers school curriculum courses.

9. iTunesU Free Courses

A very convenient place for free online education is iTunesU, because it integrates seamlessly with your iPod or any app-ready Apple mobile device. On an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch, users download the iTunesU app.


Desktop users can access iTunesU on the upper right hand corner of the iTunes Store. iTunesU is also convenient because the store is categorized much like iTunes.

Users can search learning materials in many different ways, including by genre and topic. However, courses are often a mix of free podcasts or videos and paid content.

iTunesU does include courses on a variety of topics, but it does not integrate with Android, Google or Windows mobile devices.

10. Stanford Online

Your hub for all the online offerings from Stanford University, Stanford Online offers self-paced and session-based courses. While Coursera features some courses from Stanford, many classes are only available via other hosts. Some courses require iTunes, but most are completed in your web browser.

Stanford Online is a great site for high-quality courses, though the topics are somewhat limited compared to sites partnered with more than one school. If you’re looking for free courses, make sure to mark the “free” option on the left-hand side.

11. Open Yale Courses

Open Yale Courses echoes Stanford Online, in that it offers only courses from Yale. While the site is similarly limited to topics taught at the school, Open Yale Courses offers a lot of videos of actual campus lectures. The availability of videos makes the site a great option if you’re looking for quality courses but learn better by watching than by reading.

12. UC Berkeley Class Central

Much like the other schools on this list, UC Berkeley has a variety of free online education options. The school has slightly fewer courses than the schools above, but it includes some supplementary lectures, webcasts, and RSS Feeds, making it easy to keep up with the topics you choose.

13. MIT OpenCourseWare

Similarly, MIT offers a variety of free courses. The school has a comparable number of courses to the schools above, and it includes very in-depth course materials on the subjects available. MIT also offers free RSS feeds, a convenient way to continue learning.

14. Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative

Carnegie Mellon’s free online education site is comparable with the other school’s on this list. However, Open Learning Initiative also covers a smaller range of topics, but for the topics that are covered, impressive, in-depth material is available.

15. Codecademy

Codecademy is a website dedicated specifically to teaching coding. Where other coding sites follow an example/practice session workflow, Codecademy includes a live practice window. This means you can practice coding while still viewing the lesson material.


The courses at Codecademy are well-written and easy to follow, and the website is organized very nicely. Codecademy features a centralized dashboard where you can monitor your progress, and it organizes lessons into complete modules. This lets you learn an entire language without needing to pick the next course manually.

16. Code

Code is another website focused on coding and app writing. A site with high-quality courses, Code also features learning options for kids.

In addition to kid-friendly courses, Code offers free online education classes on a wide variety of technology topics. These classes include app writing, robotics, and Javascript.

Most of the courses are also geared in a such a way that they can be useful in a classroom setting. This makes Code a great resource for harder to find coding topics, as well as various learning settings.

17. University of Oxford Podcasts

The University of Oxford features many different podcasts. Most are public lecture series or lectures from visiting professors, with several different recordings available.

The advantage to this particular site is that podcasts are organized into series, making it easy to subscribe to multiple lectures on one topic. This is another great site for thoroughly in-depth lectures.

18. BBC Podcasts

For the more casual learner, the BBC offers a wide variety of podcasts on many different topics. Most podcasts are updated weekly and focus on everything from finance, to sports, to current events.

Through the World Service line of podcasts, there are also many in different languages. The focus of these podcasts are less in-depth and theory based, which may be more accessible to the average person.

19. TED-Ed

Another great destination for more general learning and free online education is TED-Ed. From the same people that brought you the all-encompassing, motivational web series comes a site chocked full of educational videos. Most include impressive animation, and all are ten minutes long or less.

Not only is TED-Ed an excellent site for the curious, but it also includes supplemental materials and quizzes on the videos. This makes the site extremely useful in formal education settings, as well as in entertaining ways to brush up on new discoveries and topics.


20. LessonPaths

LessonPaths is another great tool for those looking for a more usable and convenient way to access learning material. On this site, users create link playlists of their favorite learning materials from other sites. Users then rank these collections, making it easy to find many different high-quality, accessible sources on a given topic.

21. Memrise

Another impressive free online education site offering ease of use and convenience is Memrise. Available both on desktop and as an app, Memrise is a particularly powerful tool if you are studying a language. The site encompasses many other topics as well, though some of the course material is user generated content.

Part of what makes Memrise special is their integration of games into the learning materials, mixing learning with entertainment.

22. National Geographic Kids

The kids site for National Geographic is another site that makes free online education applicable for younger users. For those looking for kid-friendly education, a large variety of games, puzzles, videos and photos keep kids interested on this site.

National Geographic Kids doesn’t organize learning into courses, making materials available by topic and medium instead. This makes National Geographic Kids a good option for those looking for a more casual learning environment.

23. Fun Brain

Fun Brain is another great option for kids looking for free online education, as it focuses on games and fun puzzles. Particularly focused on math and reading, Fun Brain’s game-based approach can be valuable if the child in question struggles to pay attention.

Fun Brain offers rewards and challenges as well, and it is another site aimed at a casual learning experience for kids K-8.

The Bottom Line

With so many amazing free online education resources, everyone has the ability to boost their skills and knowledge. Whether you’re interested in picking up some interesting trivia for your next party, improve your resume with some coding or business skills, or become a more well-rounded person, these resources are perfect for you.

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Featured photo credit: Dai KE via

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