Published on December 28, 2020

Top 12 Active Learning Strategies For Busy People

Top 12 Active Learning Strategies For Busy People

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.

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, this learning would 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 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 strategy involves 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. So, whenever you are not feeling motivated, behave as usual—dive right in!

Moreover, you can try to organize a bootcamp for yourself. Studying Chinese? Piano? The art of selling? Either way, 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 are very important nevertheless. If you feel your progress has been plateauing in recent months, look for a new book. Just make sure it is a good one.

4. Talk About the Skills You Want to Develop

Ideally, you will have experts as your teachers and mentors, but even ongoing casual conversations with skilled practitioners can help sustain your progress. 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 for making 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 better yet—a reputable teacher, then learn from them.

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

You can also attend conferences and other events. Meeting others in the same field and engaging in a structured multi-day program cannot but 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.

6. Participate in Competitions or Performances

Any competition or any public performance 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 strategy.

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.

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, as well as 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 ways in many other domains—from business to parenting.

An expert on male sexuality Bernie Zilbergeld had been recommending imagery exercises to help couples improve their love life. Some of these are described in his book The New Male Sexuality. 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 whenever needed. The notes can describe your long-term goals, debrief any particular event, whether a success or a failure, summarize lessons learned and things to do differently in the future, or those can just be random observations related to your learning process.


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. But 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.

Concluding Remarks

The busier we become, the more important it is for us to keep learning.

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. Good luck!

More Learning Tips & 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

More by this author

Dr. Sergey Orshanskiy

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

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Published on January 19, 2021

What Is Learning by Doing And Why Is It Effective?

What Is Learning by Doing And Why Is It Effective?

The list of teaching techniques is ever-expanding as there are multiple ways for us to gain knowledge. As a result, there are multiple techniques out there that leverage those particular skills. One such technique I want to share with you is learning by doing.

This technique has been around for a long time, and it’s a surprisingly effective one thanks to the various perks that come with it. Also called experiential learning, I’ll be sharing with you my knowledge on the subject, what it is deep down, and why it’s such an effective learning tool.

What Is Learning by Doing?

Learning by doing is the simple idea that we are capable of learning more about something when we perform the action.

For example, say you’re looking to play a musical instrument and were wondering how all of them sound and mix. In most other techniques, you’d be playing the instrument all by yourself in a studio. Learning by doing instead gives you a basic understanding of how to play the instrument and puts you up on a stage to play an improvised piece with other musicians.

Another way to think about this is by taking a more active approach to something as opposed to you passively learning about it. The argument is that active engagement provides deeper learning and that it’s okay if you make mistakes as you learn from those as well. This mentality brought forth a new name for this technique: experiential learning.

What Are Its Benefits?

Experimental learning has been around for eons now. It was Aristotle who wrote that “for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”


Over the years, that way of thinking changed and developed and for a time was lost once computers were integrated into schools. It’s only been in recent years where schools have adopted this technique again. It’s clear why teachers are encouraging this as it offers five big benefits.

1. It’s More Engaging and More Memorable

The first benefit is that it’s more engaging and memorable. Since this requires action on your part, you’re not going to be able to weaken your performance. This is big since, traditionally, you’d learn from lectures, books, or articles, and learners could easily read—or not read—the text and walk away with no knowledge at all from it.

When you are forced into a situation where you have to do what you need to learn, it’s easier to remember those things. Every action provides personalized learning experiences, and it’s where motivation is built. That motivation connects to what is learned and felt. It teaches that learning is relevant and meaningful.

Beyond that, this experience allows the opportunity for learners to go through the learning cycle that involves extended effort, mistakes, and reflection, followed by refinement of strategies.

2. It Is More Personal

Stemming from the reason mentioned above, learning by doing offers a personal experience. Referring back to the cycle of effort, mistakes, reflection, and refinement, this cycle is only possible through personal emotions—the motivation and realization of knowledge of a particular topic tying into your values and ideals.

This connection is powerful and thus, offers a richer experience than reading from a book or articles such as this one. That personal connection is more important as it encourages exploration and curiosity from learners.


If you’ve always wanted to bake a cake or cook a unique dish, you could read up on it or watch a video. Or you could get the ingredients and start going through it all yourself. Even if you make mistakes now, you have a better grasp of what to do for the next time you try it out. You’re also more invested in that since that’s food that you made with the intention of you having it.

3. It Is Community-Connected

Learning by doing involves the world at large rather than sitting alone in your room or a library stuck in a book. Since the whole city is your classroom technically, you’re able to leverage all kinds of things. You’re able to gather local assets and partners and connect local issues to larger global themes.

This leans more into the personal aspect that this technique encourages. You are part of a community, and this form of learning allows you to interact more and make a connection with it—not necessarily with the residents but certainly the environment around it.

4. It’s More Integrated Into People’s Lives

This form of learning is deeply integrated into our lives as well. Deep learning occurs best when learners can apply what they’ve learned in a classroom setting to answer questions around them that they care about.

Even though there is a lot of information out there, people are still always asking “what’s in it for me?” Even when it comes to learning, people will be more interested if they know that what they are learning is vital to their very way of life in some fashion. It’s forgettable if they’re unable to tie knowledge in with personal aspects of their lives. Thus, experiential learning makes the application of knowledge simpler.

5. It Builds Success Skills

The final benefit of learning by doing is that it builds up your skills for success. Learning by doing encourages you to step out of your comfort zone, discover something new, and try things out for the first time. You’re bound to make a mistake or two, but this technique doesn’t shame you for it.


As a result, learning by doing can build your initiative for new things as well as persistence towards growth and development in a field. This could also lead to team management and collaboration skill growth. These are all vital things in personal growth as we move towards the future.

How to Get Started

While all these perks are helpful for you, how are you going to start? Well, there are several different approaches that you can take with this. Here are some of them that come to mind.

1. Low-Stakes Quizzes

In classroom settings, one way to introduce this technique is to have many low-stakes quizzes. These quizzes aren’t based on assessing one’s performance. Instead, these quizzes are designed to have learners engage with the content and to generate the learned information themselves.

Research shows that this method is an effective learning technique.[1] It allows students to improve their understanding and recall and promotes the “transfer” of knowledge to other settings.

2. Type of Mental Doing

Another approach is one that Psychologist Rich Mayer put together. According to him, learning is a generative activity.[2] His knowledge and the research done in his lab at Santa Barbara have repeatedly shown that we gain expertise by doing an action, but the action is based on what we already know.

For example, say you want to learn more about the Soviet dictator Stalin. All you need to do is link what you do know—that Stalin was a dictator—and link it to what you want to learn and retain. Stalin grew up in Georgia, killed millions of people, centralized power in Russia, and assisted in the victory of World War 2. This technique even applies to the most simple of memory tasks as our brain learns and relearns.


3. Other Mental Activities

The final method I’ll share with you is taking the literal approach—getting out there and getting your hands dirty so to speak. But how you go about that is up to you. You could try reading an article and then going out and applying it immediately—like you could with this article. Or maybe you could find further engagement through puzzles or making a game out of the activity that you’re doing.

For example, if you wanted to learn about animal behavior patterns, you can read about them, go out to watch animals, and see if they perform the specific behaviors that you read about.

Final Thoughts

Learning by doing encourages active engagement with available materials and forces you to work harder to remember the material. It’s an effective technique because it helps ingrain knowledge into your memory. After all, you have a deeper personal connection to that knowledge, and you’ll be more motivated to use it in the future.

With that in mind, I encourage you to take what you’ve learned from reading this article and apply that in the real world. It’s only going to benefit you as you grow.

Featured photo credit: Van Tay Media via


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