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

More by this author

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

Trending in Learning

1 9 Steps to Make Self-Regulated Learning More Effective 2 How To Find Motivation To Learn Anything Outside of Comfort Zone 3 How to Take Constructive Criticism Like a Champ 4 How To Apply the Stages Of Learning (With Free Worksheet) 5 10 Best Methods of Learning Smarter and Faster

Read Next


Published on April 15, 2021

9 Steps to Make Self-Regulated Learning More Effective

9 Steps to Make Self-Regulated Learning More Effective

You have probably heard of the saying, “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”

That old cliché gets thrown around quite a bit in educational circles, but what really goes into inspiring people to become independent, lifelong learners? Read on to learn more about self-regulated learning and how to make it more effective.

Self-Regulated Learning

One theory about teaching people how to learn is through self-regulated learning. In the broadest sense, it’s the idea that individuals should set their own learning goals and work independently and with a sense of agency and autonomy to achieve those goals. It’s the opposite of a teacher handing out a worksheet and students completing it just because the teacher told them to.

Self-regulated learning is constructive and self-directed.[1] Instead of the worksheet example, self-regulated learning involves the students setting their own learning goals, deciding how to best achieve those goals, and then systematically and strategically working toward them. Teaching strategies like the Workshop Model and Portfolios are more aligned with self-regulated learning than a one-size-fits-all worksheet or lecture.

Workshop Model

The workshop model consists of three parts. Class begins with a mini-lesson, then students spend time working independently while the teacher circulates conferencing with students. Finally, the class ends with some kind of summary derived from what students learned through their independent work.

Heavy hitters in the workshop model are Lucy Calkins and Nancie Atwell.[2][3] Their work has been instrumental in spreading best practices so that teachers know how to create truly student-led learning experiences.[4]


Another example of an instruction that’s moving toward self-regulated learning is student portfolios. Students set learning goals and periodically reflect on whether or not they’re achieving those goals. They keep all their reflections and student work in folders and have periodic conferences with their teacher on how they’re pressing toward their goals.[5]


The problem though is that the workshop model and portfolios require a different mindset and skillset from teachers. That’s where the theory of self-regulated learning comes in.

3 Elements of Self-Regulated Learning

One approach to self-regulated learning is to break it down into three components: regulation of processing modes, regulation of the learning process, and regulation of self. Dividing self-regulated learning in this way helps teachers know how to best help students work toward their individual goals, and it also gives us a glimpse into how we all can become more self-regulated learners.

1. Regulation of Processing Modes

The first step in self-regulated learning is to give learners a choice in how and why they’re learning in the first place.

In our worksheet example, students are completing the task because the teacher said so, but when we reset why we’re learning in the first place, we’re starting to create a foundation for self-regulated learning.

One educational researcher, Noel Entwistle makes a distinction between three different reasons for learning, and his work makes what we’re all working toward a lot clearer. Students can try to reproduce or memorize information, they can try to get good grades, or they can seek personal understanding or meaning.[6]

The goal of self-regulated learning is to encourage students to move away from the first two learning orientations (following orders and trying to get good grades) and move toward the third, learning for some kind of intrinsic gain—learning to learn.

2. Regulation of Learning Process

The next level of self-regulated learning is when students are in charge of their own learning process. This is also known as metacognition. Studies have shown that when teachers do most of the heavy lifting—deciding what’s working and not working for each student—there’s a reduction in students’ metacognitive skills.[7]


When I was teaching middle and high school, we had a saying that if we left the building at the end of the school day more tired than the students, we hadn’t done our job. What that means is that teachers have to find a way to get students to do the heavy lifting of metacognition—thinking about thinking. And students need to accept the challenge and become curious about what’s working and not working about their individualized and (at least, partially) self-generated learning plans.

Boosting metacognition might include learning about how the brain works, what metacognition is all about, and all the different learning styles. Becoming curious about your individual strengths and learning preferences is crucial in beefing up your metacognitive skills.

3. Regulation of Self

Finally, there’s goal setting. If students are going to become truly self-regulated learners, they have to start setting their own goals and then reflecting on their progress toward those goals.

How to Make Self-Regulated Learning More Effective

Now that you’ve learned the important elements of self-regulated learning, here are 9 ways you can make it more effective for you.

1. Change Your Mindset About Learning

The first way to become a self-regulated learner is to change your mindset about why you’re learning in the first place. Instead of doing your schoolwork because the teacher says so or because you want the highest GPA, try to move toward learning to satisfy your curiosity. Learn because you want to learn.

Sometimes, this will be easy, like when you’re learning something on your own that you’ve self-selected. Other times, it’s tougher, like when you have a teacher-selected assignment due.

Before mindlessly completing your assignment, try to find “your in.” Find what’s fascinating about the topic and cling to that as you complete it. Sure, you need to complete it to graduate, but by finding the morsel that’s interesting to you, you’ll be able to start experiencing a more self-regulated kind of learning.


2. Explore Different Learning Styles

There are lots of different ways to learn: auditory, visual, spatial, and kinesthetic. Learn what all those styles mean and which ones feel especially effective for you.

3. Learn How Learning Works

Another great way to become a more self-regulated learner is to learn how learning works. Read up on cognitive science and psychology to figure out how we form memories, how we retain information, and how our emotions affect our learning. You have to understand the tools you’ve been given before you can wield those tools most optimally.

4. Get Introspective

Now it’s time to get introspective. Do a learning inventory and reflect on when you’ve been most and least successful in your learning.

What’s your best subject? Why? When did you lose interest in a subject? Why? Ask yourself tough questions about how you learn, so you can move forward more strategically.

5. Find Someone to Tell You Like It Is

It’s also helpful to find someone who can be honest about your learning strengths and weaknesses. Find someone you trust who will be honest about your learning progress. If you lack self-awareness about your learning style and abilities, it’s difficult to be a self-regulated learner, so work with someone else to start becoming more self-aware.

6. Set Some SMART Goals

Now it’s time to set some learning goals. SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. They’re a great way to become a self-regulated learner.[8]

Instead of just saying, “I want to get better at Spanish,” you might set a SMART goal by saying “I want to memorize 100 new Spanish vocabulary words by next week.” Next week, you can test yourself and measure whether or not you’ve achieved your goal.


It’s difficult to see how we’re progressing and learning when our goal is vague. Setting SMART goals gives you a clear barometer for your learning.

7. Reflect on Your Progress

Goals don’t mean much unless you measure your progress every now and then. Take time to determine whether or not you’ve achieved your SMART learning goals and why or why not you did. Self-reflection is a great way to boost self-awareness, which is a great way to become a self-regulated learner.

8. Find Your Accountability Buddies

Armed with your goals and deadlines, it’s time to find some trustworthy people to help keep you accountable. Now, your learning progress is your responsibility when you’re a self-regulated learner, but it doesn’t hurt to have some friends who know what your goals are. You can turn to this trustworthy group to discuss your learning progress and keep you motivated.

9. Say It Loud and Proud

There’s a phenomenon where we’re more likely to attain our goals when we’ve made them public.[9] Announcing our goals helps hold our feet to the fire. So, figure out a way to make your learning goals known. This might mean telling your accountability buddies, your teacher, or maybe even a social media group.

Just know that you’re more likely to succeed when you’re not the only one who knows what your goals are.

Final Thoughts

Self-regulated learning is learning for learning’s sake. So, change your entire attitude about why you’re learning in the first place. Choose what you want to know more about or start with what interests you most when assigned a topic or project.

Then, set SMART goals and periodically reflect on your progress. Self-awareness is a skill that can be practiced and improved. Make learning your job and your responsibility, and you’ll be well on your way toward becoming a self-regulated learner.

You’ll never need to blame your learning struggles on someone or something else. Instead, you’ll have the self-awareness and abilities to be able to take your learning into your own hands and find a way forward no matter your current situation and limitations.

Featured photo credit: Josefa nDiaz via


Read Next