What's the most important goal of any teacher? To help students learn more. There are tons of methods out there for teachers to choose from to effectively teach and test students, and these tend to fall under two broad categories: ones that promote passive studying or active studying.

Throughout the past years, Brainscape has collected feedback form thousands of educators through our adaptive flashcard learning platform to learn which methods actually help your students retain their knowledge.

In this article, we'll look at these two distinct methods of learning. And how you can promote active studying and learning through your choice of testing for your students.

Passive vs. active approaches for teaching

No matter which subject you're teaching, you need to pick a testing method that will most benefit your students. We have all known for some time that not everyone learns at the same pace, or uses the same technique, or will respond equally to testing strategies. It's therefore vital to understand which approaches are out there and how they differ from each other. We're focusing on two big ones in this article: active vs. passive approaches.

Passive studying

Passive studying usually involves a one-way effort from the students, where they are expected to assimilate and absorb information passively through lectures, textbooks, presentations, etc. And passive testing strategies used by by teachers generally focus on recognition.

The majority of leading quiz engines on the market are of the “recognition” variety, typically in the form of multiple-choice tests. They ask you a question, and they present you a set of multiple choices (or matching options) in which students simply choose the answer from a list.

While such forms of testing can be convenient for assessment, they are relatively ineffective when used as a a tool to effectively test the knowledge of your students, since the activity is so passive.

Moreover, passive approaches often suffer from little motivation from the students to really learn the content. Whereas with active learning, the focus on interaction between students and knowledge and even students and other students will increase engagement.

[Learn more about how to improve knowledge retention with consistent student motivation.]

Active studying

Active studying, on the other hand, involves active participation by the student. It forces full engagement and promotes critical thinking about certain topics. And testing strategies that are more active will focus more on the production of knowledge by the students, using essays, in-class discussions, hands-on experiments, or even activities such as making and studying flashcards. The learning and testing becomes much more about knowing the stuff rather than passively recognizing it.

Such forms of testing are not only a lot more flexible, but are also focused on cementing the knowledge rather than just testing for it. The goal of most tests is to ensure that students retain the knowledge, and active strategies are ideal for consolidation.

[See our guide to making, sharing, and studying with flashcards]

Use an active approach to improve students' knowledge retention

A fundamental concept that is used in active approaches to teaching and learning is active recall. It's the ability to remember a concept from scratch without assistance. This means students are actively searching their memory for the answer, rather than passively recognizing it from a lecture or a series of answers in a multiple-choice exam.

A large body of research shows that such active recall is tremendously effective—much more than recognition even if the goal is to perform well on a multiple-choice test. The U.S. Department of Education also strongly recommends that students should actively recall specific information in order to “directly promote learning and help students remember things longer”.  

A great example of how active recall can be used in software is Brainscape, the online flashcards learning platform. Our platform uses active recall to yield greater benefits with limited study time. We do this by showing one question at a time on the front of a flashcard. Students are then asked to remember the answer before turning the card over without any hints. The active recalling of information deepens the cognitive pathways to the information.

Our system also ensures that learners are making a genuine active attempt to think of the answer, by asking users to rate their confidence in each flashcard (on a scale of 1-5) before proceeding to the next one. Learners tend to keep their confidence ratings honest since they want our system of confidence-based repetition to help them optimize their study time.

Whether learners are choosing from Brainscape’s huge public library of flashcards or making their own flashcards, using active recall (rather than multiple-choice self tests) is a key strategy for deeply learning and retaining knowledge.

Use Brainscape to promote active studying for students

How can you best help students to study actively rather than passively? There are modern adaptive flashcard engines you can use, such as Brainscape, that lend themselves to the production of active study. They require the user to freely recall the target rather than simply recognizing it from among multiple choices.

Brainscape's dashboard displays knowledge retention

Active recall, together with spaced repetition and metacognition, is part of the foundational principles that transform Brainscape's flashcards into the ideal tool to improve your students' learning experience and make learning more efficient.

Check out Brainscape for Educators today!


Biggs, J. (1979). Individual differences in study processes and the quality of learning outcomes. Higher Education, 8(4), 381-394. www.jstor.org/stable/3446151

Karpicke, J., & Roediger, H. (2006). Repeated retrieval during learning is the key to long-term retention. Journal of Memory and Language, 57(2), 151-162. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jml.2006.09.004

Pashler, H., Bain, P., Bottge, B., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing instruction and study to improve student learning. Institute for Educational Sciences practice guide, U.S. Department of Education.