Minerva's Most Memorable Lesson: The Science of Active Learning

Learning Research

Minerva's Most Memorable Lesson: The Science of Active Learning

By Stephen M. Kosslyn     Jul 8, 2015

Minerva's Most Memorable Lesson: The Science of Active Learning

The most memorable learning experiences often take place outside the classroom, not in the lecture hall. Lectures, as we know, are not a good way to learn. The Minerva Schools at KGI are in the enviable position of being able to implement teaching methods based purely on how well they work—as opposed to tradition, convenience, or faculty preference. Because studies consistently document that active learning is superior to lectures, our curriculum was designed from the start to be taught using active learning.

Active learning is effective because of ways the brain processes information, and any school can make use of the principles that underlie this approach. These principles can be organized under two very general maxims.

The First Maxim: Think It Through

The first key idea is very simple: The more you think something through (“turn it over in your mind”), while paying attention to what you are doing, the more likely you are later to remember it.

To get a concrete sense of the nature and force of this maxim, try the following demo. Below is a list of words, organized into two columns. For each word in the left column, decide whether the first letter is taller than the last letter (as the word is printed). For example, “house” meets the requirement because “h” is taller than “e.” But “mouse” does not, because “m” is not taller than “e,” and neither does “most” because “m” is actually shorter than “t.”

Then look at each word in the right column. For each word, now decide whether it names a living or non-living thing. For example, if you saw “tree,” you would decide that it names a living thing (whereas “rock” does not).

Now, go through the following list. After you finish going through the entire list (both columns), close your eyes and see how many words you can remember from both lists. (Don’t write anything down.)


First letter taller than last letter? Alive or not?
frog rat
harp sheet
sock deer
rug beam
forge bear
hare stone
ape chair
lamp worm
snail dove
snake table

Now, check the list again, and note how many words from each column you correctly recalled. (Yes, this is the honor system!)

When this study is done carefully, the results are dramatic: People recall many more words that they judged living/non-living than words that they judged according to the relative heights of the letters.

Why? Consider what you did when you classified a named object as living versus non-living. You had to recall specific properties of the object, such as whether it moves of its own volition, is a type of plant, and so forth. This required considerable mental processing. In contrast, to judge the relative heights of the letters, you just looked at what was in front of you, which required much less processing than evaluating whether a word represented a living or non-living thing.

This may sound counterintuitive, but the more your brain has to process, the more likely you are to remember what you processed. You weren’t trying to remember the words; rather, learning occurred as a byproduct of cognitive processing engaged to comprehend and analyze.

The Second Maxim: Make and Use Associations

The second maxim focuses on making and using associations. Let’s do another demo. Look at the following for 4 seconds, then turn away and try to recall as many of the letters as possible.



How many could you recall? Look again, but now look for 3-letter acronyms of famous organizations:



If you made the right associations, you should now easily be able to recall the entire string. Take a look at:



You can use the associations to group the letters into organized units, called “chunks.” We humans can easily learn about four chunks at the same time. Moreover, using associations appropriately can allow you to organize sets of chunks into a single, superordinate chunk--and we can retain four of such chunks. This sort of hierarchical organization allows us to absorb a huge amount of information.

For example, K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues, then at Carnegie Mellon University, reported a dramatic demonstration of how associations can be used to organize material in this way. Here’s what they did: They asked a student to come into the lab at least three times per week, for about a year-and-a-half. At each session, the researchers simply read him a sequence of random digits, one digit per second, and asked him to repeat them back. They started with a single digit, which he correctly recalled. They then gave him two other randomly selected digits, which he recalled, and then three, and so on until he failed to recall the entire sequence (8 digits, on that first day). Each session began where the previous one had left off (so the second day started with 8 digits), but used different sequences of random digits. When the study finally ended, this participant could recall new strings of random digits that were 79 digits long!

How did he do this? The student was a runner, who had run numerous marathons. He associated the random digits with times for particular segments of races. For example, if he heard “3, 4, 9, 2” he might associate these digits with the time, “3 minutes, 49.2 seconds.” Thus, four digits were converted to a single “chunk,” using associations. And then he used associations to group segments together into longer segments. He eventually devised other strategies for making such associations, such as relating digits to specific people’s ages or to memorable dates.

In short, the science of learning has revealed fundamental principles that underlie learning. Exploiting these principles can have a dramatic effect on learning—and can do so painlessly, for both students and faculty!

Stephen M. Kosslyn is Founding Dean of the Minerva Schools at KGI

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