The Active Learning Alphabet Starts with “A, C, B”

Whether at their regular schools or at ATDP, our students are very able, very bright, and they love to learn. In fact, many ATDP students are accustomed to absorbing information so quickly and with such ease that they are truly startled when they come upon topics, subject, or huge sets of information that do not lend themselves to “quick absorption.” This presents an unaccustomed challenge to many ATDP students.Happily, our students love to learn. And with equal happiness, we present an effective, exciting (you knew that if we’re espousing it, it would have to involve a large element of fun!) set of tools for academic success that is aimed at managing and mastering huge bodies of knowledge and mastering important skills. We are talking about ACTIVE LEARNING.

ATDP-IMAGEActive learning requires three parts—ACB—and they have to be used in this order: Affect, Cognition, and Behavior. Below, we introduce each of them. And if you remain interested in becoming an active learning, we also offer more in depth discussions of each element, which you can access via the links at the end of this article. Let’s start with the “A” segment of active learning.

“A” for Affect refers to how much passion and energy you have for learning. How do you feel about learning? Affect is the fuel for learning. A beautiful car can have a powerful engine, but if there is no fuel in the car, it will not go. It’s the same reason you eat. If you don’t eat, you have no fuel to function. Without passion for learning, learning seems boring and no fun. Learning should be a great deal of fun. Your affect determines whether you can make learning fun; whether you have fuel to learn.

“C” for Cognition refers to how you think about learning.You may have all the passion in the world for learning, but it may not be enough if you haven’t made a commitment to learning. Commitment to learning means making goals, believing in yourself, and being determined to follow through. Cognition includes the following:

  • Internal motivation—how strongly motivated are YOU? You must be a very strongly motivated learner. Parents, teachers and others can help you to make your motivation even stronger but the motive must be yours if you are to succeed.
  • You must have a strong will to learn—your will represents the power you devote to putting learning into action. You can think of it this way: Now there is fuel in the car, but will it go just because we have fuel? The fuel must be put to use in order to harness its potential to give the car power to move. The engine must be turned on (I am going to work on my math now or I am going to read my assignment at 2 p.m.). Without intent to act or drive, there isn’t any actual power being generated and that beautiful car isn’t going anywhere. Turning on the engine generates power to move the car. Think of your will power as being required to power your learning engine.
  • You must have staying power—it keeps you going when things become difficult for you. We can continue with our car metaphor to represent staying power: Our powerful, beautiful car may drive wonderfully on a level, straightforward freeway. But if the driver doesn’t put the car into the correct low gear, when a mountain road gets too steep, the car isn’t going to make it to the top. Think of staying power as your ability to “shift into low gear” to give your motivation the extra power to make it to the top, regardless of how difficult, how steep, your uphill pull to learn becomes. “Do you have sufficient will for the long haul?”

Recall how excited you were when you were in primary school and found out that you were going to learn to add. We can be certain that your motivation was high—addition is exciting stuff. Well, it just so happens that once upon a time, there were two ever-since-pre-school best friends Miss Penelope Trulie-Upbeat and Miss Les-Zo‘ Ebbinflow who are now in the middle of middle school. They started off just like you—they couldn’t wait to learn arithmetic and through most of elementary school, they remained happy, successful pre-scholars.

ATDP-IMAGEHowever, from around grade 4 or 5, L.Z. grew increasingly content to just do her arithmetic work quickly in class and then leave it at that. By the beginning of middle school, she and her will seemed to have parted company and she began reporting how boring it was to have to memorize things, pointing out that she’d much rather do other things. Somehow, over time, even as bright and charming and fun to be with as L.Z. was, she nevertheless found arithmetic and then math to be more and more difficult. The more difficult she found it, the more boring and useless she declared it to be. All the while, Penelope was delighting in how well she performed in arithmetic. She not only read all of the discussions in her math books, but she found books of complicated puzzles to read and challenge her. This was fun.

Further, as Penelope grew increasingly confident in applying her knowledge of addition, she learned subtraction quickly and easily. In order to advance, all she needed to do was apply her addition knowledge in reverse and she was off and running. After that, when she learned how to apply her addition facts with repetition, she easily mastered multiplication. After that, she was thoroughly delighted by how easy it was for her to develop strong skills in division. Then, even after that, Penelope was prepared and eager to move on from arithmetic to mathematics. Her willpower grew stronger and stronger as her work grew more and more complex. Now in the very-middle of middle school, she is continuing-to-continue her success and is looking forward to even more exciting mathematics courses when she reaches high school.

Sadly, L.Z., over the years, grew less and less proficient in mathematics. Who could blame her? Unlike her friend’s readings, she stated that hers were dull, boring, and completely useless. She told everyone that her time was being wasted when her teachers would encourage her to stay with it when things get tough. Of course, she did promise her teachers that she would read all of that arithmetic and math stuff they persisted in assigning to her (regardless of how often she told them how boring and useless it was). While she promised to, she didn’t actually read the stuff, not word for word . . . well, not page for page, either. Ok, not chapter for chapter either, although sometimes she did read the summaries, but frankly she didn’t find them useful.

ATDP-IMAGEWhen her parents asked L.Z. to explain her disappointing lack of success in school, especially in math, she attributed her backward slide to the fact that Penelope, for example, had all exciting and fun teachers while she always got all of the boring ones who gave boring work in class and then even more boring homework. This was a sad and also hard-to-understand outcome for such a bright and charming lass. It was made especially sad because their middle school had only one math teacher, one language arts teacher, one science teacher . . . and so on. I, Nina ask you to ask yourself, “Why, how could we have such different outcomes from two such similarly bright and charming young ladies? However could such a thing happen?” Hummmmm. I wonder.

There is, of course, a lesson in this story. And, of course, since you read the title of this article, you know that it has everything to do with the students’ learning behaviors. So, if you are seeking the advice to you in this story, it is this. When you have been working very hard and feel as if you aren’t excelling in the ways you predicted, take the active learning test. Ask yourself, “How can I make learning fun? What makes the “grey cells” in my brain go “snap, crackle and pop?”

If you create answers to these questions, then you have activated the “Affect” (fuel) needed to learn.

If you then ask yourself, “Do I have determination? Can I wrap myself in the “Magic Cape of Willpower?” Have you talked to yourself and made a personal commitment to establish goals and to follow through? This is the “C” or the cognition segment to learning. It is what puts you into the driver’s seat to make and makes it possible for deep learning to develop. If you said no to both sets of questions, you may need a tune-up to rev up your learning engine.

Affect and Cognition are the seeds to successful learning. No matter how much of the “A” you have, without the “C” (motivation and drive required to perform), you will not reach your goal. Of course, if we go back to our original image of the beautiful and powerful car, the “C” without the “A” could make you the most beautiful, powerful, car that never left the driveway. However, loving to learn and the best of intentions won’t bring you to your goals without the subject-specific knowledge and skills you need to go the full distance.

Now, for the “B” component—the Behaviors required for becoming an active learner.

In doing my homework for explaining to you the Behavior part of active learning, something really caught my attention and I think that you will find it fascinating. Part of a table titled “Active Learning = Remembering = Learning” showed the following.


You remember:10% of what you hear
30% of what you see
50% of what you watch, see, hear
70% of what you figure out and do
90% of what you figure out, do, and verbalize
    (and we add, review, restate, add new applications)
Active v. Passive Learning:Very Passive
Begging to be Active
Very Active


Regardless of whether research into learning verifies these numbers, or whether they might vary, the point is an important one. Passive learning isn’t learning. Very active learning not only builds a strong knowledge base, it is also the only choice for building mastery. ATDP students work to reach the mastery level, so let’s get back to our conversation about the ATDP brand of active learning. Please recall from last week, when we introduced the ATDP “ACBs” we spoke about the “A” Affective portion of active learning and the “C” Cognitive portion of active learning, with the promise that this week we present A and C in action. They come alive when they’re connected with the “B” Behaviors of active learning. You can think of this as your “To-Do List” for in and out of class learning.

Make it your own

  • When your teacher is lecturing, of course take notes.
    But what happens to those notes? Read them when you get home, highlight the most important items, summarize and gist the important points—both must be in your own words, or the learning isn’t yours.
  • Take notes as you read your books and assignments.
    Again, highlight and summarize. Use file cards to ask yourself questions and leave the file cards in the relevant places in your book. When you go back to review, you will give yourself some important cues to jog your memory. For a greater depth of knowledge, when you come to an important point, ask yourself, “How do the authors/scientists know this? Where did these ideas come from? Why are they important?”

Make it memorable

  • You will recall information much more easily when you organize into units that make sense to you.
    “Chunky” isn’t just good for peanut butter! It’s even better for learning. When Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo asked students to quickly memorize a random string of numbers (e.g., 1066200119451917) everyone stumbled over them and no one could recall them again after participating in a few other interesting activities. But it was an entirely different story when he chunked the same the information for the students and then asked them to how well they could remember the long string of numbers. In our example, please consider how much more difficult it is to recall and then later retrieve the string of numbers above than it is to recall them when they are chunked thusly: 1066, 2001, 1945, 1917.
  • Say it, sing it, dance it—just do it!
    The more you verbalize your learning, the more you will “know” and not just memorize. And when you need to memorize something, sing it and dance it. For how many songs do you know all of the words? What did you do to learn them? Sure, you sang and danced them. Fifty years from now, you’ll still remember the words, the tune, and the dance. So, sing and dance your way to learning. Just think about what you can do with the Pythagorean theorem!Say your new ideas out loud. This is a good time to get an audience. When someone asks you, “What did you learn in school today,” tell them! If no one asks you, get someone to listen. If that someone is also a student in your class, you can listen to each other and ask each other questions, large ones and small ones.

Reorganize it, evaluate it, apply it in different situations or under different conditions—Use it!

ATDP-IMAGEBy now you can see clearly why cramming information into your head doesn’t work in the long run. When you do that, you’ve only borrowed that information from the book or from your teachers lecture. But that information doesn’t belong to you and it doesn’t have a permanent home in your brain. Ask yourself what things you know and do the best and I’m pretty sure that your reply will be, “The things that I do the most, I know the best.” Indeed, think about something that you do well—be it skateboarding, playing video games, or solving complex mathematical puzzles. Now think about how easily you apply your skills and knowledge in your area of proficiency to new conditions and situations.

A skillful skateboarder can figure out how to “grind” on different angles and for different distances. Skateboarders probably eagerly seek out new, more complex, challenges on which to test and expand their skills. So do video game aficionados. So do mathematical puzzle champs, and so should you.

Seek out ways to evaluate your own learning performance. Don’t just review what you’ve learned, reorganize it in different ways so that you can recognize and apply your existing knowledge when it is presented from different perspectives or with a different emphasis. You can certainly recognize your family car from any (well, most any) angle because you know it so well. Learn to do the same with the big ideas as you learn them in each of your classes.

ATDP-IMAGEInformation and knowledge are there to be used, so use your knowledge and practice your skills. The more you know well, the more connections you make between and among ideas—concrete and abstract ones—the easier it becomes to acquire, store, and use at a moments notice. Many educators refer to this structure as a “scaffold” and call the process “scaffolding.” You are welcome to think of it that way … you can even think of it as a Christmas tree with scads and scads of branches on which to hang countless numbers of priceless ornaments. Regardless of how you picture it, the important part is that you have a structure in place that permits and encourages you to hang more and more new ideas onto it.

Now that you’ve seen the “B” part, would you please take a second look at “A” and “C.” When you do, you’ll find that you’ll approach all learning with greater energy and greater joy. You’ll also find that you get much more accomplished with far greater facility. I would just love it if you would let me know how you are doing as you apply your new ATDP alphabet—the one that starts “ACB.”

~ Nina