Active Learning: How to Get the Most From Your Graduate Experience

When you think of graduate school, does your mind wander to endless lectures given by droning professors who seem to enjoy the sound of their own voices more than actually imparting useful knowledge? Do you think it will be endless reading, and writing papers that no one will ever read?

Well, think again. Today’s graduate school experience is a far cry from the boring educational model of years past. Institutions such as have broke the model and offer engaging and interactive graduate courses. While there are certainly some lectures, reading and writing included, when you enroll in a program to earn a human services degree or some other type of advanced credential, you can expect a great deal of active learning — in other words, plenty of opportunities to practice the principles you’re learning.

What Is Active Learning?

Active learning has been a popular educational concept for a few decades. It replaces the old educational model, in which students passively absorbed knowledge from instructors and regurgitated it back through papers and tests, with a model that makes the student an active participant in the process. For example, an instructor might introduce a concept, and the students will each present a case that demonstrates the concept, showing why the situation is relevant. This type of learning allows students to apply their newfound knowledge and engage their critical thinking and application skills.

How You Can Be an Active Learner

While many graduate-level instructors build active learning into their curricula, it’s still up to you to become an active learner to get the most from your master’s program. Fully engaging in your educational experience will improve your knowledge retention and, in many cases, improve your grades.

You can be an active learner by:

  • Previewing the lectures and materials for the week to come. When you are earning a master of public health online, for example, you’ll have access to your instructor’s lecture and materials at least a week ahead of time. Begin each week by skimming ahead to the concepts that are coming up. By doing so, you’ll be able to start making connections and seeing the bigger picture.
  • Keep up with the reading. It sounds like a no-brainer, but staying on top of your assignments and doing the reading is an important part of the educational process. The reading often augments the instructor lectures and introduces additional concepts. Augment your reading by taking notes and jotting down questions. Preparing ahead of time allows you to participate in the class discussions and ask good questions or make points that help your classmates learn as well.
  • Be proactive in your learning. Don’t just sit back and wait for your instructor to introduce new ideas and make connections. Make the connections yourself. When you learn new ideas, look for situations in which you can apply your new knowledge; this is especially useful if you’re working while you advance your education. Share the ideas you’ve gleaned from your studies, and look for ways to apply them to situations you’re facing.
  • Ask questions. The whole point of seeking a degree is to learn new information — so don’t be afraid to ask questions. If something is unclear, ask for clarification; however, don’t rely on your instructor for all of the answers, either. If you are taking an online class, use the online environment to engage your classmates in a discussion by asking about a concept or presenting a theoretical situation to analyze. You’ll not only get the answer that you seek, but you’ll engage your classmates in active learning as well.

Getting the most from your graduate experience requires more than simply being a sponge and soaking up the knowledge that’s presented. You need to be engaged in the process yourself and take responsibility for your learning and educational experience. You’ll see your efforts reflected in your GPA and also in your overall knowledge and abilities in the field after graduation.

After a 10-year teaching career, Caroline Travers recently earned a master’s in human services. She now manages a nonprofit agency devoted to improving educational achievement for low-income and minority students.

1 comment

  1. Active learning sounds like a great concept for triggering intellectual curiosity in students. I hope more students investigate this path. Learning is a lifelong process, after all.

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