Why Your Studying Doesn’t Work: Active vs Passive Learning Strategies in Nursing School

Ever wonder how that one classmate who barely studies still manages to ace their exams? And then when you ask them how they do it, they say things like:

  • “I just read the textbook”, or…
  • “I never read the textbook, I just listen to lecture”, or…
  • “I watch YouTube videos”, or…
  • “I only do practice questions”

And yet…when you try the same study tactics, you’re still struggling to pass. What’s the difference?

The Passive Learning Trap

Most nursing students rely on Passive Learning Strategies, which are the worst way to study in Nursing School.

And let me be clear about one thing…just because you’re using passive learning strategies does NOT mean that you’re not working hard or putting in more than enough hours studying. It only means that the methods you use to study are not going to be as effective when it comes to actually understanding and retaining the nursing info long-term.

Examples of Passive Learning Strategies

The Passive learning study strategies that are used are all commonly encouraged study strategies, and you’ve probably relied on them to do well in school in the past. But they no longer work well enough for nursing school. They include:

  • Flashcards
  • Reading the textbook
  • Listening to lecture (or recordings of lecture)
  • Re-reading/re-writing your notes and/or powerpoint slides
  • Highlighting your textbook/notes
  • Watching YouTube videos
  • Even doing an endless number of NCLEX-style practice questions!

I know what you’re thinking right now…what’s left? Aren’t those all the ways there are to study?

Study Tactics vs Study Strategies

No, that’s not all the ways to study. That’s because everything I listed above are study tactics, not study strategies.

And the secret to nursing school study success is to have the right study strategy. You can use almost any tactic successfully, as long as you use it with the correct type of strategy.

Here’s how to tell the difference between a study tactic vs a study strategy: tactics are WHAT you do to study. Strategies are WHY/HOW you do them.

Incidentally, this is exactly why two students can study using the same exact study tactics, yet get completely different exam grades. It’s not because one is smart and the other is dumb…it’s because one is using those tactics with an active learning strategy, while the other student is using those same tactics with a passive learning strategy.

And Active Learning Strategies will always bring you better learning and more success. But…they can feel more difficult to do when you’re not used to it.

Active Learning Strategies for Nursing School

The difference between passive and active learning strategies is like the difference between letting someone lift your arm for you versus doing your own bicep curls in the gym. Sure, both take time, and both take some energy…but only one of them is going to actually build your muscles.

If you want to improve your clinical judgement and learn to think like a nurse, you need to do the “heavy lifting” with your own brain. This is why I always warn students that I am NOT a tutor who will spoonfeed you the nursing information! Yes, I will answer your questions, I will clarify things you’re confused about, but I will ALSO always be showing you how to think about the content for yourself so that you eventually know how to answer your OWN questions.

That’s what it means to think like a nurse.

Examples of Active Learning Strategies

Remember, this is a study strategy, not a tactic, so you can apply it using any tactic you prefer. Personally, I like using my textbook! But I never read an entire chapter from start to finish, just like I would never read the dictionary from start to finish. Instead, I use active learning strategies that help me treat the textbook like it should be treated: like a reference book.

I’ve found that the easiest way to start using active learning strategies in Nursing School is by using the Silver Bullet Study System (spoiler: that’s why I created it, lol!). It’s a simple, 4-step study process that can be used with literally any topic you need to study in nursing school.

The Silver Bullet Study System (SBSS) makes sure that you can correctly identify what the most important information is, what types of questions you should be asking and assessing for, how to prioritize symptoms and nursing care, and more. It basically mimics the way that experienced nurses think, so that you can practice thinking that way, too.

Active Learning Mindset Hack

When it comes to switching over to active learning strategies, the biggest challenge I’ve seen nursing students struggle with over my 15-years of professional nursing tutor experience is the confidence that it will actually work.

Because here’s the honest truth: using active learning strategies feels harder. It feels like it takes longer. And it feels like you’re not doing as much work (because you can’t “check off” 50 flashcards, 37 textbook pages read, 75 practice questions, and btw look how much I highlighted!).

But just like doing bicep curls, active learning strategies are not the type of thing that you will see immediate results after a single study session. Just as your biceps won’t get stronger unless you do consistent work-out sessions over an extended period of time, your brain won’t be able to think like a nurse unless you do the same.

And once you believe that, and trust the process by adjusting to a more active learning study strategy, then you’ll start seeing the results sooner than you think.

The Best Active Learning Strategy for Nursing School: The Silver Bullet Study System

Active learning strategies are not “one-size-fits-all”. There are a variety of study tactics that can be used within an active learning strategy to suit your particular learning style or even your lifestyle. And the Silver Bullet Study System is no different.

You can think about the SBSS more like a framework for what types of questions you should be asking, with guidelines for how to get your brain to adapt to thinking like a nurse as you work through understanding the nursing content you need to study.

If you use the SBSS the way I teach my tutoring students, then you will automatically be using active learning strategies because it is built into each of the 4-steps. Think of it like “training wheels” for nursing school.

Want to learn the Silver Bullet Study System for yourself? You can get a free, 10-min “How to Study in Nursing School” video where I teach you all about it.

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