Companies & Universities, Learning

Improving Learning Outcomes: The Power of Active Learning

Tired woman in front of computer

What is Active Learning?

When it comes to retaining new information, which methodology is best for learners: Active Learning or Passive Learning? –Remember those classes in high school when your teacher stood in front of the class and for an hour just talked at you while everyone furiously took notes that they would later memorize? That’s Passive Learning. Active Learning, on the other hand, requires students to interact and do meaningful tasks while thinking about what they are doing.

Unlike passive learners, active learners are more engaged, learn the material in less time, and learn more effectively.

Active Learning Engages Students More

Being engaged during the learning process is arguably one of the most important conditions for retaining information. When learning passively via media such as lectures or lengthy videos, the potential for the student’s mind to wander is high and only increases as time passes. But when students are learning actively, they are constantly engaged with the material–manipulating objects, answering questions, and getting immediate feedback. For example, Smartly learners are required to interact with the material an average of every 8.7 seconds. This high level of engagement is extremely effective, and one of the reasons why Smartly’s approval rating is consistently above 96%.


Active Learning is Faster

Because interaction is required when learning actively, time spent not listening, zoning out, or generally being distracted is reduced. Additionally, students experiencing Active Learning spend more time “learning by doing” and require less repetition in order to perform operations or demonstrate knowhow. These benefits mean that learning happens faster, and more time can be devoted to additional study or other productive efforts.

Greater Efficacy with Active Learning

When the desired learning outcome is for the student to retain the maximum amount of information taught and apply it in class, the workplace, or life, Active Learning proves to be much more effective than Passive Learning. In a study performed by Ruhl et al., researchers found that Active Learning was in fact more effective in terms of both short-term and long-term retention. In the short-term, students who learned actively were able to recall 35% more facts that those who learned passively. And, Active Learners on average performed 11% better than their Passive Learning counterparts when given a multiple choice test later in the learning process. [1]

When we consider that learning actively creates an educational environment that is more engaging, faster, and more effective than Passive Learning, it is clear that Active Learning is the better choice.


[1] Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research

[2] Active versus passive teaching styles: An empirical study of student learning outcomes

[3] Everyday attention and lecture retention: the effects of time, fidgeting, and mind wandering

Companies & Universities, Smartly, Students & Careers

The Smartly Master Plan: Elite to Open, and Everything in Between

Satellite mission in space from the top looking down to earth

Smartly has the overarching mission to innovate in education, and in that spirit we recently launched a free online MBA degree. From time to time, people ask us: “Why are you starting with an ‘elite’ degree? Why be selective when you could open up the opportunity to those who have difficulty accessing education?” We do strongly believe in democratizing education, and this is a question we’ve thought about deeply.

We just can’t help but borrow a page from Elon Musk and Tesla here. Musk spelled out the playbook of starting with the powerful Roadster sports car to show the world that electric cars could actually rival high-end gasoline cars, and then scaling the business, working his way down the marginal cost curve and building more and more affordable cars.

We were inspired by the idea of proving a disruptive approach at the top and working step-by-step to spread the benefits to everyone. We want to prove to the world that education can be effective and successful when free and online. In that spirit, the MBA is our flagship program to demonstrate the power of Smartly to rival some of the best educational institutions in the world. We restricted the first cohort of our MBA program to students similar to those one would find at top brick & mortar programs to show parity in student outcomes. Keep in mind that we are doing this while offering the MBA for free! We are proving the disruptive power of Smartly at the top, all the while adding programs for more and more audiences, including programs that are open as well as free.

While our pedagogical plan is to branch deeper and deeper into additional degrees, certifications, and courses, we’re also going to continue innovating how education is funded. We are soon launching a hiring engine that pushes the cost of education to the companies hiring newly-skilled graduates. Beginning with our MBA students, companies can browse and hire top business talent, and the recruiting fees these companies pay fund the MBA program. Our interests are aligned with those of our graduates: we are only paid when they are achieving successful outcomes, and not with an upfront tuition. This benefits all parties: the student, the employers, and the government guaranteeing these loans (just maybe not the banks). As we add additional programs, we will continue to innovate different models of funding education with the belief that it can be free, open, and online. Smartly is not just another online university, but a whole new approach to education.

Companies & Universities, Students & Careers

From cave walls to computers: a brief history of learning

Old picture of filming of students watching someone teach

Since the mass adoption of formal education in schools across society, understanding around items such as class size, curriculum development, and teaching tools have advanced significantly, but the format in which content is delivered to students has barely evolved for thousands of years. The lecture-based approach to education has spread across civilizations, continents, and cultures. Let’s take a trip back in time and I’ll show you how we arrived where we are now.

Forty thousand years ago, carvings of rock walls were used as a vehicle for teaching, however it is not until 3100BC that with the rise of trade, government, and religion came the invention of writing, which brought both schooling and education as we know them today to the Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations. A few hundred years later, Plato founded The Academy in Athens, where the Socratic method dominated teaching. This method involved argumentative dialogue between individuals and was led by a teacher who was trusted with the responsibilities of guiding the conversation and instructing students about new concepts.

Fast forward into the Middle ages: monasteries of the Roman Catholic Church were the centers of education and professors were master lecturers. This eduction style permeated through subsequent ages and was slowly combined with different mechanisms and tools; in colonial times, students had to recite what the teacher preached aided by a Horn-Book (a wooden flat board with parchment on top that laid out a lesson). A few hundred years later, the Magic Lantern, one of the first projectors, was created and then two decades later, our beloved chalkboard!

Now let’s stop and think, what do all these lecture methods have in common? They’re boring! Have you ever been on the verge of falling asleep during a class? That’s because most lessons you’ve taken have probably been lecture-based where you’ve sat and listened passively to a teacher “preaching.” You’ve probably interacted through some sort of Socratic discussion, performed some rote-memorization, or have energetically taken notes of what a professor is writing. However, there seems to be a persistent problem, one that technology hasn’t managed to solve in centuries: lectures still predominate the way we learn.

One aspect of education that technology has revolutionized is the expansion of education beyond the elite few and to the masses. With commercial radio broadcasting in the 1920s also came on-air radio education, then television for education in the 1950s and videotapes in the 1970s. Finally, with the advent of the Internet, online education took off and by 2008, web technology was being used to create the first Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which taught learners through videos.

So if you think about it, the format of learning has not really changed, students still sit and watch or listen to a lecture, and still fall asleep, not actually learning as much as they possibly could. And let’s not even mention the lack of individualized attention that a pupil might need to actually improve through instant feedback. What if we combine both technology that allows for open access of quality education and change passive learning into active learning that is self-paced, adaptive, and provides instant feedback? That would be the real revolution! And that’s what we are doing here at Smartly.

Careers, Company, Students & Careers

The Free MBA Has Landed

Astronauts landing on the moon overlooking The Earth

We’re excited to announce that Smartly’s groundbreaking free MBA program will open its doors to our first student cohort this week!

From the moment MBA applications opened earlier this year, we were overwhelmed by the positive response. Of the thousands of students who applied, we were only able to accept 7% to our first class. We plan to accept students to additional cohorts later this year. 

Our students hail from top undergraduate and graduate schools, drawing from diverse backgrounds spanning engineering and finance to humanities and the performing arts. Many have careers in business-oriented fields like consulting and banking, while others are entrepreneurs, lawyers, and even veterinarians. We have roboticists from Tesla and Amazon (the company), the founder of a tea company that gives revenue back to indigenous farmers in the Amazon (the jungle), and even a student who has beaten cancer twice!

The Smartly MBA is composed of 42 core courses equivalent to the subjects taught in a traditional MBA degree. Courses are organized into 9 concentrations, including Business Foundations, Accounting, Finance, Data & Decisions, Markets & Economies, Marketing & Pricing, Strategy & Innovation, Leadership & Management, and Supply Chain & Operations Management, with optional electives for further study.

Students who finish the program will receive an MBA licensed through the Washington, DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education. When they graduate, students will be matched with employers around the US, opening up job opportunities that make use of their newly-minted skills. 

We’re passionate about expanding access to impactful education here at Smartly, and we believe that a free, high-quality MBA is an important step in this journey. Thanks to all of our learners who have supported and inspired us in this endeavor. We can’t wait to show you what’s next!

Students & Careers

I Turned Down a Top Business School

Business man holding a puppy

For years, I was convinced that gaining an MBA from a top business school would lead to guaranteed success and happiness.

After all, they take in ambitious, creative, entrepreneurial types and spit out brand new Masters of the Universe at the other end, all guaranteed to progress on to business success, right?! Cue the all too familiar gauntlet of GMAT tests, poring over school brochures and websites, campus visits, ‘meet-and-greets’, and the endless hours of application preparation and submission, each costing on average about $150. In total, I have easily spent in excess of $4,000 simply getting to the stage of hitting the ‘submit’ button on various applications.

I am a small animal veterinarian and I’m at the stage in my career, and life, where I am acutely aware of the question, “Where am I going next?” Not completely enamoured of the usual, predictable and ‘safe’ options, and, to be perfectly honest, somewhat disillusioned with much of my current profession, I looked towards an MBA as being the answer. I have entrepreneurial ambitions, specifically within the tech sector, and so it seemed logical that formal business training, with the plethora of additional advantages that attending a top school offers, was exactly what was called for. I know for a fact that I would find the experience of spending 1-2 years in a major seat of learning and culture with equally ambitious sorts from all corners of the globe a wonderful one indeed. And so it was that my journey to business school began.

Coming from a non-traditional ‘quantitative’ career such as veterinary medicine, I was keen to bolster my familiarity with the core MBA curriculum and came across the Smartly app. Instantly drawn into the simple, immersive, bite-sized, and beautifully presented lessons that had a fun, game-like feel I found myself a dedicated user, powering through all of the available lessons and eagerly awaiting any new material developed by the Pedago team. It was, therefore, an easy decision to put my hand in my pocket and pay for the service* when the full version went live. It was that good!

Fast forward to earlier this year: I finally had that which I had been fixated on for so long: an offer from a top school! So what I did next took a lot of thought…

I turned my acceptance down!

The principle reason for this huge decision was simply the prohibitively inflated cost of studying for an MBA, with my projected expense easily looking to be in the region of $120,000 once the $90,000 of tuition was added to reasonable living expenses. Whilst it is no secret what the cost of an MBA is when students apply, such numbers seem unreal until such time that you are staring at a loan agreement. ROI uncertainty and the realities of staggering debt to pursue my dream aside, I had to really ask myself if there was another way to obtain the same level of top MBA knowledge without bankrupting myself. Smartly once again came onto the scene offering a full MBA degree, with its clear curriculum, simple and intuitive interface and impressive catalogue of ever-expanding content. Oh, and it’s significantly more attractive price tag! With my application submitted I now eagerly await their decision on whether I shall be one of those admitted to their new online MBA.

*The Smartly MBA is now free for consumers, so feel free to apply today!

Author Info: Chris Queen is a small animal veterinarian living and working in Dubai and also a massive nerd, interested in the power of technology, including virtual and augmented reality, to revolutionize education. When he isn’t caring for pets or writing, he can be found running, swimming and cycling towards his next Ironman race or jumping from a perfectly good plane in the name of skydiving. Chris’ blog can be found at and he can be found on Twitter at @thenerdyvet

Companies & Universities

Corporate Training Programs: What Are They Really Worth?

Young man surfing in waves

Companies in the US spend over $160Bn a year training their employees, but, are they really getting their money’s worth? Probably not!

More often than not, corporate training involves disengaged minds. Throughout a typical absurdly long training video, employees often text, read the news or catch up on work, but rarely give the training their full undivided attention. You probably know it by now… your required compliance training material is profoundly boring and really doesn’t influence the workplace environment or improve employee productivity. As a learning or training manager you are looking to justify the thousands of dollars assigned to your attempts to educate your employees.

What about those skills that you actually want to see in action? How do you keep your employees from hampering their coworker’s productivity with questions they should know the answer to? Or avoid having your managers improvise trainings unsuccessfully? In order to increase your employees’ productivity and intellectual growth, you should encourage ongoing learning. It’s your duty to enable this through the right methods and channels. Here are a couple tips that will make education in the workplace more effective:

  1. Make ongoing learning part of your company culture. As an employee, it’s hard to keep up with work, exercise, family, and on top of that, education and skills development. When you make learning a priority for the company, employees will make it a priority too.
  2. Articulate to your employees that training is for their own personal development, not for the company. These are skills that will be with them going forward in your company or at any other.
  3. Allow them to learn on their own terms, be flexible about their time, schedules and preferences. Some people would rather learn on their commute to work, or in bed right before going to sleep. Let employees fit training into their schedules by setting expectations and deadlines, but not mandating how and when training should be consumed.
  4. Reward success. Track your employee’s performance and acknowledge their achievements.
  5. Make it quick, short and sweet. Employees can’t handle hours-long lectures or videos, especially when they can’t stop thinking about their to-do list.

Sounds easy, right? Wrong… 46% of training hours were delivered by an instructor in a brick-and-mortar classroom setting, and 90% of new skills are lost within the year. Maybe it’s time to start investing some of that $160Bn in better learning solutions. And yes, a lot of training is being done online nowadays, particularly compliance, but does online actually mean effective? Not necessarily, sitting back and watching a video online might as well be the same as sitting in a classroom and watching a lecture passively. The effectivity of learning both on and offline comes from the interaction with the material and concepts. So, if you want a combination of flexibility and effective learning, try an online, interactive tool!

1,2 Training Magazine, 2015 Training Industry Report. 2 Wall Street Journal, “So much training, so little show for it.”