When it comes to mastering a subject, what someone learns is only part of the equation — how one learns it is crucial to consider as well. In this article, we’ll dive into two different learning methods, which are typically described as ‘passive’ learning and ‘active’ learning.
Decades of educational research have confirmed that passive learning isn’t as effective as active learning. Unfortunately, the former still wins out in many school classrooms and job training programs. We’re all familiar with these ‘sage on the stage’ or the “‘chalk and talk’ learning experiences. Fortunately, there is a better way.
Below, you can find an in-depth guide to active and passive learning. We cover the critical differences between them. Then, you can discover for yourself why active learning is the strategy you need for effective training or coaching in your business.
Let’s start with what most people are used to from grade school – passive learning (unless you were one of the lucky few who went to a school practicing more innovative teaching methods!)
What Is Passive Learning?
Passive learning is what many people are familiar with from school. It typically involves listening to a lecture or reading a book. It may involve independent personal study, followed by tests to measure comprehension. The communication is usually one-way, with most communication flowing from the teacher to the learner.
The expectation is for the learner to comprehend and assimilate the information given to them to transform it into knowledge. This responsibility to learn falls solely on the individual learner, who is (ideally) paying close attention.
What Is Active Learning?
Active learning gets the learner involved in the instructional process in various ways, such as discussions, projects, and smaller activities. It can also simply involve practicing a concept, or applying an idea to a real-world scenario. Active learning helps stimulate a student’s conceptual understanding of topics and concepts by engaging them within the comprehension process.
Active learning may incorporate textbooks, lectures, and powerpoints. However, it always gets the student doing something (beyond just listening or taking notes) – things like hands-on experiments, class discussions, peer-to-peer debates, learning games, and novel challenges.
All of these things put the learner in the driver’s seat rather than participating only as an observer.
If you can successfully engage learners in active learning, not only is the structure and style quite different, but the outcomes are, too. It leads not only to higher scores but also long-term retention of the information.
What Are the Differences Between Active and Passive Learning?
It can be frustrating for learners to devote hours studying new materials only to perform poorly when assessments come around. Part of that reason is likely to be the disconnect between the content and the passive learning style they’re using to absorb it.
Passive learning has shown to be less effective at long-term retention than active learning. Rote memorization doesn’t always translate to retention.
The trouble with the passive style is that comprehension and understanding are difficult to gauge without conducting repeated assessments.
The differences between active and passive learning include:
- Role of the teacher
- Role of the learner
- Structure and source of instructional materials
- Methods of evaluation
And, perhaps most importantly, the results.
Passive learning relies on one-way communication. The learner attempts to absorb the information by reading books, listening to lectures, or clicking through online courses. This process, also called self-learning, depends almost entirely on the learner’s dedication.
On the other hand, active learning often involves communication between learners, groups, and the teacher. Communication can take many forms, including discussions, group projects, and live Q&A sessions. The expectation is that students will participate in the lesson just as much as the instructor to increase their engagement.
In passive learning, student involvement requires the learner to engage with the content on their own. They can be very involved or far from involved—the distinction is up to them. These traditional study methods keep student engagement to a minimum. There are important equity considerations that this assumption brings, as Anne Murphy Paul discussed in the New York Times
Active learning encourages learners to participate in learning the concept. They may contribute to class discussions, perform experiments, ask questions, challenge other students, etc. Rather than passively absorbing (or not absorbing) the information presented to them, the learners interact directly with the concepts to better understand them. Dr. Kelly Hogan’s work at UNC-Chapel Hill has demonstrated that active learning can mitigate some of the inequities often observed in passive learning environments.
Passive education is oriented around the teacher, giving them complete control to set up their class however they desire. It gives them the floor to share whatever information as they see fit. It puts all eyes on the instructor and places the learners in the role of an audience rather than participants.
Active learning orients around the learner. It draws on the student’s involvement to help facilitate discussion and drive the right points home. It’s a two-way relationship between the learner and the instructor/material.
Control of Materials
In passive learning, the instructor controls the materials used in the lessons. The expectation is for learners to use the resources provided to learn what is necessary. They don’t add anything else but merely extract what is most important from the content and memorize it.
Learners have much more control over the process with active education. They receive encouragement to seek out sources of information to find new solutions, ideas, or possibilities. They may bring in their own materials to broaden the discussion or compare ideas. Through this experience, students develop more metacognitive skills through active learning than they might through passive learning.
When it comes to evaluation, passive learning tends to rely on multiple-choice exams and standardized testing. Without effective independent studying from the learner, the test results can suffer.
As such, passive learning is often accused of teaching to the test. However, if your goal is maximizing standardized test scores, active learning is actually better at that too!
More importantly, in terms of lifelong knowledge, active learning can provide significant benefits, and more creative modes of assessment to accompany the learning – like real-world projects or community showcases – can inspire students, teach life skills, and develop more sticky memories.
If you’re interested in examples of creative, active assessments, look into example Projects at High Tech High, one of the leaders in active learning.
Passive learning can show good results immediately following the teaching. For this to happen, the learner must memorize the information and reiterate it through an exam or other assessment.
However, as time goes on, this information isn’t as likely to stick. Anything learned passively requires memorization rather than deeper learning. A useful framework to consider is Bloom’s Taxonomy — the higher up the taxonomy you go, the more active learning is required.
Learners deeply involved in digesting new concepts, especially through the active learning strategy of repetition, are more likely to retain information long-term. The more hands-on, application-based comprehension helps cement the essential concepts into their brains.
Role of the Teacher
In passive learning, the teacher is the primary source of knowledge on the topic. The authoritative position limits the information available for comprehension purposes and restricts the materials the students can use.
In active learning, the teacher or instructor is more of a facilitator. Their job is to create the right environment for students to participate in activities and gain new knowledge. In the information age, students have significantly more access to information than in generations past. As a result, equipping students to deal with all that information is essential.
Modes of Thinking
In passive education, students are encouraged to think convergently. Everyone arrives at the same answer to the same question.
Active learning promotes lateral thinking. This mode of thinking helps students connect concepts to external applications in the real world. It also encourages divergent thinking, generating creativity and variation in the answers, insights, and understanding. The educational philosophy of constructivism offers a strong framework for thinking of these benefits of active learning.
Methods of Gaining Knowledge
Passive uses observation, listening, and reading as methods to gain knowledge. These are valuable skills to have, but they are not the only methods for a deep understanding of a topic.
Active learners gain knowledge through experimentation, application, creation, synthesis, and more. It also makes methods more flexible and invites students to try multiple different modes of learning.
Why Is Active Learning More Effective Than Passive Learning?
Active learning is more effective than passive learning for many reasons. Some of the benefits that help it stand out include:
- Improves short term information acquisition
- Improves long term knowledge retention
- Creates room for frequent feedback to the instructor from learners
- Allows more information to be presented from multiple sources
- Stimulates learners’ attention
- Requires participation which leads to more long-term retention
- Encourages learners to develop critical thinking skills
- Helps learners apply lessons to real-life/the field
Some learners who prefer to learn independently without external interference may enjoy passively receiving information and memorizing it. However, most people find that they are more successful in gaining and retaining long-term knowledge when actively building comprehension.
Are you looking for long-term understanding for your employees to increase their skills and knowledge and apply these new concepts to everyday business situations?
Active learning is where you’ll find the most success.
Learn to Win is a mobile-first platform that helps companies train their employees on the team-specific operational knowledge that drives job performance. We’ve built our software platform around active learning principles, so now every team can learn faster and more effectively.
Learn to Win makes it easy for learners to master new concepts in bite-sized chunks – in the flow of work, and on any device. And our built-in analytics make it easy for managers to see what their team members know, and where knowledge gaps may be harming performance.
Contact our team for a free demo to learn how active learning can rapidly up-level your team’s performance!