Active vs. Passive Learning: What’s the Difference?

Khristina Russell
Khristina Russell
High school instructional coach; Ed.S. in Teacher Leadership from Thomas University, GA
Someone standing between two arrows labeled ‘active’ and ‘passive’ on the ground.

As a life-long learner, I know that passive learning is where I find comfort. Not because it requires less work, but because it was how I learned almost everything I know up until graduate school. I found it easy to retain and regurgitate information and felt confident that the amount of information I knew was a true indicator of how smart I was. I was wrong, incredibly wrong, and am so glad that I now know it essentially takes a combination and creative balance of both in order to be effective.

What is Active Learning?

Active learning sounds busy, doesn’t it? In some ways, it absolutely can be. In a “traditional, teacher-centered” classroom, the teacher is at the front of the classroom talking and the students are listening. But if the students are actively learning, then the teacher will pause and allow for the students to discuss what he/she is trying to present.

Carl Wieman spearheaded the use of an active learning method in STEM subjects by outlining a few basic steps. First, the students are required to do some pre-reading before coming to class to learn the new topic. When they come to class, the teacher may have a worksheet, prompt, or question prepared. Secondly, students respond to whatever the teacher has given. Third, the students discuss their chosen answers/responses and then make whatever adjustment is necessary to their original work. Finally, the answer is revealed and discussed.

Through this process students get an opportunity to defend their answer, challenge their classmates, and clarify their thinking. Coming from another student, they don’t feel intimidated and gain confidence in their thinking process and in their ability to gain, retain, and apply information.

What is Passive Learning?

Passive learning sounds a little more laid back, but that is not necessarily true. While it may not require the intrinsic feedback of active learning, it definitely has its benefits. Passive learning is when all of the learning is generated from the teacher and absorbed by the learner. Most commonly this is viewed as a lecture. However, let’s not present the idea of a lecture as if it is a dirty word. If you’re an educator over 30, not only were your probably lectured all the way through your professional education, you have a serious skill set that you may have noticed that your students lack.

Molly Worthen, an associate professor at UNC Chapel Hill, notes that the idea of “Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen. In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this.”

Many of our students are used to the instant gratification that isn’t always evident in lecture learning, but the grit that inevitably comes from practicing listening, discerning which notes are note-worthy, and being able to build information from class to class is something to be proud of.

Passive learning also is part of everyday lives. It comes from the books we read, the television shows we watch, and, yes, the social media we absorb constantly. I know that there have been many times I’ve heard people say recently that they tried something and they learned it on TikTok. Passively, apps like that actively change the world. In that same token, we passively absorb mannerisms from our parents and those are passively passed down to our children. We passively model good behavior for our students and even for colleagues. My principal is an impeccable dresser and there are many days I think of her as an icon of professionalism.

These are all important options for learning. And although it may be a challenge for some students, Molly Worthen finds “listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people…lecture courses [are] an exercise in mindfulness.” Although this method is often viewed as antiquated, it has and will continue to have its benefits.

Differences: Active and Passive learning

The differences between these two learning styles centers primarily on who is doing the work in order to achieve the learning. A classroom teacher should not have to work overtime in order to ensure students are learning content. Teaching and learning should have some balance. Active learning is learner-centered and passive learning is teacher centered. Active learning requires students to think, discuss, challenge, and analyze information. Passive learning requires learners to absorb, assimilate, consider, and translate information. Active learning encourages conversation and debate, while passive learning encourages active listening and paying attention to detail. Traditionally, active learning is considered to activate higher-order thinking, and passive learning just helps students to retain.

Active learning will give students the opportunity to challenge pre-conceived notions and biases as they have discussions and defend their beliefs. Students have to have strong observation, communication, and critical thinking skills. On the other hand, with passive learning, students have the opportunity to consider their beliefs. As a listener, they may not always get the opportunity to confront an idea, but they can still recognize a difference between what they believe and what is presented.

Learners in a passive setting are not frequently encouraged to challenge ideas, which may not always be necessary when learning skills in certain mathematical or scientific subjects where the facts are firm. However, in whichever learning environment, a good teacher will encourage a strong learner to ask questions when confused and will ensure the clarification of all learning.

How Do I Know Which One to Use?

Use both. Everyday. Or at least as often as possible. There are days when learners need to be filled with facts and days when they need to be allowed to wrestle with the details. Know yourself. If you’re an animated teacher that knows how to be a sage on the stage, but stop and let your students discuss and ask you questions, rock on! If you’re a teacher that likes to get eye level with your students and engage them in small groups for active discussion, go you! If while you are presenting a lecture there is a playlist that accompanies the slides and topics, well aren’t you intentional! If you’re working with a small group and they just want to hash out some confusion, thank you for being flexible.

Do what’s best for the students that are right in front of you. You will know you’re doing a good job if the data shows they are learning. If it doesn’t try something else and then something else and then something else until both you and your students can experience active and passive success.

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