Elementary school class sitting cross legged using tablets

Active learning vs. passive learning: What’s the best way to learn?

For teachers, knowledge of different learning styles is essential to presenting information in an appealing way to students. By understanding their students’ individual learning preferences and formats, teachers can make course information more accessible and help students feel more confident in the classroom.

The effectiveness of different learning styles — namely, active and passive — has been heavily debated within schools. But what do the terms “active learning” and “passive learning” really mean? How can these two learning styles affect a student’s comprehension of material? Is one method more successful than another? And can these two styles ever be combined? Let’s find out!

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What is active learning?

Active learning involves the student in the instructional process through the use of relevant activities and discussions. This method stimulates and reinforces the student’s conceptual understanding of course material by engaging them within the lesson process, as opposed to merely listing off facts and explaining topics through traditional lectures. Examples of active learning include:

  • Hands-on labs
  • Group problems
  • Peer instruction
  • Games and challenges

The process of active learning activates divergent thinking, which helps students think less in terms of individual concepts and more in terms of the big picture. This mode of thinking increases a student’s ability to draw connections to the world, especially to their own lives. Key skills that develop through the process of active learning are analysis, evaluation, public speaking, and collaboration.

In turn, active learning methods provide the teacher with an ongoing analysis of their students’ understanding because there is constant feedback between the student and the material.

Active learning benefits

Notably, active learning:

  • Increases critical thinking.
  • Provides frequent feedback on a student’s comprehension of the material.
  • Gives the student a larger role in their learning environment.
  • Increases student attention.
  • Stimulates discussions.

Active learning disadvantages

On the flip side, active learning methods:

  • Require more spontaneous and flexible lesson plans.
  • Limit the amount of material that can be presented at once.
  • Create the potential for distractions if students are not monitored.

Activities that stimulate active learning in school

Looking to implement active learning in your classroom? Below are three popular activities that teachers can use to engage students and improve their retention of course material.

Small group discussions

Have your students put together a diagram, PowerPoint, or some sort of multimedia presentation and share their findings with the rest of the class. This activity stimulates one-on-one communication with peers, allowing students to comfortably share ideas and ask questions. Moreover, encouraging students to present their discoveries builds on their research, presentation, and public speaking skills.

Games and problem solving

Integrate games and problem solving into your lesson plan. Classroom games stimulate conceptual learning and allow students to explore the cause-and-effect relationships among the concepts being taught. For example, students may observe cause and effect firsthand through simulations. If they encounter a problem or a situation in a game they are playing, they will see the effect of things they try — so it’s effectively exploratory learning of a trial-and-error nature. In particular, online games can give students healthy exposure to technology.

Role-playing and debates

These activities allow students to do in-depth research on the material and present their findings in an interactive world. This encourages students to analyze their research and to think on the spot. The main difference between games/problem solving and role-playing/debates is that role-playing activities and debates will typically involve independent and more in-depth research that encourages thinking on the spot.

What is passive learning?

Student reading at her desk in an elementary school class

Passive learning holds the student responsible for absorbing the presented information on their own terms. The information may be presented in the form of lectures or assigned readings. In any case, the student is accountable for paying attention, asking questions, and performing well on tests.

Passive learning promotes defining, describing, listening, and writing skills. This process initiates convergent thinking, where a given question typically has only one right answer. Normally, instructors will test students’ understanding through quizzes, assessments, and handouts.

Passive learning benefits

  • Quickly presents a variety of information.
  • Allows lecture notes to be pre-planned and reused.
  • Gives the professor more control over course delivery.
  • Provides a concrete and organized presentation of the material.

Passive learning disadvantages

  • May appear boring or unrelatable.
  • Presents fewer opportunities to assess student comprehension.
  • Students are more likely to shy away from voicing a misunderstanding.
  • Students are less involved in the learning experience.

Activities that stimulate passive learning

If your students prefer passive learning, consider incorporating these options into your lessons.

Assigned readings

This is a classic example of passive learning. Students read and absorb the material on their own time and are responsible for studying the content.

PowerPoint presentations

The teacher designs PowerPoint lessons ahead of time, and students take notes on the information during class meetings. However, there is no built-in discussion or active participation from students, except when they’re prompted to answer questions. Most of the emphasis is on organized content and clear narration.

Traditional or online lectures

The bread and butter of most educational programs, a lecture gives the instructor full control over the information they present to their class. This allows you to teach a great deal of information in a short period of time, but it also puts more of the responsibility on you to ensure the information is communicated clearly.

How to help students discover their learning style

Much of adolescent schooling is designed to help students discover the tools that help them learn best. Helping students find their preferred learning style can lead to more efficient engagement with the material and a natural desire for lifelong learning.

How many times have you heard, “I don’t know why I did so poorly; I studied for three hours last night!” from a disappointed student? Well, part of the reason their hard work had little reward could be a disconnect between your teaching format and their learning preferences.

At the start of a new term, it’s a good idea to allow students to turn in a self-reflective diagnosis of their learning styles and preferences. This can highlight how they like to receive information, how they best engage with the material, and how they feel most comfortable expressing what they have learned.

Most visual learners prefer an active learning style. This is because they absorb information by connecting the dots and reifying the abstract concepts they learn. This same learner may prefer social learning groups and physical interactions with the material.

On the other hand, passive learners tend to prefer an auditory intake of information, through lecture and logical presentations. These students may prefer isolated testing methods, such as quizzes and flashcards, that check what they have learned.

Because one class is likely to comprise students who have different learning styles and preferences, it helps to switch up your presentation of the material and the testing methods you employ.

Integrating learning styles

Active learning and passive learning appear to be polar opposites. However, there are ways to combine both styles to highlight the effectiveness of each. Here are some suggestions on how to help your students reap the benefits of both active and passive learning.

  1. Have students complete assigned readings at home and take active notes on themes, questions, and important quotes. At the start of class, have students self-organize into small groups to share their ideas. Finally, have one person from each group present either a quote or question and explain why they thought it was important.
  2. After a role play, debate, or game, create a PowerPoint presentation that summarizes key points. This presentation helps highlight key information for synthesis and connects the dots between what occurred during an active learning exercise and the lesson plan.
  3. After a long lecture, have students individually write down five test question predictions. In small groups, have them put together a mini-assessment with the best questions. After the mini-tests are written, have students swap tests with another group, take the tests, and see how well they score.

Each student is different

Ultimately, neither learning style is better — both active learning and passive learning are valid methods of absorbing information. Each student has a different way of understanding and engaging with new information. That level of engagement can even differ from one subject to another! At the end of the day, variety is the key to developing engaging lesson plans — don’t alienate passive learners, but don’t neglect active learners either.

Photo credit: Monkey Business ImagesPressmaster / Shutterstock.com

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