Passive Learning vs Active Learning

Written by Gabby Unangst

Every day we use different forms of learning, including reading, writing, notetaking, etc. We all have different resources and ways of going about learning. Two of the most dominant strategies are passive learning and active learning. There has been a long debate on which one is better than the other, almost a battle of the two. While they differ in style and processes, both have their drawbacks and benefits. They also have techniques that help different individuals. As there are two processes, there are also two different types of learners, active learners, and passive learners. Each is also perceived to thrive in different categories. Let’s see who shall win.

What is Passive Learning?

Firstly, before we jump into the drawbacks and the benefits; what are passive and active learning? Let’s first break down the more traditional way of learning: passive. Passive learning is defined as “a method of learning or instruction where students receive information from the instructor and internalize it. In basic terms, this means that a student will listen and read the material and reflect internally without further reflection back or reviewing. Some methods to further explain this definition includes direct instructions, modeled learning, lectures, and podcasts. Passive learning has been cast under a high amount of criticism, but, passive learning has its benefits and drawbacks. The benefits observed by some include exposure to new material, greater control by the instructor over the classroom which can lead to a more structured classroom which beneficial to some slower students and learners, an opportunity for a structured and engaging format; the ability to clarify course material for students; presentation of a large amount of information in a short time which is helpful especially in an online environment; instructional materials (lecture notes, handouts, etc.) can be prepared in advance and important concepts and content can be identified and presented in an organized, structured, and meaningful manner. The drawbacks of passive learning have been put into a brighter light due to the new progressive ways of learning taking the spotlight; many people criticize these aspects of passive saying it is teacher-centered and less interactive for the students, therefore they can not use the skills of what is learned in a real-world situation. There is less back and forth communication as well as discussion and analysis skills; these learners are also perceived to be less capable of comprehending and using reading materials. Passive learning takes the process of students being sponges who soak up learning materials and internalize them rather than reflecting on the instructor or other classmates immediately. 

What is Active Learning?

Active learning is on the complete opposite of the spectrum. It is defined as “a method of learning in which students are actively or experientially involved in the learning process. This is a student-centered learning practice where there is more interactive two-way learning. This means the students engage upon learning new materials with each other and their instructor before internalizing. They partake in multiple discussions, interactive conversations, and activities. They also may use active styles of notes such as flashcards and online notes. Teachers in the active learning style typically will have students explain learning materials and be tested on their primary knowledge. Examples of active learning in a classroom environment or at home include peer reviews, circular discussion, annotation in reading materials and learning, flashcard exercises, conversational classes, group text readings, etc. The basic idea of active learning is that the student is constantly involved in the process and is the focal point of each lesson. Some observed advantages of active learning are: reinforces important material, concepts, and skills; gives the student more frequent and immediate feedback from peers and teachers, provides students with an opportunity to think about, talk about, and process course material on the spot which improves communication skills, allows students to practice important skills, such as collaboration, through pair and group work, etc. While there are so many benefits active learning is also under skepticism. Many people see disadvantages to active learning, such that it discourages listening to elders and teachers, can cause distractions if not supervised properly, requires memorization which is difficult for some students, it is very time consuming, which is not helpful in a regular classroom environment and online environments, peer reviews can be harsh and discouraging to some students, and without a proper guideline, students can become easily distracted which limits learning opportunities.  

Comparing the Two

So which is better? This isn’t an opinion from my standpoint, but my input on the subject is that it depends on the student. You were probably reading this thinking this is the big moment where a conclusion is made, but it can’t be a one size fits all learning system. Many students prefer a traditional style of learning perhaps because they are shy, scared, mentally disabled, have a medical condition that slows the process of their thinking, or just processes certain materials slower than others. Either way, passive learning has so many benefits especially since classes need to be condensed, and sometimes absorbing things before a reaction can be a solid learning skill. Even though passive learners and environments are as actively stimulating and can be less of a two-way interaction, it is beneficial to students who aren’t good on the spot and need time to prepare. Preparation is a very good learning skill for the real world, especially today. Active learning is the polar opposite as seen from the two explanations above, but it provides its assets for learning. Active learning is for a more spontaneous and extroverted learner who thrives feeding off of other people. This may include people who like group projects, are very vocal, can think fast on their feetoften speak without hesitation, and learn better under a more interactive-based learning situation. This style of learning isn’t as common but is rising currently. Active learning is so fascinating, but also requires lot of time and on-the-spot thinking. This will help students with conversational skills and also being able to think on their feet quickly in situations like a debate or interview. Active learning can also cause students to become too talkative and may lead to a speak before thinking mindset, which causes lots of problems especially in the current state of the world. It also is very time-consuming which makes lesson planning harder for teachers who can’t really plan as much as a passive learning situation. So the better one? It is neither; they both have their good and their bad, and no one can judge which is better for all students. Yet teachers should make an effort, as well as students, to determine which learning process is better for the individual. Students who are more introverted and need more time to internalize and plan should use passive learning to be the so-called “sponge” while spontaneous learners who thrive in a more pressured and active learning situation should use active learning.