What is active vs passive learning?

What is active vs passive learning?

03 Feb 2023

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There are many ways of learning but, in general, all forms can be defined as one of two types – active learning or passive learning. The following CPD article outlines the differences between these approaches and looks to understand how individuals can determine the best method of learning for themselves. It will also explain how teachers can assess the value of active and passive learning in their teaching styles and learning content.

What is active learning?

Active learning is any form of learning in which there is the direct involvement of the learner in the learning process. It involves an individual engaging and being interactive with their learning. It could also be described as more student than teacher focused – it involves more than just teacher instruction and the simple ‘passing on’ of information.

The most common examples of active learning would be group discussion and practical exercises. Group discussion involves actively engaging with a subject, listening to others’ knowledge and point of view and sharing your own understanding within a group. Practical exercises mean applying new knowledge in a real life setting. For example, learning to drive a car is a form of active learning. The teacher instructs how to drive, but the student is also required to practically engage and drive the car as part of the learning process.

Advantages of active learning

There are several recognised advantages and characteristics of active learning that make it one of the most preferred learning and teaching methods for engaging learners. We have also outlined a few of the potential downsides of taking an active vs passive learning approach.

  • Active learning aids the development of critical thinking, as discussing a subject or performing an exercise requires an individual to consider and evaluate their own understanding of the subject.
  • Knowledge retention - Engaging critical thinking is subsequently known to increase knowledge and learning retention – new knowledge being transferred to long-term memory.
  • More likely to maintain student interest and engagement. The acts of thinking, discussing and practically doing reduces the chance of an individual becoming bored or losing interest in the learning.
  • It provides space to ask questions and receive feedback, which allows the learner to check their understanding of the subject. Misunderstanding or failure to check one’s understanding is a common reason for students to disengage and lose interest in learning.
Benefits of active learning in teaching

Disadvantages of active learning

  • Does not always offer flexibility to the learner. Group discussions and practical learning often require participation at a specific time and place which may not be convenient for the learner or fit in with other priorities.
  • Can lead to limited content. A group may end up focusing on the discussion of only one aspect of a subject. It may be engaging but has failed to cover all areas of the subject and used up too much time.
  • Active learning methods can sometimes be difficult to plan from a teaching perspective, and don’t allow the creation of reusable content. Group discussions can be dictated by and reliant on the input of the participants and do not offer the certainty and control of a straight forward lecture.
  • Although active learning often increases student engagement, it can have the opposite effect. A group discussion can become dominated by a few particular voices, where some individuals feel disengaged and lose interest in the learning.

What is passive learning?

Passive learning is less focused on student engagement and focused more on the teacher. It is the teacher instructing the student. The student must assimilate information from the facts and details presented and absorb knowledge passively without space and opportunity for feedback.

Passive learning might also be defined as traditional teaching. It involves forms like reading books, attending lectures and watching videos. However, it would also include more recent digital technologies such as reading blogs, watching online videos and listening to podcasts. In all cases, there is no requirement for the student to interact with the learning.

Advantages of passive learning

As great as active learning can be for making students more engaged, interested, and its ability for autonomous learning, it can also pose some challenges. Instead, you may want to stick to more traditional methods due to the advantages this offers for teaching content to large groups of students. Some of the common benefits and disadvantages of passive learning include.

  • It can condense large amounts of content efficiently. For example, an hour lecture can provide a full overview of a subject in the way an hour group discussion could not.
  • Can offer greater flexibility to learners. Books can be read or an online lecture could be viewed when it is convenient for the individual. It can also be done at their own pace – 10 minutes reading a relevant book chapter could be more beneficial in the right circumstance than the obligation of a 2 hour group discussion.
  • Offers more control to teachers. They can create the content in a way that is thorough and holistic on a subject.
  • Teachers can also package passive learning content so that it is reusable – books can be read, an online lecture viewed, or a podcast listened to multiple times for multiple learners.
  • Passive learning is natural to learners. We are used to reading news, researching websites and watching television. Therefore, passive learning is something we inherently feel comfortable with.
Pros and cons of a passive learning approach

Disadvantages of passive learning

  • Can lead to disengagement and boredom. Without the element of interactivity and involvement, students can potentially lose interest in the learning.
  • It can also cause information overload – for example, an over reliance on reading for long periods of time is known to hinder knowledge retention as it is simply too much information to process and store.
  • Does not provide the space to question and confirm understanding. Questioning and feedback are tools to help cement the understanding of a subject. If understanding is lost at any stage then there will inevitably be a disengagement from the learning and it will lose value. 

The insight of The Learning Pyramid

One of the most fundamental developments in understanding the relative value of active and passive forms of learning was the introduction of The Learning Pyramid concept. The methodology measured as a percentage the effectiveness of different forms of learning in terms of knowledge retention and displayed this in the visual form of a pyramid. There is further reading and more explanation on The Learning Pyramid in our previous article here.

The Learning Pyramid model identified that in most cases, active forms of learning would lead to higher levels of knowledge retention. However, in recent years there has been criticism of The Learning Pyramid as a methodology from areas of education. The criticism objected to the use of percentages as a measurement tool as this was too prescriptive. It also suggested that The Learning Pyramid fails to recognise that individuals respond differently to different learning methods and doesn’t include context - some subjects lend themselves more naturally to particular forms of learning.

How to determine which learning method is right for you

In real terms, although the insight from The Learning Pyramid is that active learning can be the most effective at achieving high levels of knowledge retention, this will often come as part of blended learning - mixing both passive and active learning methods. Individuals need to understand their own learning needs and the needs of their subject. Different forms of learning may be beneficial at different stages.

For example, a lecture can be an important and necessary basis for a subsequent group discussion. The lecture informs the group discussion and the discussion cements understanding of the knowledge gained in the lecture. Both passive and active forms of learning can be mutually supportive and beneficial to each other. 

Some individuals are also more naturally suited to certain types of learning – a lecture will be rewarding to some learners and they will be able to cement their knowledge and understanding without the benefit of active learning strategies. Equally, a student studying law is likely to have to read more as part of their learning given the inherent nature and requirements of the subject.

Best teaching methods for effective learning

Teachers and those looking to provide learning content also need to be open to both active and passive forms of learning. The needs of the student and the subject must always be considered. A lecture may be convenient in terms of packaging content for reuse, but if students are often bored and disengaged, it will quickly lose value and may need to be combined with an active learning strategy.

Likewise, the style of content can be just as important as the type of learning. A subject condensed in to a concise 10 minute video may prove more valuable to students than one covering the same subject and ideas but lasting an hour. This shorter, concise method of learning is often referred to as Microlearning. It can apply to both active and passive learning and there is more explanation of Microlearning in our previous article here.

Fundamentally, the teacher must be responsive to the student. A group discussion may be successful with one group, but then not effective with another group featuring a different set of personalities. It is important to assess the value of both active and passive learning and relate this to different individuals and contexts.

Where to find CPD courses for active and passive learning

The principle of CPD is that learning is proactive and there is an ongoing need for professionals to enhance their personal skills and proficiency throughout their careers. Both active and passive learning methods are valued and will be available in effective CPD training and education. One of the best ways to make sure you are going to get the most out of CPD is to take part in a CPD certified course. This will provide assurance as that course will have had prior review by an established independent organisation to a recognised industry standard of learning.

If you are looking for CPD courses across all industry sectors, then please have a look through our CPD Courses Catalogue. There are thousands of training courses, events, e-learning programs, conferences, workshops and seminars, which have all been formally CPD certified.

CPD accreditation for your learning courses and events

We hope this article was helpful. Established in 1996, The CPD Certification Service is the world’s leading and largest CPD accreditation organisation working across all industry sectors. If you are looking to provide training courses and events that may be suitable for Continuing Professional Development, please contact our team to discuss in more detail.

Alternatively, if you are looking for a free online CPD record tool to help manage, track and log your ongoing learning, as well as store your personal training records and attendance certificates in one simple place, please visit the myCPD Portal page.

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