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

As an increasing number of students seek online learning options to suit their needs, the terms “active” and passive” learning often crop up in their searches. Learn the difference between these terms, including the benefits and disadvantages of both.

Katie Broadbent - 15 June 2021 · 15 min read

One challenge that many educators and online learning content curators often find themselves facing is: how can we make our content engaging? Is there a way to take traditional classroom content online, without losing the in-person elements that make them great?

Similarly, when online learning became a way of life for the majority of students, many found themselves asking: how can I ensure I’m going to learn in the most effective way possible while studying online? What learning platforms are available to me that match my preferred learning style and needs?

To achieve this, educators often look at two major terms which are often used to describe the way we acquire new knowledge in the learning process: active learning and passive learning.

The difference between them lies mainly on how information is transferred between tutor (or the resource) and learner. But other things do come into play, including how learning is achieved, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of both. And they can have a significant effect on the way that students learn and process new information. 

In this article, we’re going to take a detailed look at both terms, including the advantages and disadvantages of both, and how they can affect your own online learning experience. 

What is Active and Passive Learning?

The effectiveness of different learning styles - namely, active and passive learning - has been heavily debated within the education sector. But what do the two terms “active learning” and “passive” learning mean? And how can they affect your understanding of new material?

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What is active learning?

As the name suggests, active learning is a process which promotes student-centred learning during the teaching process, encouraging high levels of engagement to help the student understand and process new content.

Through relevant activities and discussions, this method stimulates and reinforces your understanding of new content by participating within the lesson process, as opposed to merely sitting and absorbing content through traditional fact-telling, notebook-reading, and lectures. 

The process activates divergent thinking, encouraging us to think less about the content we’re learning about in individual snippets, but more in terms of seeing it as one of the puzzle pieces which makes up part of a wider picture. Our ability to draw connections between the content and the world increases, and over time we can begin to view topics as entire entities, rather than individual chapters of a subject. 

Some examples of active learning include:

  • Practical-based classroom learning, including: laboratory exercises, sports classes, games, and group problem-solving activities

  • Peer instruction: encouraging students to mentor one another and teach them the new content

  • Tutorials and discussion groups: actively engaging students through discussion to think about new content, dissect, and debate it.

Advantages of active learning

There are several benefits associated with active learning, with the following three considered to be the most important.

Develops critical thinking

One of the greatest benefits associated with active learning is the idea that it promotes the use and development of our own critical thinking skills. 

A lot of active learning revolves around tutor and student interactions, where the tutor will present information, pose questions to the student about their beliefs, and encourage them to draw on relevant sources to make valid observations and opinions. It’s all about helping you to gain a rounded understanding of your subject using your current knowledge base for which you can build on in the future. 

When we’re encouraged to really think about and interpret content in a way that makes sense to us, we’re skilfully pulling together are already established bank of knowledge and drawing associations between that and new content.  

But when we’re encouraged to think outside of the box and consider other opinions or avenues of thought, we begin to think more abstractly, examining new lines of thought and questioning how others have reached their own conclusions. Without consciously knowing it, we’re actively conceptualising, applying, and evaluating information to help guide and generate ideas and beliefs.

What’s the result? We develop into someone who is a well-cultivated thinker; someone who can think open-mindedly with alternative systems of thought, formulate and raise vital questions, and assess relevant information to reach well-reasoned conclusions.

Stimulates engagement

Unsurprisingly, this mode of learning is generally associated with higher levels of student engagement, both in tutor-student interactions and in group work. 

When we’re presented with a new concept or problem that requires our attention and skill, it can be hard to ignore. Especially if it’s an exciting group problem or popular topic of debate that’s of interest to us. As a result, we’re usually more committed to giving the topic our full attention. 

Think about how often you switch off from a lesson, usually because the content is far too difficult for you to understand? But when we’re encouraged to draw associations between new content and our existing foundation of knowledge, or given the autonomy to overcome the difficulty ourselves, it suddenly becomes far more interesting and, in general, easier to understand. 

Receive regular feedback on your comprehension of new material

Another important benefit of active learning is that it gives you the chance to gain a much clearer understanding of where you stand academically, as you typically receive much more regular feedback from your tutor, as opposed to when learning in a passive environment. 

Active learning gives you more autonomy in your learning process, but it also requires your tutor to closely monitor your progress so that you can be sure that your understanding of the material is correct. 

Tutorials, especially, offer the perfect opportunity for you and your tutor to engage in an open debate about the topic, where any gaps in your knowledge will soon be exposed. As daunting as this may sound, it doesn’t need to be. In fact, identifying your weaker knowledge spots is key to helping you fill in the gaps and become a better learner. 

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Disadvantages of passive learning

As great as active learning can be for making students more engaged, interested, and autonomous learning, it can also pose some challenges.

Participants need to be open to spontaneity

What makes active learning such an exciting experience is that it’s completely guided by the discussions, thoughts, and ideas which emerge from the interactions taking place. 

But one of the challenges that this creates is that it can often be difficult to plan learning sessions wholly, with tutors needing to be flexible to the direction that these ideas and discussions can take the class in. 

Lesson planning instead should provide prompts and offer guidance in case engagement is low. Active learning is a whole-group approach, with the tutor also needing to remain flexible during class-time to pivot to new ideas and opportunities for discussion.

But on top of this, with active learning, friction can also occur from the students and their need to remain flexible. With students often in control of their learning, it often means that there are different paces of learning within a group, especially for those in larger class sizes. As great as this can be for helping students drive their learning forward and at a pace that suits them, it can sometimes have hindrances for those who struggle to grasp new concepts. 

Quite often, this means that students and tutors need to be open to last-minute changes to lesson plans, which can sometimes be frustrating - especially for students who are further ahead than others. 

Potential for easy disengagement

We highlighted an opportunity for high student engagement as one of the great benefits of active learning, especially when the content is presented in an interesting or new and exciting way. But of course, the reverse effect can also happen if students are struggling to focus on the new material. 

If the content isn’t tailored correctly for your ability and level of understanding, it can of course be very easy to disengage and get distracted - something, which can inevitably happen in large  class groups of different abilities. 

This can be particularly prevalent in group work, where students with a strong understanding of the topic may take charge of the project, often leaving those with lesser understanding to fall behind or ‘take a backseat’ in the work. 

Over time, this can create larger divides in class ability - with those more engaged often progressing much faster than those who have found difficulty in grasping the very fundamentals of the subject. Educators need to carefully consider effective measures to prevent this type of problem from occurring.

Limit in the material which can be presented

Another significant limitation which occurs time and time again with active learning is how long it can take to get through topics of content.  

It can be easy to fixate on one idea or concept for a long period of time, especially when there’s such interesting debates and discussions being had. But this can limit how much material can be covered in the session, as opposed to if students were learning via a more traditional format, such as lectures or note-taking.

Therefore, for active learning to become part of a more mainstream learning approach, significant measures need to be taken to ensure that students don’t fall behind in their learning schedules. 

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What is passive learning?

The other mainstream teaching method is called passive learning, where students receive information from their tutor and internalise it themselves.

In contrast to active student participation, passive learning is a far more teacher-centred learning method, with students attending classes and internalising the content that is presented to them from the expert (usually a tutor or teacher).

Usually, content is presented in the form of lectures, reading, or video format, with students being in charge of making sure they are paying attention, taking notes, and asking questions if and when they get stuck on any of the material.

The process initiates a far more convergent way of thinking, where there is usually one correct answer to questions or one definition for describing something. Students often listen and write notes to process content, with quizzes, worksheets, and handouts being used to assess how well the student has understood and interpreted the material. 

Some examples of passive learning include:

  • Lectures and presentation-heavy classes: where students are prompted to listen, note-take, and ask questions as and when they require assistance

  • Pre-recorded videos: for students to watch at their own pace and make notes accordingly

  • Textbooks and note-taking: students condense the contents into note format in a way that makes sense to them.

Advantages of passive learning

Passive learning remains the leading learning approach used by mainstream schools, thanks to the benefits it offers for teaching content to large groups of students. These benefits include the following:

Classes can be pre-planned and re-used

One of the greatest benefits of passive learning is the opportunity for tutors to pre-plan their teaching for students.

Being in control of the pace, content, and topics that will be covered, tutors can create and schedule the content they want to cover in each lesson, albeit with some flexibility to allow for students who may have questions to ask.

Tutors don’t need to worry about not being able to cover enough content in time, as they’ll be able to plan ahead and map out exactly what material they need to teach by a particular time point. 

This also means that lesson plans and content schedules can be re-used in future months and years, requiring little effort or time demand on the tutor which can be put to other uses, such as hosting tutorials and small group catch-ups with students. 

Ability to learn a chunk of information quickly and easily

Another great advantage of passive learning is the ability for tutors and students to cover a broad range of content quickly and with ease. 

The format of teaching via lectures and class presentations allows tutors to explain new material, without interruption, making it easy to cover a broad range of content quickly. It’s then down to the student to take their notes away from class, internalise that content, and follow up with their tutor should they have any queries or require further explanation.

In this way, focusing teaching using passive learning techniques enables tutors to cater to a wider scope of learners; offering personalised help for students outside of class who require more clarity, and being able to move quickly through topics for those at a more advanced level of understanding. 

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Disadvantages of passive learning

Despite being a popular choice of teaching for many mainstream schools and universities, passive learning does come with its own pitfalls too. 

Can have high levels of disengagement

There’s no denying that attending lectures, where you sit and listen to a tutor talk through content for an hour, can get tedious. Especially if you’re tackling some particularly difficult content - or if you’re attending first thing in the morning after a late night social with your friends!

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that passive learning can often bring with it high levels of disengagement and even attendance, especially if students are able to access the resources online and in their own time. 

For classes of this type to have high levels of engagement, the content needs to be interesting, (or at least presented in a way that makes it sound interesting), as well as having references to real-life examples that students can relate to. Otherwise, it can be very easy for students to get distracted or ‘zone out.’

Students are less involved with the learning process 

Ultimately, one of the biggest disadvantages of passive learning is that students are less involved in their learning experience. 

This can have several hindrances, including: students taking longer to understand new content (or misunderstanding it completely), tutors not having enough time with students to continually assess their understanding (especially in lecture settings), and even leading to lower levels of engagement or interest in a subject if students are lacking study motivation.

Of course this isn’t the case for every student. In fact, many students excel in scenarios where they can knuckle down independently and take ownership of their learning in their own time. But for many who thrive in communal learning environments which involve discussions, debates, and even peer mentoring, it can be a tiresome learning experience.

Students can shy from voicing their queries

How many times have you sat in a classroom or lecture hall and thought, “hmm, I don’t quite understand this, but I’ll just figure it out at home or by asking a friend later.”

It’s not uncommon for students who are struggling to understand a particular concept or topic to shy away from asking their tutor for help, especially when they are learning in large class groups. Raising your hand and acknowledging that you’re struggling to grasp something can be daunting, and one which many students feel embarrassed about doing. 

In these scenarios, it’s the responsibility of the tutor and class group as a whole to set the expectations that all questions are welcome, and provide a psychologically safe platform for which students feel comfortable to ask questions or admit when they are facing a knowledge gap. 

Active and passive online learning: Which is right for me?

When it comes to selecting an online course provider, you want to make sure that they’re offering a teaching method that complements the way that you enjoy learning. 

If you’ve read through this article and found yourself leaning towards a preferential learning method, then you probably want to make sure you are finding an online course that offers that style of learning. 

For us, our online courses offer a blend of asynchronous and synchronous content (conducted via small online group calls), meaning that students can benefit from a myriad of active and passive learning activities. 

For example, all seminars are carried out in real-time and in small groups, where everyone is encouraged to get involved in the class discussion and share ideas. There may even be some group work involved too. 

Meanwhile, tutorials take place between the tutor and one or two other students. These sessions are led by work which students have completed beforehand, with tutors posing questions as to why students have come to the conclusions they have, with students encouraged to defend their thinking. 

Yet, passive learning also makes up a significant element of the learning process too. With only a small set of timetabled hours of live learning sessions, students are encouraged to study independently and complete any quizzes, worksheets, and other activities in their own time to assess their understanding of each topic. It’s a totally unique online learning experience, offering what we believe to be the perfect combination of approaches. 

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Summary

Different learning styles can influence and guide the way we learn. They affect the way we internalise new content, remember information, and even recall learning sessions. 

Active and passive learning offer two opposing ways of learning for students. One, active learning, is very student-centred and based on the idea that we as individuals are responsible for engaging ourselves with new content to understand it. Classroom learning is made up of tutor and student interactions, where both engage in discussions and debates about the new content, encouraging divergent thinking. 

Passive learning on the other hand, is a far more reversed approach to learning. Instead, emphasis is placed on the tutor to deliver content to students, while they instead make notes or sit and listen. Understanding is then usually measured via quizzes, worksheets, and other assignments.

Ultimately, there’s no one method which overrules the other; both active and passive learning are valid methods of understanding and internalising new content. Each and every student has a different way of processing new information, which can differ from person to person and even between subjects. 

Study with Melio

Here at Melio, we’re committed to giving as many students the best learning experience possible. 

Offering a careful balance of active and passive learning activities for students on our Academic Programmes, you can benefit from a wholly rounded online learning experience, all while learning from expert tutors alongside a small group of academically-motivated students. 

To find out more about the online learning programmes we have available, please contact our admissions team who will be happy to offer further information and guidance.

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