Another day, another lecture. More PowerPoint slides, more notes. Background reading and cramming sessions. Knowledge offered up on a platter by the teacher. Whether the students are actually absorbing the precious information often becomes apparent only on exam day, by which point, it is often too late.

In reality, the hall of students is made up of unique individuals who learn in different ways and have their own thoughts to contribute. Could we not tap into those thoughts, tie them to the subject matter at hand and have it come alive with social interaction? We could. And, increasingly, we do.


Among current trends in education, we are seeing greater incorporation of active learning. This move away from traditional, frontal, teacher-oriented instruction – the classic setting for passive learning – towards more interactive, hands-on, student-oriented instruction – active learning – is a hallmark of our time. It is, however, not without its opponents. Some with clearly justified arguments as to the benefits of the path more trodden. Allow us to take a closer look at how passive and active learning compare and explore some strategies with which to incorporate active learning into classes.


What is active learning?

Active learning uses class activities such as discussion, group problem-solving, practical labs and peer-to-peer instruction to enable students to connect with course materials on a deeper level. By establishing connections to their day-to-day lives and developing creative ideas and solutions, students engage in rich learning. They are given the opportunity to reflect on their own experiences and seek answers for themselves, often revealing that reality can be perceived from different angles, as opposed to simply providing the one clear answer the teacher is looking for.

This mode of learning is supported by “facilitation”, which grants students more power to direct their own learning. They are provided with the materials and tools required to achieve learning goals and apply their new knowledge, and are given support along the way. Dialogue, exploration and curiosity are encouraged, fostering those all-important soft skills. Facilitation helps students to develop the mindset required for this technological era – better able to rationally question information and discern between fake news and facts. Much in the spirit of personalized learning, embedding active learning into the classroom accommodates students whose learning styles are at odds with oral content conveyance or a reading-heavy approach.


Active learning vs passive learning: the pros and cons

Is active learning simply superior to passive learning? As alluded to above, active learning sees students approach course materials in a different way, which results in a different kind of understanding and fosters a different skill-set. This certainly has benefits but comes with its fair share of challenges. In the same vein, there is undoubtably a place for methodical, efficient passive learning. This mode of learning, too, has its shortcomings. Optimum teaching arguably balances active and passive learning to accommodate individual learning profiles, making for dynamic classes that give students the best of both worlds. Here are the pros and cons of active and passive learning to bear in mind:


active learning

  • Stimulates and reinforces students’ in-depth, conceptual understanding of course material.
  • Fosters an appreciation for the bigger picture and real-life relevance.
  • Helps students develop their analysis, evaluation, public-speaking and collaboration skills.
  • Provides a better framework for multisensory learning experiences.
  • Encourages creativity and innovation, mindfulness and interaction.
  • Engages students’ attention and empowers them to help shape their own learning experience.
  • Enables teachers to continuously monitor comprehension.
  • Activates both critical and divergent thinking.


active learning

  • Ill-suited to conveying large amounts of information at once.
  • Grants teachers less control over exact content covered in any one lesson.
  • Requires more spontaneity from teachers and more flexible lesson plans.
  • Depends on teachers’ ability to carefully listen to students’ contributions, which may be unexpected or controversial, and guide them toward understanding.
  • Calls for increased monitoring to ensure students are not distracted or veer off in an unintended direction.
  • May make introverted students feel uncomfortable due to the more exposed nature of learning through discussions or group work.


passive learning

  • Makes it possible to convey broad swathes of content to a large number of students at once.
  • Can be systematically planned, prepared and reused.
  • Allows for structured, methodical content presentation, reducing the in-class cognitive load for teachers by fronting didactic considerations.
  • Increases teachers’ control over course delivery and scope of content.
  • Promotes defining, describing, listening and writing skills.
  • Affords students the freedom to absorb information on their own terms (i.e. by consulting assigned readings in their own time).
  • Initiates convergent thinking.


passive learning

  • Can be perceived as boring, one-dimensional or unrelatable.
  • May result in a more superficial understanding due to lack of first-hand interaction with course content.
  • Fails to tap into students’ repertoire of relevant knowledge and experience and misses out on the vibrancy and liveliness of their opinions.
  • Creates a less welcoming environment for questions and concerns, with voicing misunderstanding more likely to be associated with a loss of face.
  • Involves students in the learning experience to a lesser extent.
  • Provides fewer opportunities to assess student progress.


Active learning in practice: 4 strategies for the classroom

Should you wish to incorporate active learning into your classes, you may encounter some student resistance. With active learning being less clear-cut than passive learning and a certain amount of courage being required of students to participate in more socially interactive class activities, some teething problems are to be expected. Thankfully, there are strategies you can employ to help your students adapt to this more complex, self-directed learning.

  1. First and foremost, ensure your classroom is a safe environment for students to speak their minds. Explicitly value the importance of both making an effort and making mistakes. Encourage your students to assume ownership of their learning experience, having them track their progress by documenting outcomes and compiling portfolios, for example.
  2. Play with the entire timeline available to you for teaching, assigning preparation work in which students conduct independent research and compile comprehension questions or a presentation. Leave it open for students to choose their preferred medium: YouTube videos and podcasts can be just as valid a source of information as library books if treated with the prerequisite caution. Equally, provide students with options as to how to demonstrate their mastery of the content.
  3. Challenge your students to immerse themselves in a scenario and work together to find solutions to problems. Use simulations to demonstrate cause and effect, stimulating exploratory learning through trial and error.
  4. Why not have your students choose a topic to debate, allowing everyone to express their points of view, then turn the tables on the most talkative participants by asking them to mediate? Or split your class into subgroups to delve into different subtopics, then reshuffle the groups so the students can teach each other what they have learnt. Alternatively, ask each of your students to embody a certain perspective for the duration of the class, forcing them to put themselves in other people’s shoes and gain a more holistic understanding of issues that may otherwise seem black and white.

Open the door for your students to think outside of the box - you never know, you might find them teaching you a thing or two…


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