From passive to active learning

September 16, 2020 •

8 min reading

From passive to active learning: Pros, cons and 6 strategies

Written by

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, students are unique individuals who learn in different ways and have their own thoughts and minds contributing to their own learning. Could we not tap into those thoughts, tie them to the subject 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.

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What is active learning?

Active learning focuses on engaging students in their own learning and not just letting them to listen passively to their lecturer. Active learning uses class activities such as discussion, debates, group problem-solving exercises, case studies, 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”, an instructional approach where the teacher (aka the facilitator) asks questions to encourage discussion and let the students work on their own answers. A facilitator asks questions to guide students and encourage them to think critically and reflect about the situation in order to come up with their own solution, rather than providing the « right » answer. This approach is necessary in active learning, as when students are engaged in an active learning activity, such as discussion the solution in a case study, students must come to their own answers, guided by the facilitator.

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 differently, 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 still a place for methodical, efficient passive learning for the foundational acquisition of knowledge. 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 - PROS

  • 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 - CONS

  • Ill-suited to conveying large amounts of information at once.
  • Grants teachers less control over exact content covered in any one lesson.
  • Requires facilitation skills 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.
  • May make introverted students feel uncomfortable due to the more exposed nature of learning through discussions or group work.


passive learning - PROS

  • 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.
  • Affords students the freedom to absorb information on their own terms (i.e. by consulting assigned readings or assigned videos in their own time).
  • Initiates convergent thinking.


passive learning - CONS

  • Can be perceived as boring, one-dimensional or un-relatable.
  • Considered as a boring way of learning for younger generations who are easily distracted by smartphones and online content.
  • 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.
  • Does not involve students in the learning experience.
  • Provides fewer opportunities to assess student progress.
  • Focuses on rote-learning and memorization rather than sense-making and critical thinking.

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Active learning in practice: 6 strategies for the classroom

Should you wish to incorporate active learning into your classes, you may encounter some student resistance, that will quickly fade away. 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. Think about the asynchronous time before students are joining the class. This is where students can acquire knowledge through reading or through watching instructional videos (videos and podcasts can be just as valid a source of information as library books), conduct independent research and compile comprehension questions or prepare for a class or for a presentation. Leave it open for students to choose their preferred medium. If the foundational knowledge has been delivered outside the classroom, the synchronous time with your students can focus a 100% on active learning.

  3. Equally, provide students with options as to how to demonstrate their mastery of the content, by using some form of interactive concept checking exercises such as quizzes. These quizzes can happen asynchronously but also at the beginning of the class so that you can check your students' understanding.

  4. When designing your synchronous learning activities, think about the power of group work and collaborative learning. Put students in groups and make them work on a task where they have to put the theory into practice. These types of group work can take many aspects. You can use Diana Laurillard’s Conversational Framework to help you build those activities. It is a model that lists six learning activities that can help for learning to take place. The six learning types are: Acquisition, Inquiry, Practice, Production, Discussion and Collaboration.  Other than the first one–acquisition–there are all active learning activities.

  5. When students are engaged in an active learning activity, challenge them to immerse themselves in a scenario and work together to find solutions to problems. You could use simulations to demonstrate cause and effect, stimulating exploratory learning through trial and error. Another important aspect of these types of learning activities is to allow your students to make mistakes. It’s in a safe learning environment where students are allowed to learn from their mistakes, that they will grow.

  6. 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? 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 and a different perspective of issues that they might feel differently about.

We hope that this article will encourage you to pursue active learning in your class. Keep in mind that these types of strategies can increase student engagement, let your students focus on higher-order thinking skills, increase students’ motivation, which ultimately will improve their grades. Once your open the door for active learning and let your students think outside of the box - they might surprise you. You never know, you might find them teaching you a thing or two…

Written by

Learning Manager at EHL Advisory Services

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