Passive vs Active Learning

Passive and active learning are two extremes in the world of teaching. Traditionally, learning has been mostly passive in nature. However, in the last 2-3 decades, there has been a push, particularly in the United States to encourage active learning in the classroom.

This post will define passive and active learning and provide examples of each.

Passive Learning

Passive learning is defined from the perspective of the student and means learning in which the students do little to nothing to acquire the knowledge. The most common form of passive learning is direct instruction aka lecture-style teaching.

With passive learning, the student is viewed as an empty receptacle of knowledge that the teacher must fill with his knowledge. Freire called this banking education as the student serves as an account in which the teacher or banker places the knowledge or money.

There is a heavy emphasis on memorizing and recalling information. The objective is the preservation of knowledge and the students should take notes and be ready to repeat or at least paraphrase what the teacher said. The teacher is the all-wise sage on the stage.

Even though it sounds as though passive learning is always bad there are times when it is beneficial. When people have no prior knowledge of a subject passive learning can provide a foundation for future active learning activities. In addition, if it is necessary to provide a large amount of information direct instruction can help in achieving this.

Active Learning

Active learning is learning in which the students must do something in order to learn. Common examples of this include project-based learning, flipped classroom, and any form of discussion in the classroom.

Active learning is derived from the philosophy of constructivism. Constructivism is the belief that students used their current knowledge to build new understanding. For example, with project-based learning students must take what they know in order to complete the unknown of the project.

For the flipped classroom, students review the lecture style information before class. During class, the students participate in activities in which the use what they learned outside of class. This in turn “flips” the learning experience. Out of class is the passive part while in class is the active part.

There is a reduction or total absence of lecturing in an active learning classroom. Rather students interact with each and the teacher to develop their understanding of the content. This transactional nature of learning is another characteristic of active learning.

There are some challenges with active learning. Since it is constructivist in nature it can be difficult to assess what the students learned. This is due in part to the subjective nature of constructivism. If everybody constructs their own understanding everybody understands differently which makes it difficult to have one objective assessment.

Furthermore, active learning is time-consuming in terms of preparation and the learning experience. Developing activities and leading a discussion forces the class to move slower. If the demands of the course require large amounts of content this can be challenging for many teachers.


There is room in the world of education for passive and active learning strategies. The main goal should be to find a balance between these two extremes as over reliance on either one will probably be a disadvantage to students.

4 thoughts on “Passive vs Active Learning

  1. bridge2english

    Dr. Darrin,
    Your statement: “The teacher is the all-wise sage on the stage” is obsolete since everybody nowadays owns all-wise sage, the smartphone, and carries it everywhere, even in such inappropriate places as a restaurant or a swimming pool. As a result, there are no cases when passive learning may be beneficial. Passive learning that you call banking learning results in empty accounts since retention rate of a lecture material is about 5%.

    Your definition of active learning as learning, in which the students must do something in order to learn, is ambiguous and should be elucidated. For example, if students in the class participate in a discussion it does not mean that they are doing active learning since each student participates in a conversation of no more than one and two minutes per session. The rest is passive listening to the teacher’s explanations or other students’ conversations. This explains the low retention rate of conventional methods of learning a foreign language.

    The term learning should be clarified too. Learning any subject in a college or school is one thing, and learning a foreign language is a totally different task. Learning English as a foreign language is not a knowledge set to be memorized; rather it is a skill to be trained. Training of English skills concurrently is a subconscious process that could be considered as an example of active learning.

    1. Dr. Darrin

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