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Passive Learning vs Active Learning: Which Is More Effective?

Passive Learning vs Active Learning: Which Is More Effective?

Learning has been one essential trait that sets successful people apart. Keeping yourself up to date and learning new stuff is not just a survival tactic. It is one of the few finer things of life that makes everything seem interesting and worthwhile. The more you learn, the broader your vision becomes and you realize that there is still more to learn.

But here is the catch: not everyone can learn at the same pace and reap its benefits to the maximum. It is also not assured that one technique that works for someone will work for everybody. Learning is a personal effort and the level of involvement and techniques used could greatly influence the potential benefits of learning something.

No matter what the subject matter you are trying to learn, be it theoretical or practical, there are certain common variables involved. One of those is the method you choose to learn anything. It could be either passive learning or active learning — two distinct styles of learning.

Let us look deep to understand how these two distinct modes of learning affect your learning capabilities and the knowledge retaining capabilities.

What Is Passive Learning?

Passive learning is mostly considered as a one-way effort from the learner.[1]

In this style of learning, the learner is expected to assimilate information from the facts and details presented and absorb knowledge passively. The traditional learning approaches like seminars, lectures, textbooks, presentations, online lectures and courses where communication is mostly one-way can be considered to be the examples of passive learning.

The responsibility for understanding the material falls on the learner who is expected to be concentrating on the lessons taught and doing well on their tests.

Passive learning leans more towards the theoretical side. Assessment techniques like quizzes, exams, and handouts are used to evaluate the learning progress.

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Some of the key skills that passive learning helps improve are:

  • Writing skills
  • Listening skills
  • Organization skills

What Is Active Learning?

Active learning is when the process of learning involves active participation in the form of relevant activities and discussions.[2] It enforces full engagement from the learner and does not rely on traditional lectures or textbook information alone.

Active learning encourages interactive learning sessions and promotes critical thinking.[3] Some common examples of active learning include:

  • Hands-on experiments and workshops
  • Group discussions on solving problems
  • Peer discussions and instruction on lessons
  • Games, activities, and projects that aim to simplify the learning process and gain practical experience.

Active learning focuses on the big picture rather than limiting itself to the problem at hand.[4] It encourages lateral thinking and allows students to make connections to real-world problems easily.

Learning becomes much more than knowing stuff and is steered towards a complete understanding of the concepts in relevance to the real world.

Some key skills that active learning helps sharpen are:

  • Analysis
  • Evaluation
  • Public speaking
  • Collaboration

There is constant feedback between the learner and the tutor, allowing for a better understanding of the material and fine-tuning teaching methodologies that best suit the corresponding environment.

Active Learning vs Passive Learning

The major trait that distinguishes these styles of learning is the way students are expected to apply their thought process into learning.[5]

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While active learning encourages a subjective way of divergent thinking, passive learning promotes convergent thinking where knowing the definite answers to problems marks the progress.

Both styles have their pros and cons. Both have certain scenarios where it is more suitable than the other.

Here’re their main differences:[6]

Communication

In passive learning, communication is one way. This mode is the go-to method when you are trying to learn something by yourself especially through the internet and online courses.

Self-learning is mostly a passive process that relies on the learner’s commitment. On the other hand, active learning encourages the communication between learner groups, discussions, and interactive Q&A sessions.

Control

The control of source material and learning artifacts, in passive learning, lie mostly with the educator. Learners work with what they get and are not expected to add more to the materials.

However, this is not the case in active learning where learners are encouraged to seek out new information and discuss various possibilities.

Evaluation

In passive learning, evaluation methods are defined strictly. There is only one right answer. On the other hand, evaluation methods are flexible in active learning. They are more focused on cementing the understanding rather than testing. This allows for big-picture thinking.

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When a learner loses commitment, passive learning can suffer as there is very little external motivation or push to steer the learning place. Whereas active learning demands interactive effort to be put in from learner groups as well their teaching partners to be successful.

What Is the Best Way to Learn Effectively?

As mentioned earlier, both active and passive learning have their own territories where they work best.

While active learning can find positive results in a group study environment, passive learning is much appreciated when a driven learner wants to get the maximum benefits without interference.

Passive learning refocuses the learner and places emphasis on the educator and learning materials. This is much more useful when someone is trying to self-learn using books and online lectures and course materials. It involves little discussion and is more steered towards knowledge acquirement than exploration. This type of focused learning can be helpful when you are preparing for competitive exams.

Active learning, on the other hand, is best used when you try to explore more and find connections in the real world from what you learn. This places emphasis on asking questions, taking extra effort to explore and finding new materials and information.

So what is the ideal way to learn?

The best way to learn then is to find your purpose for learning and apply the style that best matches it.

If you are trying to ace a written exam or pass through a technical interview with set answers, passive learning is quite good to go.

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But if you need to develop your analytical skills and find newer solutions, active learning is best advised as it provides a much richer learning experience. But active learning with no focused approach can make the learner stray off-topic.

Active learning activities must be carefully designed to provide room for exploration without losing sight of the learning progress. Hence, feedback evaluation should be a necessary part of active learning.

Memorization plays an important role in passive learning whereas memory is strengthened by association through active learning.

One has to be both a passive learner capable of collecting information from set materials and still be willing to actively explore and seek out new information to be really successful in self-learning.

Passive learning like lectures and presentations are also a crucial part of active learning environments as they are more efficient in content delivery and regulating the scope of learning.

Incorporating Both Styles of Learning

Both passive and active learning methods can be made components of the learning experience to ensure better engagement.

Some ways self-learning can be designed to incorporate both styles of learning to achieve better results are:

  • Course media like lectures and videos can act as the starting point of the learning experience.
  • A list of topics like syllabus used in passive learning can be applied and then expanded upon as required to make room for active learning as and when a new subtopic or material is discovered.
  • Passive learners can seek out peers in online forums, fellow students or experts to further gain insights into their subject matter.
  • Along with traditional evaluation techniques, project-based learning can help in motivating a self-learner to better understand the subject. Projects require active participation and make sure the learner is engaged is committed to the learning process.

When it comes to learning, it is wise not to disregard both the modes of learning. Initial knowledge transfer, obviously, requires passive learning. But gaining deeper insights invariably require more engaging active learning activities.

Apply the best methods as it suits you and be committed to your learning efforts to unlock the potential you have.

More About Learning Fast

Featured photo credit: Avel Chuklanov via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] IGI Global: What is Passive Learning
[2] Cynthia J. Brame, PhD, CFT Assistant Director: Active Learning
[3] J Undergrad Neurosci Educ.: Active Learning for Students and Faculty
[4] Pearson: What does research say about active learning?
[5] Next Gen Learning: Moving from Passive to Active Learning: Four Ways to Overcome Student Resistance
[6] University of Florida: Active vs. Passive Learning in Online Courses

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Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

The Faster You Learn, the Easier You’ll Fall Behind

The Faster You Learn, the Easier You’ll Fall Behind

Garry Kasparov is a chess grandmaster – and also a former world chess champion. Over the last few decades, he’s beaten hundreds of first-class chess players. It’s no surprise then, that many people consider Kasparov to be one of the greatest chess players of all time.

However, in 1997, Kasparov lost a game of chess to a computer. A year earlier, he had played against IBM’s Deep Blue chess computer and defeated it. But the computer was to have its revenge, as just one year later, when the rematch took place, Deep Blue defeated Kasparov.

    Over the next few years, humans and computers traded chess moves and blows. Fast-forward to 2017, and the picture is crystal clear: today’s best chess programs can easily beat the world’s best human chess players.[1]

    As the Kasparov story demonstrates, even the world’s top players – who practiced a lot – can end up losing.

    Now consider your friends, family and colleagues. How many of these people think they’re doing well in what they do? And how many think they are doing better than the average and have stopped looking for ways to improve themselves? The answer is, a lot.

    Why Learning Can Lead to Stagnation

    When people learn well – they pick up knowledge and quickly become skillful. And the smarter the people, the easier they pick up knowledge, and the easier and faster they become very good at something.

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    These types of individuals find learning effortless, and therefore, they pick up knowledge and skills much better than the average person.

    Take a look at the picture below. The tool in their hand represents the skill they have learned, and the cloud is the level they are currently on – in this case ground level.

      When these learners become knowers, they believe that they know what they’ve learned extremely well. This may be the case, but in reality, they’re already better than average. Because of this, they are unlikely to find anyone who can surpass them. It’s at this point that they may think to themselves, “I’m good enough” and “there’s no need for me learn anything more.”

        As I’ll show in the next few paragraphs, people’s egos can stop them from learning and improving themselves.

        For example, let’s take a look at an expert pianist. They can perform proficiently because of their hard work and practice that they’ve put in over the course of many years. To help them, they may have had a tutor who developed their skills and brought out their talent.

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        The consistent tutoring and practicing led them to become an accomplished pianist – one who regularly performs paid concerts in front of decent-sized audiences. However, their success has led them to believe that they don’t need to make any further changes or improvements to their musical skills.

          When experts stop learning – they start to fall behind. This is because others will keep improving, and eventually get ahead of them.

          The world is constantly changing, so sticking to the same way to practice (and failing to improve) will lead to people dropping the ball. A recent study predicted that one in five U.K. employees are under threat of losing their jobs to automation. A person who’s comfortable in their job today, may find themselves replaced by a computer or robot tomorrow. If this prediction comes true, millions of people will soon find themselves out of work.[2] This is a real life example of how people can fall behind when they stop learning and improving themselves.

          Clearly, any experts who stop learning and improving, will be replaced by those who keep learning – whether these are humans or machines.

            When You Think You’ve Learned Enough, You Fall Behind

            The cloud depicted in the visuals isn’t concrete, and it’s prone to fall and disappear any time when you stop paying attention to your own learning and development.

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            Everyone, no matter how good they believe themselves to be at something, should never stop learning. Reaching an ‘acceptable’ performance only means that you’re doing okay. It doesn’t mean that you’re doing it to the best of your ability or potential.

            As I stated earlier (but well worth repeating again)… When you stop learning, you’re falling behind.

              Push Yourself to Reach New Heights

              To keep ahead of your competitors, you need to keep learning and practicing. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean doing things in the same way. You may need to step outside of your comfort zone in order to improve.

                Do what you can’t

                When you think you’re doing something well enough, find what you can’t do – and then do it! Here are four key things to remember about pushing your boundaries:

                1. If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.
                2. Getting out of your comfort zone means trying to do something that you couldn’t do before.
                3. Sometimes you’ll run into something that stops you in your tracks. Find ways around these hurdles by focusing on improving your skills and knowledge, and then practicing them until you become proficient.
                4. Don’t be afraid to experiment. You may need to try different ways to make things happen.

                Set yourself specific goals as you practice

                People who achieve great things set themselves definite goals. And I highly recommend that you do the same.

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                One great way to do this is to follow the SMART and Stretch goal methods, which will help you set a big goal, while at the same time giving you baby steps on how to reach it. When SMART and Stretch goals are combined, your goal setting will have genuine purpose and power. You’ll be motivated by the giant goal, while having confidence in the small, incremental steps that will lead you there.

                Find out more about goals setting in my other article: How to Get Bigger Things Done in the Coming Year

                Along the way, you need to get feedback to help you improve

                It goes without saying that to make progress, you’ll need feedback to identify exactly where and how you are falling short. This feedback can be from yourself or from outside observers (e.g., your audience, your mentor, your peers).

                Do you know why computers can beat humans at chess after those times they’ve lost against them? The answer is, that people who program the computers have learned through all the steps humans have performed. They also gathered valuable feedback through their computers losing against some competitors. The programmers pick up the clues and change the way the computers perform in their next matches.

                Learning Should Never Come to an End

                When we’re young we naturally crave learning. We constantly seek out new knowledge, skills and experiences. However, as we mature, there’s a tendency for us to stop learning new things.

                If this happens, you can be sure that stagnation is just around the corner. And as nature shows, nothing (even stagnation) stays the same for long. Things are either building up – or breaking down.

                To avoid the latter, you must maintain a positive outlook that embraces big goals and constant learning. By doing these things, you’ll stay fresh, lively and ahead of the pack of hyenas snapping at your heels!

                Reference

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