Active vs. Passive and Learning vs. Teaching

An attempt to make sense of active vs. passive, learning and teaching.

A first definition: ‘Active Learning’ means the student is engaging, in some way, with the material.

Proclaimed from above: “Lecture is bad, active learning is good”. And then the comments begin.

In the classroom, the intent to have active learning inspires, but the practicality of time, material, life, etc. intervenes and the reality becomes passive lecture.

The studies show that classrooms where active learning happens, have better scores, higher pass rates, happier students, etc. But maybe it’s not clear what’s really going on.  For example:

A study was done [1] where 1 hour of direct instruction (i.e. lecture) was changed ever-so-slightly by inserting 2 breaks where the students were asked to take 2-5 minutes and discuss and clarify their notes with a neighbor. Results went up. But why?

Here’s some thoughts: Active learning really happened; Students took the break to rest and refocus, relative to their attention span; the Instructor put more into organizing the material into the shorter segments; the Students thought it showed the Instructor cared, so the cared more; less material was Covered, and so less was tested, etc.; added awareness of ‘Active’ made everyone more aware of the Learning; and much more.

But then there’s my experience (and likely yours, or at least your colleagues): primarily positive and prefered experiences in a lecture environment. Lately, I’ve been learning much from listening to podcasts. This is probably the most passive form of instruction as they are pre-recorded and make no distinctive effort to engage the listeners in ‘active’ learning. What’s happening here?

So, here’s my new definition or distinction about active vs. passive:

On the teaching side, the difference is a question of what is allowed, but does not address what is real: So Active Teaching means that you do things that make students do active-learning things; Passive Teaching means that you allow a passive learning approach. For example, do students have to engage the material during the classtime? If no, then its ‘passive’; If they look like they are engaging, then its ‘active’.

On the learning side, I’ll stick with the definition at the top, active learning means ‘engagement is happening’, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it needed active teaching or that there’s necessarily any sort of visible evidence. For example, a student could be sitting in a very traditional/passive lecture and be prompted to think deeply about the material; if so, then active learning is happening. But of course, the student sitting right next to them could look the same but be completely passively relating to the material, or not relating at all.

Thus, how do we increase active learning? (Because I’m going to believe that active learning means learning). First we realize that its a horse-to-water thing and so we can’t make it happen, but with that in mind, I suggest two things:

1. Raise the Expectations: discuss active learning with the students, model it for them, give them examples (for even so-called passive times), and check up on it as the course goes on.

2. Increase the Opportunities: pick the spots where (small) changes can be made to increase the active learning type activities can happen and do them; start small and add as things go on.

[1] Ruhl, K., C. Hughes, and P. Schloss, “Using the Pause Procedure to Enhance Lecture Recall,” Teacher Education and Special Education, Vol.
10, Winter 1987, pp. 14–18.


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