How people learn best: Active vs Passive Learning

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An important concept to think about as an educator is how people learn best.

Think back to a time when you learnt something. Not when you sat in a lecture theatre and passively listened to an expert talk on a subject, or when you crammed for an exam (only to forget the information immediately after the test).

That is passive learning. The student isn’t doing anything but listening; they aren’t involved in the learning process. Passive learning disempowers the student and makes the teacher the focus of the learning environment.

I’m talking about a time when you were curious about something in your world and you wanted to know more. You explored, right?

You pondered the topic and how it related to your current life. You walked down the street and you saw components of the new learning pop up everywhere. Connections were made. Dots were joined. You discussed the topic with friends and deepened your understanding even further.

You were in your own learning process.

This is called active learning and it is how people learn best.

Active learning occurs through discussion and collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving, and connecting new learning with one’s own world.

It facilitates divergent thinking (big-picture thinking, where students develop many different creative ideas or solutions to a topic) over convergent thinking (there is only one right answer or solution).

Active learning promotes a deep, conceptual understanding of a topic that is the hallmark of rich learning as opposed to passively listening to a lecture and cramming for exams.

In an active learning environment, the student is engaged, empowered, and excited to learn.

Students learn concepts deeply because concepts are made relevant and meaningful to their current lives. They are intrinsically motivated (“I want to learn this topic because I’m interested and engaged!”) over incentive or extrinsically motivated (“I want to learn this topic because I will get a nice certificate at the end.”)

So what exactly does active vs passive learning look like?

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There’s nothing wrong with having course media like lectures and videos that discuss concepts within a module. Just don’t stop there!


Design Active Learning Experiences

When creating learning experiences for your course, ask yourself:

  • Will this engage and excite my students?
  • Is there a better way I could get them engaging with this topic?
  • Will this get my students discussing a topic with each other? (Peer-to-peer learning, rather than just talking with the teacher. Teacher as facilitator, not expert)
  • Will this activity help to connect the new information with their current world?
  • Is the student at the centre of this learning?
  • Am I getting students to think divergently or do I only want one right answer?
  • Is this activity getting my students to think critically and synthesise their knowledge on a topic (higher order thinking), or is it just a comprehension exercise (lower level thinking)?
  • Am I giving my students opportunities to reflect on their learning process?
  • Would I have fun doing this course if I were the student? (If your answer is ‘no’, chances are your students won’t have fun doing it either).


Examples of Active Learning Experiences

Example Topic: Foods of the World

Course Media: Various interesting videos and wikis on foods in different cultures and countries

Some Example Learning Experiences:

  • Sharing Space: Share some weird, wonderful and truly unique foods you have eaten in your travels. Upload a picture if you can!
  • Choose a country you have never been to before. Find out its signature cuisine and cook it at home. Share the recipe and pictures of your cooking experience.
  • What types of food were typical of your upbringing?
  • Food Safari fortnightly challenge: Each fortnight, take yourself out for a meal at a cafe/restaurant/friend’s place. Try a different venue and ideally a different cuisine than you’ve had before. Document the experience in a weekly Food Safari log.
  • Food Blog: Be a food blogger! Choose 3 of your Food Safari write ups and submit them to our Food Blog. The blog will go live at the end of the course and you can elect to be a regular contributor.
  • Reflection (at the end of each module): Write a brief reflection on what you have learnt throughout the module and how you felt about it.

Teaching an online course shouldn’t be a boring experience for either teachers or students. Learning should be active and fun in all learning environments.

This will not only result in happier, motivated students but will also lead to increased completion and engagement rates. How could you turn down a win-win!?

There are countless articles on the benefits of active learning, explore, and feel free to share in the comments below.

Want to read more resources related to this topic? Check out these links below!

13 Replies to “How people learn best: Active vs Passive Learning”

  1. Thanks for sharing this Brooke. Teachers can simply change the overall mood of the students by designing a more interactive environment. In other words, the teachers should take some time prior to teaching to actually explain to the students how exactly the topic will be taught for the day. Hopefully we can see more Malaysian teachers adopting this active learning style.


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