The Best of Both Worlds: Active vs. Passive Learning

October 13, 2022

Full-classroom engagement is hard. You need to account for different strengths and learning styles. No two classes are exactly alike, nor are any two students. But by understanding active vs. passive learning, you supply yourself with a spectrum of teaching methods to help you provide a comprehensive, differentiated learning experience.

What is passive vs. active learning? You’ll often hear it said that passive learning is teacher-focused, while active learning is student-focused. But what does that mean, and is it true — or just a catchy phrase that’s easy to remember?

This blog covers both styles of instruction but pays special attention to passive learning to supplement what we’ve covered elsewhere. Using these two strategically, one could achieve balance in the classroom.

What Is Active Learning?

Active learning includes the student in the learning process through discussions and activities focused on the material. The style encourages higher-order thinking skills. Instead of simply intaking information, students apply, analyze, and synthesize it.

There are many strategies for and resources devoted to this process. But what does active learning look like? Put another way, what is an example of active learning?

All of the following classroom activities belong under the heading of active learning: 

  • Discussions, either in small groups or as a whole class
  • Individual and group projects
  • Independent reflection
  • Peer-to-peer teaching
  • Role playing 
  • Experiments, simulations, or skill labs
  • Games and problem solving
  • Student research

These teaching tools facilitate deep learning: the critical engagement with and integration of course concepts.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Active Learning

Educators and scholars have focused a lot of attention on active learning over the past decade, and for good reason. 

Some of the benefits of active learning include the following:

  • Improvement of critical thinking skills
  • Heightened student attention during class
  • Student empowerment via their learning process
  • Feedback for teachers about student comprehension
  • Increased retention of course material
  • Opportunities for peer discussion and collaboration
  • Encouragement of free-thinking and creativity 

But there is a flip side to the coin. Some of the drawbacks of active learning are as follows:

  • Requirement for more teacher preparation, flexibility, and facilitation skills
  • Focus on a limited number of concepts
  • Lack of teacher control and the possibility of student misconceptions
  • Discomfort of introverted students
  • Increased potential for classroom distractions

All of which means that there’s still a place for passive learning in health sciences education.

What Is Passive Learning?

Passive learning keeps the focus on the teacher and the course material rather than on the student. The student passively absorbs information delivered by the teacher. 

Communication only happens in one direction. The teacher provides information, but neither the teacher nor the student receive feedback regarding student learning.

Passive learning examples include

  • Lectures
  • Presentations
  • Reading

The classic example of passive learning is a traditional lecture. The teacher stands up in the front of the room and talks at the students instead of with them. The instructor controls the subject, trajectory, and pace.

Both active and passive learning can be practiced online. In this case, the teacher would video or stream the lecture to students instead of joining them in an auditorium.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Passive Learning

Like active learning, passive learning has a place in the classroom. It offers both students and teachers several advantages.

Some of the benefits of passive learning are mentioned below:

  • Ability to cover large amounts of information
  • Efficient instruction of large groups
  • Ability to plan, prepare, and reuse material
  • Control over course material and delivery

Passive learning methods also allow students certain forms of control over the rate and time of their education. For example, they can read or view course materials on their schedules and then revisit them as needed.

Contrarily, there are substantial disadvantages of passive learning, which are best supplemented by more active methods.

Some of the drawbacks of passive learning are listed here:

  • Difficulty in paying attention during long or one-dimensional presentations
  • Encouragement of regurgitation rather than critical thinking
  • Discouragement of student questions and contributions
  • Difficulty in assessing student progress and understanding in the middle of lessons
  • Reliance on teacher personality or presentation skills
  • Potential for superficial engagement with and poor retention of concepts

As with active learning, these potential gains and problems won’t affect students equally. Students thrive under different conditions and move between styles with varying degrees of ease.

Effective Passive Learning Strategies

Educators still need to engage students when employing passive learning methods. You want to take advantage of the style’s strength while protecting against its drawbacks. The following tactics could help.

Open Questions 

Ask questions throughout the lesson, prompting students to think about potential answers. You might try introducing a question or challenge at the beginning of class, promising to answer it by the end. Get students thinking one step ahead of the presentation, moving toward the solution.

Visual and Multimedia Aids

Visual cues aid memory and help the audience track ongoing lessons. That’s one of the reasons for PowerPoint presentations becaming so popular. 

Integrate images and videos into your lesson plans, too. These forms of media aid digital-native learners and increase their engagement.

Modeled Activity or Problem-Solving

Break down complicated processes and problems for students. Demonstrate how you would work through a problem or perform a procedure rather than simply providing the solution.

Debates and Interviews

Introduce multiple voices and viewpoints in passive learning. When possible, bring experts into the classroom and teach through dialogue rather than a monologue. 

You can also pair readings of authors with different ideas or navigate between perspectives during a lecture.


While you don’t want lectures to become repetitive, make themes or key points clear and repeat them in different contexts throughout a lesson. 

How to Balance Active and Passive Learning 

You need to provide for multiple types of learners in the classroom. Besides, active and passive learning styles work best when used together.

Here are a few tips to help you achieve balance.

Encourage Movement Between Styles

Break up long stretches of passive learning with active moments: 

  • Answer student questions
  • Take a break during lecture for individual reflection or pair work
  • Challenge your class to defend a viewpoint against your critique
  • Ask students to teach a concept back to you
  • Solicit student opinions or experiences
  • Poll the class about whether to go back over tricky topics

Provide Supplementary Materials

Give students the ability to access extra information and practice its application. Problem sets or self-assessment tools will be particularly appreciated before tests. 

Use your course website to provide additional coverage of the topic, too. You can post or link to bonus material presented in a different form or voice.

Caduceus’s online course materials include interactive assessments and 3D models that give students control over their educational experience.

Consider Sequence

Think about whether you want to introduce topics before demanding active engagement. 

In some cases, a passive-first approach can improve overall student learning. One study on passive and active learning sequences compared the performance of students experiencing different combinations of active and passive learning. It found that students first introduced to abstract concepts through passive learning methods mastered and retained the material better than their active-first peers.

Note that active learning requires a different environment than passive learning. To effectively move from passive to active learning, you need to create a safe space in which failure is accepted as part of the process. Your class will also benefit from greater transparency regarding your teaching methodologies and the rationale behind them.

Learn More

There you have it — active vs. passive learning and the role each should play in student learning. 

You can read more about active learning on the CIP blog, or start practicing these styles in your classroom. 

Do you want to read and absorb more information, continuing passive learning? Or apply the knowledge, moving into active learning? It’s up to you.

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