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Passive vs. Active Learning: Why It’s So Important to Engage Students

There’s a lot of buzz in the educational community about the benefits of active learning. But what is this exactly? And how can some learning be passive?

It really comes down to how students are interacting with the material. Research is showing it’s important to engage students with active learning practices.

How Do We Learn?

Learning is a complex subject. Pedagogical practice can have huge implications on how students process, retain, understand, and synthesize material. There are myriad interpretations and opinions on the most effective methods for teaching—some based on evidence, others on stubbornness. Essentially all types of learning fall into these two overarching categories – active and passive.

Passive learning refers to students being fed information, while giving no feedback—such as attending a lecture, reading texts, or watching a slide show presentation. Active learning implies there’s some sort of back and forth between the student, the instructors, and the course materials.

Lectures Don’t Facilitate Learning

Data overwhelmingly shows passive learning on its own is much less effective than active learning. In fact, failure rates are over 50 percent higher when passive learning is the dominant mode. Despite, this the lecture remains a mainstay at schools of all levels. Why don’t teachers adapt to better serve their students? It’s complicated.

Lectures have been the dominant teaching practice in the western world for hundreds of years. Traditions can be hard to change. But it’s not just a matter of history at play here. A lot of teachers already feel overworked when lecturing to their students. Having to redesign their entire curriculum in order to better engage students is a massive undertaking. Plus, the concept of active learning doesn’t fit a nice, clean definition like passive learning. This is a new development in the world of education. A lot of teachers don’t know how to create an active learning environment. Regardless of these points, educators who want to improve the quality of their work should pursue ways to introduce active learning into their classrooms.

What Tools Can Promote Active Learning?

Finding tools to aid in the process of active learning can be a huge help to teachers. The Internet, along with other modern tech advances, have made these tools more accessible than ever.

Educators who want to foster active learning in the classroom should consider the benefits of polls and surveys. These can of course be conducted the old-fashioned way—with pen and paper—but new technology has created an easier solution. Real-time interactive polls are an excellent way to build an active learning module. Poll Everywhere offers a polling app that can be inserted into slide show presentations and accessed by students on their smartphones. There are huge opportunities for using this tech in creating helpful lessons for students.

Building websites and blogging is another way to encourage active learning in students. It’s easier than ever for beginners to create rudimentary, free sites. Having students build a website and blog about a topic will have them actively engaging with and researching material, while also learning a useful skill.

Concepts for Creating an Active Learning Environment

Of course, you want to create a holistically active environment for students. To do this, you need to consider what overarching methods will lead them to finding answers as opposed to receiving them. Developing critical thinking is one of the most important aspects to this process. Having students examine course material on a deeper level allows them to form their own connections with the subject. Debate and situational problem-solving both compliment the ideas behind active learning. Additionally, critical thinking is a skill that will help students throughout their lives—inside and outside of the classroom.

Active learning is totally changing the educational landscape. While there’s still a lot to learn about this new way of doing things, it’s clearly having a positive impact on students. Greater engagement in the classroom is paving the way for better outcomes.

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Erin Thompson

Erin Thompson spent years managing her own blog about budgeting and debt. Because of that, she has great insights not only about managing spending and borrowing but also about running websites profitably. When she's not writing articles for us, she's traveling and looking for new types of wines to try.
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The content on is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not financial advice and we are not certified financial advisors. strives to keep its information accurate and up to date, but it may differ from actual numbers. We may have financial relationships with companies listed on our site. We may receive compensation for the placement of sponsored products or services. We work hard to write authentic and accurate articles.