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Active learning versus passive learning

In this article, we look more closely at what active learning achieves, its differences with passive learning, and some examples of the two.
Does Active Learning Produce Better Results Than Passive Learning

What is active learning?

Active learning involves participants both physically and mentally. It usually involves some form of practice and feedback. This combination of activity and support grows strong mental connections.

What is passive learning?

With Passive learning, information is ‘delivered’ to learners in the form of a presentation, lecture or text. It usually relies on learners undertaking their own activities or revision later, if new mental connections are to be grown.

In the image below, we have returned to our analogy of learning with exercise. The person on the left will not raise their fitness levels by just watching and listening. They need to do the exercises like the person on the right.

It is the same with learning. Just watching a presentation will have a very limited impact. An effort is almost always required on the part of the learner to form a lasting change in their knowledge and skill set.
Note: we designate sophisticated visual experiences such as Virtual Reality (VR) as ‘active’. This is because when learning with VR, the user is effectively doing or experiencing something.

Who should put in the most effort, the trainer or the learners?

If we were to take EEG traces (electroencephalogram recordings of brain activity) of everyone in an active training session, we would see more activity in learners’ brains than that of the trainer.

This is because the learners would be processing new material and doing something with it. The trainer’s highest level of brain activity would have occurred when they were planning and designing the session.

Below are excerpts from two different lesson plans (the subject title has been omitted). Notice the difference between the Trainer Activity and Learner Activity columns in each one.

Excerpt 1

Trainer Activity Learner Activity
Provide guidance and feedback. Discuss concepts with fellow learners.
Practice skills.
Share peer feedback with each other.
Solve problems together.

Excerpt 2

Trainer Activity Learner Activity
Present content slides in a coherent sequence.
Explain the key points.
Talk through each slide as the presentation progresses.
Listen and ask questions at the end.

In Excerpt 1, learners are actively engaged throughout this part of the lesson. This activity is likely to stimulate the growth of new mental connections, particularly as it is supported by feedback from the trainer.

In Excerpt 2, there is little for the learners to do except listen. There is also no guarantee that everyone will engage in the questions at the end, and some participants may do nothing at all. Inexperienced trainers sometimes create plans like these because they feel they should always be busy as the ‘expert in the room’.

Can online learning also be passive or active?

Below are excerpts from two different online learning plans. How do these compare with Excerpts 1 & 2 above?

Excerpt 3

Trainer Activity Learner Activity
Provide supportive comments on the forum. Read material.
Engage in quizzes.
Complete an MCQ assessment that requires concentration and effort.
Post thoughts in an online forum.
Comment on other learners’ posts.

Excerpt 4

Trainer Activity Learner Activity
Design and create learning.
Ensure accuracy of the content.
Report on completion of the course and MCQ results.
Read material.
Complete a short MCQ test.

Perhaps you noticed a similar contrast to the previous examples?

Excerpt 3 contains a lot of relevant learner activity. It also includes an MCQ assessment which requires learners to think hard to distinguish between answers.

Excerpt 4 does contain some activity (reading), although because its assessment can be completed easily it does not encourage retention. Content from this section may be forgotten relatively quickly.

A real-life contrast between passive and active training

In early 2020 (pre-Covid lockdown) we visited training centres at two British hospitals, each of which had employed external trainers to run First-line Supervisory courses for them. The trainers had no connection other than teaching the same subject.

Training Centre 1

The trainer stood at the front of the room and read aloud from slides of PowerPoint text. Every time we passed the window, we could see participants sitting motionless, staring at the screen. The content appeared to be relevant and accurate, but the approach was completely passive.

Training Centre 2

This trainer’s methods were a complete contrast to those described above. Whenever we passed this classroom, every participant was engaged in an activity of some kind. The trainer continually moved around the room, providing feedback and encouragement for his learners.

Which group do you think retained the most? Which group do you think were most likely to transfer learning to practice?

Active learning online during the pandemic

The non-live practice of interpersonal skills can be created online. A particularly effective design uses ‘branched’ video scenarios. Learners watch a short video clip that sets a scene. For example, in a supervisory course, they may be shown a clip in which a member of staff reports receiving verbal abuse from a colleague.

The learner is asked to choose from a selection of possible responses. The impact of their selection is played out by an actor. Each choice connects with a different video clip and the scenario continues until the incident reaches some form of resolution.

Because branching scenarios are necessarily prepared in advance, feedback cannot be tailored to a particular individual. Nonetheless, if live online training is not an option, these scenarios offer a viable alternative.

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