What is Passive Learning and is it always Boring?

Let’s explore how passive learning differs from active learning and why it’s still popular with those who teach and learn.

In passive learning, the central role is given to the teacher, and students are only asked to absorb the material that has already been prepared and served to them “on a platter,” memorize it and reproduce it. It is the difference between passive learning and active learning, in which the student produces knowledge himself.

A typical example of passive learning: the teacher explains the topic, gives examples and tells you how to do the task and something else about the case the student reads in the textbook and other supplementary materials. A similar principle is used by the essay writing service to train its writers and improve their skills.

You will learn:

  • How passive learning differs from active learning;
  • Which type of learning (passive or active) refers to lectures or online courses;
  • Why passive does not equate to easy or boring;
  • Why do students themselves usually prefer passive learning;
  • Why should not all arguments about the lack of benefit of passive learning be believed?

How Passive Learning Differs from Active Learning

Passive learning has reigned in educational institutions for centuries (although it is fair to say that active learning has also been used for a long time). In the twentieth century, passive learning also received a theoretical basis when behaviorists’ ideas were very popular. Followers of this approach believed that the student is a blank slate or an empty vessel that can be filled with knowledge. From their point of view, it is natural that he plays a passive role in the learning process, unlike the teacher who “fills the vessel.”

In time, behaviorism was replaced by more progressive ideas, particularly constructivism. Rather, it put the learner at the center of the process: the learner had to produce and construct his or her knowledge, i.e., to be an active, not passive, participant.

But few limit themselves to passive methods of education. Most often, in the curriculum, they are “mixed” with active methods.

What are the Methods of Passive Learning

Melbourne University lecturer and Helpful Professor blogger Chris Drew give these current examples of passive learning:

  • Lectures and “standard” lessons. For centuries this has been considered quite an effective method of teaching. Many teachers still believe that lecture is an indispensable format in higher education. But even the most wonderful and fascinating lecture is not so easy to remember (about this we will tell next).
  • Podcasts and videos. They differ from lectures only because the information can be obtained at any convenient time (asynchronously) and in comfortable conditions.
  • Instructions. It is when students have explained the rules and shown how to perform a particular action.
  • Observation or demonstration. It is when, for example, the teacher demonstrates something to the students and observes it. For example, the teacher conducts a chemistry or physics experiment himself, and the class just observes. Or a master demonstrates on a webinar how to perform this or that action in the software under study. But if students participate in the same process (e.g., conduct an experiment or try to perform the same task in the software on their own), then learning becomes active.

In addition, passive learning includes reading a textbook and other learning materials because the knowledge is gathered in a book in a ready-made form. The student just consumes this information.

Is a Lecture Always Passive Learning?

A classic lecture, in which the teacher tells the material, is passive learning. But there are so-called problem lectures in which the teacher does not give new knowledge, but his questions stimulate students to seek it. It is the Socratic method. The teacher’s task is to put such questions (to formulate such a problem), which will encourage students to think, compare, analyze and summarize different knowledge and points of view. It is more of a discussion than a pure lecture and an active teaching method.

In addition, an interesting approach asks students to sketch out a lecture or textbook chapter instead of taking notes. The point is that sketching forces students to comprehend the new information they hear and interpret it creatively, which means that passive learning turns into active learning in some parts.

Are Online Courses Always Passive Learning?

Online courses come in many different forms. At least they are divided into synchronous and asynchronous, open (for participation in them, there is no preselection, hundreds and thousands of people can watch one course) and closed (with selection, designed for a limited number of participants), with and without homework.

The simplest version of the course is a cycle of recorded lectures, at best, with a knowledge check in the form of tests. It, of course, is passive learning in its purest form. But there are also courses based on the solution of some task (problem) – in them, listeners independently develop and seek a solution to this or that training problem while gaining knowledge and experience. It is an example of active learning. Such courses are usually synchronous.

Modern courses and offline educational programs often combine elements of passive and active learning – for example, viewing asynchronous lectures, students synchronously develop their projects, or the course provides many other active methods. Another way to incorporate elements of active learning into a course is to structure it around a branching quest model.

Many modern adult education courses are based on David Kolb’s experiential learning model. In short, its essence is that learning is the transformation of experience through a cycle of trial and error. It is active learning, and the task of the pedagogical designer is to design the conditions for it.

Is Passive Learning Always Easier than Active Learning?

Just because learning is passive doesn’t mean it’s easy. Passive means only the way of acquiring new knowledge, not the simplicity of that knowledge. If the topic itself is complex, it takes hard work of the mind to understand a lecture (even from a brilliant instructor) or a textbook chapter (even the best one). And vice versa: when the instructor speaks monotonously, explains too confusingly, and the textbook is poorly written, then even a quite ordinary topic risks turning into a cumbersome one. But if the student then engages in active learning – tries to research the topic independently, using different sources – it can save the situation.

Can Passive Learning be Engaging?

If the instructor is a good storyteller and the interesting topic makes for an engaging lecture. A textbook can also be made not at all boring and even interactive.

In addition, there are special techniques that make it possible to keep the student’s attention during passive learning, captivate him in the process, to stimulate him to continue learning until the end (if, for example, it is an online course or a long road with educational information).

As a rule, this effect is achieved with the help of entertaining elements – storytelling (including introducing characters into the course) and gamification. There even appeared a special term – edutainment- combining learning with entertainment.

An ordinary school teacher can also vary standard lessons with such non-standard methods. For example, one Canadian teacher, during the pandemic, started his online lessons with such clues that made the students on the other side of the screen wake up instantly. An Australian professor uses K-pop to talk about economics, and a Russian literature teacher uses rap music in her lessons. Some dilute the lessons with experiments, magic tricks, or even dancing.

Why Students Love Passive Learning?

Although researchers have talked about the benefits of active learning methods for decades, teachers and students still often prefer passive learning – standard classes where you can just listen to the material. Experts from Harvard paid attention to this and, in 2019, decided to check how students perceive passive and active learning and, most importantly, how it affects real learning outcomes.

Researchers conducted an experiment involving 149 students in a physics course. Near the end of the course, students were randomly divided into two groups. Two classes were held for each (on statics and liquids).

In both groups, students were given study materials on worksheets: key concepts on the class topic and equations were labeled there, along with example problems. There were also blank spaces on the sheets for writing and answers.

One group went through the material in passive form, the other in active form, and at the next session, they switched. Here’s how the class went:

  • Active. The instructor asked the students to solve the problems given in the starter material and to do this. They grouped in small groups. While the students were busy, the instructor moved around the classroom – answering questions and giving advice. When the groups had finished working on the next problem, he showed and explained the correct solution.
  • Passive. The instructor showed a presentation based on the course material handed out to the students, gave detailed explanations, and showed by example how to solve the problems. Students listened to him and wrote down the solutions. The main emphasis of the researchers in this experiment was on the teacher’s good presentation of the material.

The tasks and materials were the same for all participants in the experiment. The only difference was how they learned to solve the problems – immediately from the teacher (passive) or trying to find it themselves (active). After each lesson, participants were asked to perform a knowledge test and fill out a questionnaire about their feelings.

The scientists found out that the surveyed students preferred lectures and were sure they gained more knowledge. Their test scores were significantly higher after active study.

The researchers suggested three reasons for this phenomenon:
  • Because a good lecture presents the material in a consistent and systematic, interesting way, students seem to get more information while listening than they do during an active class;
  • Because the topics are new, it is difficult for students to assess whether they have received much useful information;
  • Students who have not yet experienced active learning feel uncomfortable with the cognitive load – not realizing that this is a sign of effective learning.

When the researchers interviewed some participants in the experiment, they found the active learning method of “productive errors” difficult. It caused anxiety and misunderstanding. The inability or difficulty in solving the problem they perceived as their lack of knowledge, although this is not the case, the scientists are sure.

But the students listened to the lecture with pleasure – it was just clearer and easier.

But it is noteworthy that when the students were shown the study results and asked if it would affect how they learn, 14 out of 17 respondents answered in the affirmative. Although passive learning initially seemed productive and easy for them, a large proportion were willing to switch to active study forms once they were convinced they were more effective.

The experiment did not stop there. The following semester, the physics course instructor used the same strategy with activities but showed students a presentation at the beginning of the program – explaining the benefits of active learning and warning them about how students might perceive it.

At the end of the semester, 65% of the students said that they had significantly improved their opinion of active learning, and 75% said that the instructor’s presentation helped them see the approach’s benefits during class.

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