All Learning is an Active Process: Rethinking Active/Passive Learning Debate

Todd Zakrajsek, Ph.D. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Learning is relatively easy.  It happens all the time. Over a lifetime you will learn an astronomical amount of information.  Much learning happens without any effort at all and often without you even realizing it.  For example, learning takes place effortlessly when you find a new shortcut while driving to work, when ordering an amazing dish at a restaurant for the first time, or when using a vending machine that does not deliver as promised.  In such cases, learning is fluid and effortless.  At other times learning is difficult: trying to recall a phone number just heard, operating a new computer system, or navigating a new city. Throughout life, some things are easy to learn and other things are difficult.  For college and university students, the same holds true.

Within academe, experts have long differentiated between “passive” learning and “active/engaged” learning (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). The oft held belief is that engaged learning is much more effective than passive learning. Making the distinction between active and passive misdirects the focus away from learning and shifts the emphasis on the approach employed to provide an opportunity to learn.  That is, to support the notion that active learning is better than passive learning we must accept the position that active learning and passive learning are fundamentally different. Perhaps it is time to pause and examine this cornerstone of pedagogy in a new light.