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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.

Academic Concepts and Operations of Learning

Many definitions of learning can be found across disciplines.  The one recurring concept they all have in common is a component of change. That is, all learning is active in that a change must be noted in order to consider something to have been learned (Ambrose, et al., 2010).  Accepting definitions of learning as being based on change, and therefore action, requires that we reject the notion that passive learning exists.  If something happens and you have absolutely no awareness of it, which means none of your neurons fired and no change took place, then learning did not happen.  Therefore, attention is the first, and required, step to learning.  If you do not attend to something, the possibility for learning is eliminated.  If attention is required for learning to occur then one cannot learn passively.  Thus, we can argue that the terminology of active learning and passive learning no longer hold the same meaning.

However, the concept of passive learning has come to have meaning in education. When individuals speak of passive learning, they typically mean a situation whereby the learner sits idly by and is an observer, without becoming an active participant in whatever is occurring (King, 1993).  Put another way, passive learning is described as not requiring any external movement or interaction by the learner.  It is one-way communication with the information being “poured” into the learner.  No talking with others, no interacting, no moving, no feedback.  Essentially, passive learning in this situation is receiving information by looking (such as reading a book), listening (such as attending a lecture), or watching (such as viewing a movie).  Returning to the definition of learning, a requisite component of learning is that there is change and with that change there is action.  When a learner is presented with new information that results in interest and understanding there is nothing “passive” about learning in this situation.  There is an opportunity to process this new information, consider it further in context to ourselves and how it relates to us and our worldview, or even go further to consider multiple applications and “aha” moments as we synthesize new constructs for ourselves or others.  In this instance receiving new information and the process of coming to understand it is learning and it is active. No verbalization is needed to think, understand, and learn.  No think-pair-share has to be done.  No schematic has to be drawn.  Thus, one can learn by the simple act of giving consideration to information, and that information that may be introduced through text or lecture.

Embracing Learning in Noninteractive Environments

Rethinking our definition of learning should cause us to re-examine how we employ the terms active learning and passive learning.  And we should then examine our teaching approaches aimed to increase learning.  Yes, there are times when learners are overtly active and other times when they are overtly passive, but the real issue is what is happening while information is presented.  That is, when is the brain active and what are the implications?  When is the best time to employ which pedagogical approach to increase student-learning outcomes?  More specifically on the minds of many is the question, “can you learn from overtly passive environments?” Can you learn by sitting passively by, while information is “poured into your brain.” Of course you can … under the right circumstances.

One example is the power of the movie, where a person sits passively in a seat while information is presented.  Can one learn in such a situation? An entire generation became fearful of the ocean thanks to Jaws.  We learned something from a movie 40 years ago that is still with us today.  That seems pretty powerful.  There are many situations in which fairly passive situations lead to immediate learning.  When you overhear a colleague gossip about someone in the office you easily recall what was said by whom, to whom, and about whom. When you read a good book you recall the names of the main characters and the story line.  TED talks are very popular and teach us many things.  It is also likely that you have learned some very important information from a college or university lecture, which is an often cited prototype of passive learning.

Although there are many arguments that we can learn from a wide variety of passive situations, we all know that students can sit through a series of lectures and appear to have learned nothing.  We have also seen situations in which students might learn something and then fail to retain that information at a later date.  These situations are likely why the concept of passive learning has gained so much attention in education.  That said, I think something other than passivity is at play.

How Faculty Can Create Learning Opportunities in Overtly Passive Environments

To better understand why lectures can be so ineffective, it is important to consider just a few of the basic conditions of learning.  As noted previously, the first required step is attention. Once something has your attention, the extent to which you will remember what you have witnessed depends on a few basic properties.  Following is a short test to determine whether something will be learned and remembered at a later date.  The more affirmatives from this list, the more powerful the learning situation, whether by lecture or working in a group.

  • Does the information hold value? Value of information is often the basis for motivation to learn. Value can take on many forms, such as a belief the material will be on a test, hold a life lesson, or is related to something learned previously that has value. The highest level of value is typically placed on things that impacts survival of an individual, or a loved ones.  If someone explains to you where to find food when you are very hungry you will very likely learn that information quickly.

  • Is the material understandable? Learning is very difficult if you do not understand what you are experiencing. Much of learning involves incorporating the new information with something you already know. When you learn a new cooking technique it is extremely helpful if you can “tie” that new information to the cooking information you already hold. When you are totally confused by content, you don’t know what to do with it, and as a result, learning is extremely difficult.  It is also possible to decrease understanding by overwhelming a person with new information.  At times you will note that you can follow what someone is describing to you up to a point, and then feel the understanding suddenly slip away with a given piece of additional information.  From that point forward, new information is much harder to understand. This is a spot where you have, at times said, “wait a minute, I didn’t get that last part.”

  • Is there an opportunity to practice or reflect on the newly acquired information? Although not required, learning is greatly enhanced when you can think about the information and better integrate it into some structure you have for material related to what you just read or heard. Individuals who have heard something new will often say, “that is interesting, but I need to think about this a bit before I can decide what to do next.” That “thinking about” time is reflection and is an important aspect of learning.  It is also extremely important that you have an opportunity to practice recalling the information, which may be done through reflection, or just practicing at retrieving information through a process such a flash cards (Butler, 2010).

  • Is student physically and emotionally ready to learn? Is the brain physically able to process the information? There are certainly times that you are simply too tired to read or to watch a TV program that requires thinking. In those cases it is difficult to attend to information being presented because your brain has to be able to process the information.  Much research has been done related to learning tied to sleep, exercise, hydration, and proper nutrition (Doyle & Zakrajsek, 2013).

When information presented has value to you, is something you understand, allows time for you to later reflect on it, is practiced, and delivered when your brain can process the information then the probability learning will take place increases greatly. When these aspects are missing, it is very difficult to learn something new.   Let us return to the concepts of passive versus active environments. If the aspects noted above are present, even for a lecture, learning is very likely to occur.  However, when the aspects noted above are absent, even when working in a group, having a conversation, or doing a hands-on activity learning is not likely to happen.  Essentially, when the aspects noted above are strongly present then learning will be realized, regardless of how it is experienced.

A single sentence uttered during a lecture can alter a person’s life forever. I have heard people say they can’t learn from lectures.  If those individuals are not attending to the information because they are thinking instead that one can’t learn from lecturing, then it is indeed difficult to learn. The time has come to focus on when learning occurs and when learning does not occur.  Regardless of the method of delivery (lecture, team-based, project-based, online, face-to-face, etc.) faculty best teaching when student learning is in mind.  Each lesson plan should be developed to include a set of particular learning goals, an inviting learning environment, and an effort to make the information interesting and understandable. Yes, active learning environments tend to enhance these factors and as a result often demonstrate stronger learning outcomes.  However, passive learning environments, under the right conditions, will lead to very active thinking processes on the part of the student and as a result, learning is most certainly possible and at times powerful.


Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010).  How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Bonwell, C. & Eison, J. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. Information Analysis – ERIC Clearinghouse Products. Retrieved November 4, 2016, from:

Butler, A.C. (2010). Repeated testing produces superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 35 (5), 1118-1133.

Doyle, T. & Zakrajsek, T. (2013).  The new science of learning: How to learn in harmony with your brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

King, A. (1993). From sage on the stage to guide on the side. College Teaching, 41 (1), 30 – 35.

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I'm not sure this discussion clears up anything in the supposed debate. It seems to me this is another instance of not clearly defining terms well enough and of forcing assumptions as facts. Here are some of my assumptions that counter those implied in the blog post:

1. Teaching is not the same as learning. They are related, but not the same. It can be argued that teaching must be externalized, but learning need not have that requirement. Part of the mystery of learning is that so much of it appears to take place outside the realm of observation.

2. Performance is not the same as learning. Demonstration of learning needs to be externalized for the benefit of the teache…

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