Passive Learning vs Active Learning

Students everywhere have heard the phrase “study smarter, not harder.” By simply changing study strategies, students can learn and understand more information in less time.

The two main types of studying are passive learning and active learning.

Passive learning involves reviewing notes or lectures. This type of studying improves writing and listening skills. This form of learning requires less engagement as students work to remember rather than explore. However, it takes more time because rereading notes, for example, does not stimulate the brain and forms fewer connections than one would get from other forms of learning.

Active learning, on the other hand, allows students to analyze and synthesize information, which ultimately improves long-term memory and comprehension. Through active learning, students improve their analysis, collaboration, and understanding. Examples of active learning include creating flashcards, drawing diagrams, teaching others, and using practice tests.

The steps to active learning are listed below:

  1. Identify what is important.

  2. Organize information in a way that you can understand. For instance, instead of copying down information into your notebook, students can turn the material into diagrams, charts, tables, or outlines. By doing so, they can observe patterns.

  3. Learn and review the material. This can be done by creating flashcards and summaries, rephrasing information, or condensing notes to make study sheets.

  4. Apply the information. Students can do this by practicing questions without copying from example problems and switching the numbers, teaching others, creating their own practice tests, or discussing topics with others.

Through these steps, students analyze, learn, and apply the content. Since there is a variety of active learning techniques, students can create a personalized study strategy that works for them.

Active vs Passive Learning in the Classroom

In a Harvard study on student perception vs performance, students in the same physics course were randomly assigned to two classrooms. All students were taught the same material, but one group was taught through lectures while the other classroom utilized active learning techniques such as discussions and problem-solving.

Although the students who learned through lectures and passive learning reported they felt more comfortable in their understanding, the students who used active learning in the classroom performed better on tests by around 10% on average.

This is because passive learning such as lectures feels easy. Director of science teaching and author of this study Louis Deslauriers stated, “Deep learning is hard work. The effort involved in active learning can be misinterpreted as a sign of poor learning. On the other hand, a superstar lecturer can explain things in such a way as to make students feel like they are learning more than they actually are.”

In passive learning, students do not need to specifically target and synthesize the material they do not understand because they simply review the lecture notes to the point of memorization. The decreased effort and involvement are correlated to false confidence.

In active learning, students increase their exploration of the material, meaning they have more questions and struggles. These students reported that they had less confidence in their knowledge; the students who used passive learning reported they learned 9% more from their lectures. However, active learning resulted in higher test grades because the effort needed for active learning often leads to increased comprehension.

In an article from former math teacher and current Vice President of Content Creation at MIND Research Institute, Nigel Nisbetwrote about how he used to utilize passive learning to teach his students. He found that his students tuned out of his lectures and were uninterested. Since then, he transitioned to active learning in the classroom by assigning math games where students analyze puzzles and change their perspectives to solve the problem. After doing so, his students became more engaged and test scores went up. Although active learning seems intimidating, it is proven by these studies to be more effective.

When to Use Active and Passive Learning

Although active learning is proven to yield better results, passive learning is still useful when done correctly.

Passive learning is best suited for students who are willing to put in extra time. This study type can be successful when a learner self studies a course, book, or online lectures. Active learning is best for students who want to find new solutions and apply the content to the real world. It is easily suited for group environments, scientific research, or difficult courses.

Students can also incorporate both types of studying. Passive learning is well suited for exposing oneself to the content and active learning can then be used to gain deeper understanding. For example, students can write notes from a textbook and then create a condensed study sheet to analyze what information is most important. To review, they can briefly read over their notes to refresh the information in their minds and then spend the rest of their time solving practice problems.

Both methods have their pros and cons, but in general active learning is correlated with better grades and increased knowledge.



Reuell, Peter. “Study Shows That Students Learn More When Taking Part in Classrooms That Employ Active-Learning Strategies.” Harvard Gazette, Harvard Gazette, 5 Sept. 2019,

Nisbet, Nigel. “Active vs. Passive: The Science of Learning.” Active vs. Passive: The

Science of Learning,