by Kusali Gamage

What is your approach to teaching? Do you promote active/engaged learning or passive learning in your classroom? How do you decide which way to go? In the academic community, passive and active learning has been well defined. Active learning holds students responsible for their own learning where students actively engaged in the learning process through discussions/projects, problem solving, concept mapping, role playing, debates, etc. (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). In passive learning, the professor transfers knowledge to the students where students passively receive and internalize through memorization (Boyer, 1990; Stewart-Wingfield & Black, 2005). Passive learning includes traditional lectures, power points, pictures, reading and videos. Given the obvious differences between the two approaches it is not surprising that many educators believe active learning is more effective than passive learning. On the contrary, we all have experienced and witnessed great learning moments through passive learning approaches like listening to a great speech, watching a good film or reading a good book.

Then why can’t passive learning be as effective as active learning? Is it really the approach itself or is it more to do with how you use it in your classroom? A recent study by Todd Zakrajsek (2016) pointed out that it is not the approach itself that’s important for powerful learning rather it depends on a few basic conditions: 1) does the information hold value (e.g. material will be on a test, related to real life etc.), 2) is the material understandable, 3) is there opportunity to practice or reflect, and 4) physical and emotional readiness to learn.  Think of a traditional 50 minute lecture where the professor primarily lectures and there is little to no time for students to reflect or practice new concepts presented. In this case students skip the process of reflection, which allows them to practice recalling the information, an important aspect of learning (Butler, 2010). Even though traditional lectures are very efficient in terms of covering a large amount of content in a relatively short time it is not effective when the above mentioned conditions are not met. Similarly if you use an active learning approach such as asking students to interpret a graph and then tell your students they will not be tested on that material. Here the activity does not hold any value therefore, it is very unlikely students will learn or retain the information.

After all, educators want their students to maximize learning through productive classroom experience.  Understanding your audience and constantly adjusting your teaching approach by focusing on the learning outcomes is more important than the method of delivery.  If you are not sure how much passive or active learning should be included in your classroom – take the middle path, combine both passive and active learning, assess student learning outcomes and revise your approach to match your teaching style with students learning preferences.

Here are few easy steps that I’ve been using to make a passive lecture more engaging (based on Bonwell, 2000):

1) Start with a short lecture- break the 50min power point presentation into 2-3 segments.  Keep in mind that adding active learning will require additional time. This means you may have to cut down on some of the content and focus more on the concepts. One must take caution when reducing the content particularly in introductory classes without compromising too much of the base knowledge.  One way to get around this is by assigning reading/writing in preparation for the class activity. This will allow you to skip the initial lecture and start with an activity (#3) followed by a mini lecture to review difficult concepts. This approach will save a lot of time and students will be more engaged as they already know what to expect in class.

2) Pause for reflection: after explaining a new or complex concept stop presenting and allow students time to think.  Ask if anyone needs clarification.

3). Include an activity that relates to the topic presented.  Allow students to work directly with the material (e.g. interpret images/graphs, calculations etc) or do a Think-Pair-Share: Pose a question and have students work individually and then compare their responses with a partner and synthesize a solution to share with the entire class.

4). Mini lecture – go over the answers of the activity and review any difficult material.

5). Reflection –At the end of the class give students a few minutes to consider what was learned from the experience.  Have students summarize major concepts covered in the class or write one or two multiple choice questions and present to class for discussion (Bonwell, 2000). This will get the students into the habit of linking and constructing meaning from their experiences (Costa and Kallick, 2008).

Bonwell, C., (2000). Retrieved January 22, 2017 from:

Bonwell, C. & Eison, J. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. Information Analysis – ERIC Clearinghouse Products. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from:

Boyer, E. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered. New York: The Carnegie foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

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.

Costa, A. and B. Kallick (2008). In Costa and Kallick, (Ed.), Learning and Leading with habits of mind: 16 essential characteristics for success (Ch. 12). Learning Through Reflection, Alexandria, VA: ASCD
Retrieved January 22, 2017 from:

Stewart-Wingfield, S., & Black, G. S. (2005). Active versus passive course designs:
The impact on student outcomes. Journal Small Business Instutite® National Proceedings
Vol. 33, No. 1 Winter, 2009 of Education for Business, 81(2), 119-125.

Zakrajsek. T (2016). All Learning is an Active Process: Rethinking Active/Passive Learning Debate. Retrieved January 22, 2017 from: