Active vs Passive learning: What’s the difference?

Students learn in different ways. There is no one size fits all approach. Some learn better when they do things on their own, while some learn better through lectures and assignments. This difference in learning brings us to our topic of discussion, which talks about Active and Passive Learning and the differences between the two.

Before understanding how the two approaches are different from one another, let us first discuss the elements of these individual learning styles. Only when you know their details will you be able to appreciate their differences better. So, let’s get started. 

What is active learning?

Active learning is a learning process that requires students to actively participate in the lesson. When a student is in active learning mode, they are better engaged with the task at hand. It is a student-centered approach in which the teacher encourages students to think, question, analyze, and understand the topic of discussion by performing hands-on activities that promote critical thinking. It helps teachers assess the comprehension level of every student through frequent feedback during the activity. 

Active learning is more about doing than listening. When students try to do things on their own, they can grasp concepts better, and also understand the basis behind those concepts. As there is no right or wrong answer in this approach, students do not hesitate to discuss what’s on their minds and utilize divergent thinking to find solutions to their problems. 

What is passive learning?

As the name suggests, passive learning is less about hands-on learning and more about passively acquiring and internalizing information shared by a teacher in the classroom. It is a teacher-centered approach where the teacher is an expert and shares their knowledge on the subject with students through traditional means of classroom learning. Students listen to information, take notes, and learn them for assessments.

The description of passive learning may prompt you to think that passive learning is similar to reflective learning, which is the third learning style. But it is not. Reflective learning enables students to feel, think, explore, and examine what they have learned in the classroom. Reflection does not entail group activities. In fact, it is more about a personal way of trying to reflect on learning and figuring out how it is applicable in real life. 

How is active learning different from passive learning?

1. Classroom environment

Classroom environment

There is a major difference in the classroom environment in both approaches. In an active learning classroom, the students can be seen actively participating in the classroom, talking and discussing with each other, doing hands-on activities, and using their creativity and critical thinking skills.

On the other hand, students in a passive learning classroom can be observed quietly listening to their teacher, watching a presentation, taking notes, and trying to internally comprehend the lesson. 

2. Strategies adopted

Strategies adopted

As active and passive learning are two different approaches, teachers must use different strategies to achieve one learning environment. Teachers use hands-on activities, discussions, laboratory exercises, games, role-playing, debates, brainstorming, etc., to facilitate active learning in the classroom. In a passive learning environment, teachers adopt strategies such as lectures, pre-recorded videos, presentations, and textbook learning.

3. Teacher’s role

Teacher's role

The role of a teacher in facilitating active learning is that of a facilitator who directs students on how to get involved in the task at hand, solve their queries, and understand where student learning stands before and after the activity. Since students play the main role in active learning, the teacher merely supports the learning process. 

Talking about passive learning, a teacher’s role is of primary importance as they are the ones who deliver information and share their knowledge with the students. The role of students is restricted to quietly listening to the lectures and imbibing as much information as possible.

4. Skills required

Skills required

The skills required to perform in an active learning classroom and a passive learning classroom are also different. When students are involved in active learning, they utilize their high-order thinking skills along with their creativity, critical thinking skills, public speaking skills, problem-solving skills, decision-making skills, and so on. Active learning requires divergent thinking to come up with unique ideas and solutions. 

The skills required for passive learning include excellent listening skills, writing skills, note-taking skills, organization skills, and defining/ describing appropriate answers to given questions. Passive learning involves low-order thinking skills and promotes convergent thinking, which allows students to give correct answers to questions without using other skills required for active learning.

5. Knowledge retention

Knowledge retention

Doing things on your own helps in retaining relevant information for a long time. Hence, active learning is good for creating a long-lasting memory of a concept in the minds of students. When students actively participate and engage in an activity, they can remember the essence of the topic and do not have to rely on memorizing. 

In the case of passive learning, knowledge retention is comparatively low because the level of student engagement declines with time. Lectures are often long and monotonous. Students tend to get bored after some time and cannot absorb as much information as they can at the beginning of the lecture. 

6. Knowledge sharing

Knowledge sharing

The amount of knowledge shared in active learning activities is less compared to passive learning. This holds true because teachers must give ample time to students so they can get involved in the activity and use their skills to get a hold on the topic. Shifting focus quickly from one activity to another merely to finish the curriculum will render the efforts in vain. In passive learning, teachers can deliver a large amount of information at a time as no activities are involved and students are all ears to listen to the teacher and take in the shared information.

Active learning vs Passive learning: Which is better?

While looking at the differences between active and passive learning we can infer that active learning is better than passive learning in terms of student engagement and retention of knowledge because these are the sought-after goals when teaching students. However, one must not forget that active learning is time-consuming. It is a slow process and may make lesson completion a challenge. Additionally, it doesn’t help in developing important listening, writing, and organizing skills, which are also necessary as kids step into the work front. 

Therefore, to derive the advantages of both approaches, teachers must employ the right mix of active and passive learning in a classroom environment so students can reap the benefits of both equally.

Active learning vs Passive learning: Comparison chart

Active Learning

Passive Learning

Primary Role



Classroom Environment



Student Engagement


Comparatively low

Strategies Adopted

Hands-on activities
Laboratory exercises
Brainstorming, etc.

Pre-recorded videos
Textbook learning

Teacher’s Role

Facilitates the learning process

Commands the learning process

Skills Required

High-order thinking skills
Critical thinking skills
Public speaking skills
Problem-solving skills
Decision-making skills

Listening skills
Writing skills
Note-taking skills
Organizing skills
Defining/ describing skills

Knowledge Retention



Knowledge Sharing

Less information can be shared in a given time

More information can be shared in the same time

In Conclusion

Active learning and passive learning have their own advantages and disadvantages. Incorporating them at the right time and for the right lesson will allow students to process information and comprehend new content in the best possible manner.

It is also important for teachers to identify active and passive learners in their classes. This is crucial because not all students fare well with the active learning approach. Some are naturally inclined toward passive learning and do well only when given the opportunity to do so. Tweaking teaching methodology to match a student’s learning preference can maximize their learning potential and help them learn better.

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