What is Passive Learning?

Passive learning isn’t a way students can learn. It’s a teaching strategy, and, as you’ve probably heard, not a very good one when compared to strategies that use active learning. However, it’s a core part of many classes because, in spite of the negatives, passive learning meets real needs. The definition you’re about to read helps identify the parts of passive learning you can keep and those that need to be improved.

What is Passive Learning? 

Passive learning doesn’t have a wide variety of examples, in spite of how common it is in education. If passive learning is viewed as a teaching strategy in an educational setting, from beginning to end, it might look like these situations.

  • An educator verbalizes information to students and checks if they know it at a later date, without providing additional learning experiences specific to that information.
  • Students complete a reading assignment and are under formal or informal expectations to understand what they read.
  • An educator verbalizes instructions to students and expects them to follow the instructions exactly.
  • Students complete a lab by following step-by-step instructions and must write a report to show their understanding of the lab concepts.
  • Students watch a video and are given a quiz immediately after.
  • An educator works through example problems on the board and then gives students a graded assignment to complete similar problems.

Do you notice the pattern in each situation? Passive learning is being applied when an educator delivers a passive activity and subsequently puts students in a position to demonstrate they learned from the activity, without providing additional learning experiences. Students can learn in these situations, but only some students, some of the time. 

Passive Activities

Passive activities are not the same as passive learning! Most passive class activities can be summed up fairly well by three characteristics:

  1. Communication is one-way. An educator talking at the class is a common example of one-way communication. We will use “at” because it more accurately describes the one-way communication and “class” because the communication isn’t directed at individual students, but all of them at once. In addition to talking, communication can be one-way through other formats such as watching videos, listening to audio, and even reading. Typically, the communication involves the delivery of content, providing instruction, or giving directions.
  2. The educator controls the information and conclusions. First, the educator knows what information they are going to deliver or assign ahead of time. The class receives this prescribed information in a format, order, rate, and scope decided upon by the educator. Second, information delivered to the student isn’t expected, allowed, or encouraged to change between when it was delivered and when emerges from the student. In other words, there is no need to think about it. The educator controls the conclusions by wanting the information to come out in the same way as they put it in. These aren’t necessarily bad characteristics. Sometimes it’s necessary for students to know certain things in a certain way!
  3. A student’s engagement is uncertain. While the activity is taking place, the educator can’t tell if students are engaged because the activity doesn’t set expectations for engagement, an outlet isn’t provided to make it visible, or the educator isn’t in a position to see it. Even if a student is engaged, the student themselves can’t tell whether or not they are thinking about something correctly and are unlikely to independently question their thinking in the first place. At best, an educator can assume some engagement, from some of the students, some of the time.

Passive activities don’t need to be abandoned, but might need rethinking (more below).

The Wheels Come Off

The jump from passive activities to passive learning is where the wheels come off. Learning won’t occur during passive activities (or in any situation) without some type of additional active engagement. Knowledge can’t simply be absorbed. On the inside, engagement would require students to practice metacognition, question their understanding, immediately file and store information, multitask between listening, seeing, and making mental notes, and keep their attention on laser focus. After the passive activity, students might study, memorize, quiz themselves, complete practice questions, reread, or ask questions. These are all more active learning behaviors. Whether the behaviors are seen or unseen, during or after, they are left up to the student. 

Importantly, the educator may picture those behaviors happening and even expect them to occur—even though they aren’t a component of their instruction. This creates the passive learning contradiction.

The Passive Learning Contradiction

Instruction is passive, but active learning is required for success. It’s a contradiction that explains the predictable results of passive learning.

Some students succeed and others fail miserably. They could be identified before a class even begins. Students who are in a difficult position from social and economic factors are less successful in passive learning environments because they are less likely to possess the independent know-how to engage in their own active learning during or after passive instruction.

Students experience anxiety and frustration not knowing how to achieve success and feeling they are disregarded by the educator. They disengage and depending on their age and other factors, act out, close off, or stop coming to class.

Learning is superficial because the simplest form of additional learning students can conquer on their own is memorization. When the educator controls the conclusions, memorization is also all that is expected.

Educators burn-out and don’t understand why some students won’t just learn, yet others ace the class. Those high-fliers keep giving a reason to continue passive learning. They give the idea that students can succeed in that environment, others just don’t choose to. This simply keeps educators doing the same thing and ensures they continue to have students who won’t succeed.

When Passive Learning Works Well

The success of passive learning is also predicted from the mismatch. Passive learning serves very well as the preferred teaching strategy in college weed-out courses. Because students don’t learn much from the typical passive activity of lecture, but they are expected to know everything, only students who already possess skills to actively learn on their own are successful. Students who fail (even if they outwardly blame the class or educator) see others succeeding in the same environment and therefore see themselves as not capable.

A Simple Solution

Passive activities shouldn’t be disregarded. They might become important components of an active learning environment because they are efficient at delivering content. If you’ve identified areas of your class that rely on passive learning, take this initial step toward improvement:

Stop expecting learning from passive activities.

Keep using them if necessary, but add active learning before, during, and after the passive activities to accomplish the learning you once expected students to do on their own.

Apply the Solution

Simply telling yourself students won’t learn from the passive activity can lead to more active solutions. Here are four examples:

1) “Students won’t learn from simply reading the book.”

Solution: I will create a reading guide for students to complete while they read. I will let them use their completed reading guides on a group practice quiz and again on the actual quiz to turn the quizzes into additional learning experiences.

2) “Students won’t learn by repeating procedures from canned labs.”

Solution: I will switch to inquiry-based learning in lab.

3) “Students won’t learn while I stand at the front of the room and deliver content.”

I’ll add a think-pair-share activity for each main concept I explain and provide students with practice questions to complete using their notes. They will review and revise their answers in small groups.

4) “Students won’t know how to follow directions after I explain them.”

I will tell students what they’ll need to accomplish (e.g. create a map, write a paper, complete an experiment) and ask them to write down any questions they have (e.g. What is the map of?; How long is the paper?; Do we work in groups?). I’ll put them in small groups to share their questions and make a comprehensive list. Finally, I will give students the directions (written or orally) and then have them use the directions to develop answers for their own questions.

Each action involves an approach that is less passive for both the students and the educator. They maintain the passive activity to deliver information, but don’t expect learning to result. Instead, they expect learning to result when a student thinks about information during additional active learning activities. The educator takes a more active role to ensure learning by designing those thinking activities and creating an environment where they can occur.


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