Like many topics in education, the debate between “Active Learning” and “Passive Learning” relies more on philosophy than science and uses the word “learning” when what is actually being discussed is teaching. “Active learning” and “passive learning” are, in point of fact, defined and acknowledged as “instructional approaches.” And the arguments as to why one is better than the other are grounded firmly in the goal of the teacher rather than how learning happens.

We routinely ask educators in our professional development work, “How would you define ‘learning?’” The answers, invariably, talk about acquiring new skills or knowledge, and about being able to apply the knowledge. Those definitions are not incorrect, but they don’t explain how learning happens, or why Active Learning or Passive Learning would be preferable and for whom.

The science of learning clarifies that learning is a biological process. It is the making and strengthening of connections among neurons in neural networks in our brains. When we recall something we have learned, we are reactivating those connections across those neural networks. We do not pull memories out of a storage vault, we reactivate neural connections.

Why does this matter? It matters because ALL LEARNING IS ACTIVE. If learning is taking place, the brain is building new connections and/or strengthening existing connections. If the brain is not actively constructing connections, there is no learning.

“Passive Learning” is “Active Instruction”

Proponents of “Passive Learning” as an instructional approach typically cite several advantages, here summarized from a blog on Medium:

  • Makes it possible to convey large quantities of information to a large number of learners quickly.
  • Lectures, lecture notes, handouts, audiovisual media, etc, can be systematically planned, prepared in advance and reused later.
  • Affords the teacher greater control of the classroom, the course delivery and the students.
  • Gives students the freedom to absorb information on their own terms.
  • Exposes learners to new material in a structured and engaging format.
  • Gives the teacher the ability to clarify course material without distractions.

The benefits clearly accrue predominantly to the teacher rather than the learner, with the approach providing more control over what information is conveyed, and enhancing teacher efficiency. While the fourth bullet point refers to giving students the freedom to absorb information on their own terms, one has to question whether systematic preparation in advance and the “greater control” of the classroom are really designed to encourage students to question or challenge. We suspect that, for most students, it gives them not the freedom to absorb information on their own terms, but the challenge to absorb information as best they can, given that the information is provided at a pace they can’t control.

“Passive Learning” has long been the traditional mode of education and it has inherent limitations. The approach encourages memorization and taking information at “face value” and reinforces the idea that the teacher knows everything the student needs to know and the student simply needs to wait for the teacher to provide the information. It ignores the principle that new knowledge and information must be connected to what a student knows (existing neural networks), resulting in more meaningful and deeper learning. It ignores what the science of learning tells us about what makes strong neural connections that are easier to reactivate later, resulting in more enduring learning.

Active Learning

The instructional approach referred to in education as “Active Learning” typically engages learners in activities that require them to participate, analyze, synthesize, and create knowledge actively. It encourages hands-on experiences, problem-solving, collaboration, and critical thinking. However, when it leaves all choice and direction to the learner, it risks becoming an exercise in appealing to students’ interests, ignoring what we believe they should be learning, and simply makes students happier rather than smarter and more capable.

Still, when Active Learning” involves multisensory experiences and promotes the integration of information across various cognitive domains, it strengthens memory consolidation and retention, allowing learners to better recall and apply knowledge.

”Active Learning” activities also explicitly foster higher-order thinking skills, such as analysis, evaluation, and synthesis. Through problem-solving exercises, debates, and hands-on experiments, students develop the ability to think critically and independently, making connections between concepts and applying their learning in real-world contexts.

And “Active Learning” also encourages metacognition, enabling learners to understand and regulate their own thinking processes, skills they need to make the transition to being independent learners. By reflecting on their learning strategies and monitoring their understanding, students become more self-directed and autonomous in their learning journey.

All Learning is Active – So What?

From a learning perspective, both instructional approaches can lead to the physical changes in the brain that mark learning, so the question becomes, perhaps, which is better suited to creating the greatest change, the most efficiently and in ways that make the information more easily retrieved when needed. And there is undoubtedly a role for a variety of instructional approaches to optimize learning for students.

The flipped classroom model exemplifies the integration of active and passive learning. Students receive instructional content through pre-recorded lectures or readings outside of class, allowing them to digest information at their own pace. Classroom time is then dedicated to engaging in active learning activities, such as discussions, problem-solving, and collaborative projects, where students can apply their knowledge and engage in higher-order thinking.

Learner Is the One Who Learns, Regardless of Whether Teaching is Going On

Every learner has learning abilities, also known as cognitive abilities or cognitive skills. Cognitive skills include many different mental processes that are important in learning. Some of the most important include attention, visual processing, auditory processing, sensory integration, memory skills, executive functions, logic and reasoning, and higher-order executive functions, such as planning and collaboration. Cognitive skills are the “how” of learning. We all have cognitive strengths and weaknesses, but it is vital to understand that cognitive skills can be developed.

This is important in the debate between the two models called Passive Learning and Active Learning, particularly insofar as Active Learning requires students to take more of a leadership role in their education journey.

Just because students have the opportunity to take a leadership role in their education journeys does not mean that they have the capacity to do so. And the skills that more engaging learning experiences are designed to develop may not emerge simply because external constraints are removed. While every student possesses inherent curiosity and a natural desire to explore and discover, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and other higher-level skills won’t simply happen because the system creates space for them. Higher-order thinking may have been stifled in traditional models that focused on memorization and measuring learning with standardized tests, but it can emerge if students have the underlying cognitive skills that are required for higher-order thinking. Empowering students with the cognitive skills required for the modern era entails understanding that all learning is active, that the science of learning can help us choose the right kinds of instructional approaches for different subject matter and different students, and that cognitive development is essential in creating a holistic and transformative educational experience.

About the authors


Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management where she received a Contribution to Learning Excellence Award. She received a Nepris Trailblazer Award for sharing her knowledge, skills and passion for the neuroscience of learning in classrooms around the country. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University. Betsy is co-author of the new book, “Your Child Learns Differently, Now What?


Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of the BrainWare Learning Company. Over the past decade, he championed efforts to bring the science of learning, comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment, within reach of every person, and it all started with one very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, Roger Stark pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool, based on over 50 years of trial and error through clinical collaboration. He also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online anywhere in the world. For more, follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari. Roger is co-author of the new book, “Your Child Learns Differently, Now What?