Active vs. Passive Teaching

Take your lectures to the next level: Activate your students!

Active vs. Passive Teaching
Photo by Zach Wear on Unsplash

Take your lectures to the next level

Lecturing is a classic educational mode, but one with some serious flaws. As Marcia Keyser points out in Active Learning and Cooperative Learning, student attention fades during lectures, and lectures tend to favor auditory learners (although lectures that incorporate visual elements can be just as lacking in engagement factors).

In a lecture, the traditional mode of engagement is through note-taking, which few students are proficient with. Advanced training in note-taking methods can be a powerful tool for students who experience lecture-based learning, and note-taking skills should be considered fundamental to a student’s education.

However, note-taking is only one area of possible engagement, and its requirement for advanced training precludes it as a useful primary technique in many situations.

Active learning, on the other hand, is a wide range of techniques for getting students to engage with the material — techniques presented as part of the lesson by the educator.

This has the benefit of incurring little friction on the part of the learners, since they only need to follow whatever active structure is presented.

Active learning methods can take many forms, from experiential learning to problem-solving exercises, to writing tasks. Peer teaching, role-playing, group work, and independent study are also common aspects of an active learning environment (Keyser, 2000).

And yet, lectures stick around for a reason. On one hand, they are one of the simplest forms of education to prepare for. The presentation of a lecture can vary greatly, and charisma, speaking ability, and subject matter can all have an impact on student engagement.

On the other hand, this type of lesson provides students with large blocks of potentially valuable material. We’ve all watched plenty of YouTube lectures that mix multimedia for visual engagement, but we’ve also probably just as frequently enjoyed YouTube videos, or even plain old podcasts, that are essentially just talking heads, or running monologues on an interesting subject.

Given this, it seems clear that lectures are not “bad,” but rather that they have a specific use case: subject matter already interesting to a student.

The longer the lecture, the more likely the student will start missing pieces of the material.

Therefore, shorter lecture styles are generally to be preferred, especially when one-off learning situations arise. Keyser herself points out that short “lectures–5 to 10 min–are still used to introduce the basic steps of a new skill” and that those short lectures might then be “followed by active or cooperative exercises” (Keyser, 2000, p. 38).

One of the interesting points to note regarding lectures is that they can be entertaining.

As I pointed out earlier, a great orator can engage an audience’s attention for far longer than one who is simply reading from printed notes. Part of that skill-set is the ability to wield thespian charisma: to act out, to tell jokes, to fold the audience into an oral narrative.

And yet, while this may engage the audience, may even fire deeper interest in the subject matter, it is still a method for passively loading information into students, rather than having them experience information as an active process.

One of the best methods, therefore, is a mixed one.

A lecture of twenty to thirty minutes, broken up two or three times by active participatory practices, will be inherently more engaging than a static 30-minute lecture. This also leaves time (in a standard 45–60 minute lesson period) for the teacher to engage the class in a cooperative learning exercise, or offer an extended Q&A period. Each question that arises during a lesson is just another opportunity for your students to learn.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider subscribing!

Keyser, M. W. (2000). Active learning and cooperative learning: Understanding the difference and using both styles effectively. Research Strategies, 17(1), 35–44.

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