Active Learning in a Passive Environment
March 27, 2019

Traditionally most education involves passive learning rather than active learning. The instructor lectures provide lecture slides or show a video to a class. In these examples, education is directed towards students who are expected to absorb the information that is presented. Students are set up for material to wash over them, having it stick where it will.

What we have is the day in the life of a student; receive information, do the work, then take a test demonstrating what has been retained. Information is presented one way, from instructor to student. Questions are encouraged but they are often done in a full classroom where students are uncomfortable being wrong.

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Information does go back to the instructor, but it does so in the form of an exam showing what has been absorbed over the full lesson. This works well for some students and not so well for others.

Schools use this tried and true method because it allows instructors to control the flow of learning in a classroom. This benefits a school where teachers have similar classes, at the same grade level for example, and each needs to go over roughly the same information in the same amount of time.

For factory-based learning, this is a good formula. The challenge is, what happens when simply receiving information does not work for a student? Is there something a student can do to achieve better education?

Students need to engage in active learning; they can do so even in a passive learning environment. 

Active Learning in a Passive Environment - The instructor must provide students information that will improve their education.

Active learning involves a student in their own academic progress. Active learners seek out information and prepare themselves for learning ahead of time. These students have learned that a small investment in time early on pays large dividends down the road. Transitioning from passive to active learning does take effort, but that work pays off in time.

Comparing academics to athletics may help students see the benefit. In athletics, particularly team sports, coaches rely on phrases such as “Keep your head on a swivel!”

Keeping your head moving back and forth, paying attention to the ball and those around you, keeps you actively engaged in the game. Tracking the action allows an athlete to better see a route that allows for success.

The moment an athlete loses track is the moment they fail. To prevent failure, it is common to hear a coach yelling “Heads up!” “Keep your head in the game!” “Eyes on the ball!” Coaches use these as ways to keep an athlete’s attention. If at any time someone stares off into space during a game, the team will suffer.

A classroom is the academic playing field. For teachers, it might be a little disruptive, particularly to other classes, to use a coach’s whistle and yelling is generally frowned upon. It is up to students to be active and involved in the material.

This is something a student has control over. Once students see they have control, they need to see how that effort will benefit them. As students see the benefit of “keeping their head on a swivel,” there will be more engagement, which will lead to academic success.

Active Learning in a Passive Environment - The instructor must provide students information that will improve their education.

Here are five things a student can do to be an active learner in a traditional school environment:

  • Read ahead

Reading ahead allows a student to see the material before it is presented. There will be terms and concepts a student does not understand, but some of the material will make sense ahead of time. Students can get comfortable with the things they know and be better prepared for the things they will truly learn.

  • Ask yourself questions about the material

Having read ahead, identify material that will need additional work. Use sticky notes to pinpoint the information that needs clarification. Try to identify what the instructor might go over in a lecture or what might be in a video that supports the material. Use what you have read to anticipate what might be on the exam.

  • Use study groups

Students who are in the same class will see things a little differently. Talk with friends about what was discussed and get different perspectives on what the material means. Having more than one point of view is a great way to explore information.

  • Make Google your study buddy

These are 21st century students. Getting information online is a critical skill for education and the working world. Googling phrases and concepts will provide information from many different sources and a different perspective than the study group. Use these tools early and often.

  • Be brave and ask questions during the lecture

Asking questions during class time is not always easy. No one wants to be wrong or seem like they do not have the answer. Here is an interesting thought; if a student does not know what the teacher is talking about, it is likely others do not know as well. Being brave and asking questions for clarification may very well make that student a hero.

Being an active learner allows a student to see connections they might not otherwise identify as being passive. This process requires effort. Unfortunately, that is not something most students want to hear. It is however a process that will make learning easier and make information more relevant.

Getting students to see that is the goal. Active learning helps a student understand what they are learning as opposed to simply memorizing what is needed for the test.

For most students, a primary concern is what the grade will be. This is backward thinking. The process of learning leads to understanding. Understanding is then demonstrated through exams and projects. Instructors use grading rubrics to measure understanding and how it is displayed. Grades are a result, not a destination for your child’s education.

The instructor must provide students information that will improve their education.

For 25 years Grade Power Learning has been helping students reach their academic potential with uniquely developed programs that make a real difference in the way that children approach their learning. With Grade Power Learning, better grades are just the beginning.

Check out the Grade Power Learning Elk Grove and their newest location El Dorado Hills website for details on parent seminars for this and other topics. has a huge resource of tutoring providers. To find out more, visit the Tutoring Category. You can also read more of the Education Category blog post.

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