Active Learning vs. Passive Learning

The concepts of active versus passive learning as well deep versus surface learning have sparked a serious debate in my head. Although Bloom’s taxonomy, and Dale’s Learning Pyramid hold some truth when it comes to the average student’s learning patterns, I initially felt that this generalization disregards the individual’s characteristics and drives us away from a more personalized system. Looking back on my academic experiences, it isn’t a surprise that most of my learning has been passive: endless hours of lectures, note taking and listening. On my own, I have certainly developed active learning habits such as creating summary sheets, flow charts and I have even tutored my peers prior to exams. But does that mean my concept retention is a reflection of these active learning habits? I highly doubt it. If my 16-year-old sister walked into my room and asked me a question regarding French poetry structure, a concept which I had learned through active learning techniques (e.g presentation, discussion, analysis) and “supposedly” retained, it is very likely that I would not remember. Active learning on its own cannot be a predictor of concept retention. Factors such as practice, time and learning depth must come into play. Additionally, the activities employed in active learning also must be evaluated. Personally speaking, activities such as group problem solving do not help me with concept retention. In my opinion, they are sometimes too disorganized and the different learning speeds of the various students render it difficult for others to keep track of the discussion.

Is it therefore up to the student to find other ways to use passively acquired information to fully grasp the concepts? So now the question is, what pushed me to further explore certain concepts rather than others, thus reaching a level of deep learning? I think that often times, students will resort to surface learning, when the objectives and applications of the material do not align with their “career” interests and when time is limited. It is rare that people will have a natural insatiable appetite for learning without a purpose for that knowledge. To this end, I can whole heartedly testify that after my co-op experience, my appetite for learning certain engineering concepts has increased, solely because I understand its direct application and its importance in my career. But is this a good thing? Does this imply that I have no interest in learning history? Philosophy? Art? Certainly not. And yet, none of these concepts align with my career objectives. Then maybe it’s a matter of personal interest. In this case, does it mean that the real challenge for the educational system involves sparking this interest in students? How would they go about doing this? Certain professors are more gifted than others at imparting material and conveying their sense of excitement to students, but is this sufficient? I decided to mentally brainstorm techniques I would employ to spark this interest and to my surprise, most of them were active learning methods. It is therefore plausible that a circular relationship exists between active learning and deep learning, with an output geared towards encouraging the pupils to develop a personal “passion” for the subjects. The sole condition, in my opinion, is that the active learning techniques better suit the student’s individualized needs.

-G

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