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Active Learning is often confused with Discovery-Based learning or Inquiry-Based Learning. However, active learning is not only a wholly unique concept, in many ways, it is also a foundational aspect of learning. Ultimately, all learning is either passive or active. Passive learning occurs, when the learner receives knowledge, without having to interact with that knowledge in any way, whereas active learning occurs when the learner must interact with this knowledge. Most learning skills can be easily broken down across this line, for example:

Passive Learning:                     Active Learning: 

Reading                                         Writing

Listening                                       Speaking

watching                                       Acting

Active Learning is not a high yield strategy according to research and a teacher’s goal should not be to maximize active learning. Passive learning skills are important and need to be developed. However, a quick examination of the literature shows active learning is superior to passive learning, in a generalized context. For example, a meta-study on university students, by Freeman and et al, in 2014, showed an effect size (ES)  of .47. This is by no means a large ES, but it is higher than Hattie’s reported ES for Inquiry-Based Learning and Teaching to Learning Styles. Interestingly, this study also showed an extremely large reduction in the number of students who failed, indeed, failing grades dropped by 150%. While this meta-study may appear to be less useful because it was performed on older students, it is currently the only meta-study on the topic. It is also important to remember that studies on older students, tend to have lower impact sizes. Moreover, it is likely that highly motivated students in a university setting would have lower deviations in achievement, than students in an elementary class.

It is important to understand the difference between passive learning and active learning for two reasons. Firstly, when teaching the curriculum, it is important to remember that students, will likely benefit from ensuring that they have time spent using some active learning. For example, it is likely not enough for students to just read, listen, or watch something. If we want students to remember that curriculum, they need to have a chance to respond to that information, whether by speaking, writing, or acting.

Secondly, it is important to understand the difference between passive and active learning because it can be a confounding factor for education studies. For example, Teaching to Learning Styles has an ES of .31. However, by trying to teach to different learning styles, it is likely that teachers are increasing the number of active learning strategies unintentionally as well. This, in turn, leaves the question, of how do we separate the impact of active learning from the actually being studied factor. We cannot just subtract the ES of active learning from the actually studied teaching pedagogy. Active Learning, for example, has a larger ES than Teaching to Learning Styles. All of this is not to say that teaching to learning styles has no effect other than via active learning, but rather Active Learning can be a confounding factor when examining education research.  

Written by Nathaniel Hansford



S, Freeman, et al. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America. Retrieved from <>. 

J, Hattie. (2017).  Hattie Ranking: 252 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement. Visible Learning. Corwin. Retrieved from <>.

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