Active vs. Passive Learning: Who’s the Winner?

Active learning is all the rage. To define it for our purposes here, active learning involves hands-on, participatory professional development. For example, it’s the difference between an interactive public speaking workshop in which participants rehearse their presentations and a more passive speech where they sit and listen.

Passive learning has taken it on the chin in recent years. The argument holds that everyone needs to play an active role lest they tune out. I’m not suggesting there is no truth in that; I recall more than one college lecture course when I strained to keep my eyes open.

Still, there are times when—for reasons of time constraints, need for only a certain depth of knowledge, or budget—a passive experience makes sense, if done right.

Presentation woman sticky notes

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Janet Temos offers perspective in an article on Princeton University’s McGraw Center web site, “What is passive learning? (and how to avoid it).” She writes, “It often declares that something or other traditionally associated with education, usually ‘The Lecture,’ is dead, destructive, ineffectual, or otherwise on the waiting list for that pedagogical hospice where old idea (sic) go into hibernation (until someone thinks them up again).” Although her words focus on college students, they can be instructive in a business setting, too.

Counting the Constituents

Prospective clients sometimes contact me asking for media training, which to me means a highly interactive experience. One of my first questions is, how many people are we talking about? If their CEO and COO need an intense session due to a knotty issue on the horizon, that mandates active learning.

In some instances, however, the answer is a dozen workers from varying levels of the company who need some overall skill sharpening. That suggests a more passive seminar (unless they want a program that breaks everybody out into separate individual sessions, but let’s not get too into the weeds here).

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Maybe it’s just a matter of semantics. But being precise with language counts. It matters in cases like this because we’re talking about two distinct organizational needs—the demand for attention to specific C-suite concerns vs. the requirement for general skill building among a larger, less expert cohort. Okay, enough of the rant on what qualifies as media training and what doesn’t.

Please don’t take to the torches and pitchforks just because I’m suggesting that passive learning has value in certain circumstances. I’m not questioning the wisdom, or even the superiority, of active engagement. But that approach is not always practical or desirable. Let’s examine the pluses and minuses of both styles:

Active Advantages
  • It imbues learning more effectively and deeply.
  • The instructor can offer knowledge designed to specifically benefit a small group of participants.
  • Learners can raise their questions and concerns, and address them in depth.
  • Participants get a more personal sense that someone actually cares about their professional development and career advancement.
  • Individuals gain added prestige when colleagues hear they have been selected for the program (of course, jealousy can also rear its ugly head; that one is up to you to solve internally).
Active disadvantages
  • Individuals can feel singled out, sensing that they need remedial attention.
  • Since you can only cram so many people into an active workshop, it is a much more time and resource consuming approach if you need to teach a large team.
  • Everyone’s learning style is different. Some of your C-suite leaders may actually soak up information better by reading or listening passively and taking notes. It’s up to you to study your leaders to determine what format suits each one.
Passive advantages
  • Some individuals may prefer it, feeling that they have a target on their back if singled out for a small group session. This could result in a negative attitude. Not everyone craves the spotlight.
  • Qualified instructors who know how to engage an audience can give large groups the sense that they are involved through such means as smaller group breakouts, Q&A shoutouts, and role playing in the front of the room.
  • It can set a baseline for subsequent active learning sessions. For instance, I’ve initiated some client projects with a seminar for a larger group, then adjourned into one-on-one breakouts with each attendee. This blended learning style really works. I’ve seen it time and again. Something to consider as you put together your company’s professional development regimen for communications and public affairs.
  • With large groups, sometimes there is no choice. If you lack the resources to put everyone through a hands-on experience, a passive approach may be better than doing nothing.
  • Finally, there are times in the everyday business world when you’ve just got to sit and listen. Refining that ability by taking in the intermittent reflective lecture can prove to be a career benefit.
Passive Disadvantages
  • It’s easy for people to mentally check out or not show up at all.
  • Your instructor really needs to be on the ball when it comes to engaging a crowd. Some have the talent; others know only how to drone on, acting as a human sleeping pill.
  • Assessing how each individual has absorbed the necessary knowledge can be challenging.
  • There is a stigma against it in much of today’s learning environment.

A Place for Both Systems

When you break it down as above, it appears that passive learning has as many benefits as drawbacks. This is not to say it is right in most situations, particularly for your C-suite. These folks are highly advanced in their careers. They both expect and deserve personal attention when seeking to extend their professional development.

If, however, you need to bring a larger and less experienced team up to speed—or you have that C-suite executive who simply learns better when studying in a pensive, reflective environment—don’t beat yourself up if part of your program involves a more passive approach.

There is no single best way to organize a professional development curriculum when it comes to your firm’s communications capabilities. Often, a blended methodology works best. Don’t’ fall victim to those consultants who try to tell you otherwise.


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