Active Versus Passive Learning

In "The Dangers of Fluent Lectures', I think Colleen Flaherty extracted the correct message from a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the difference between how much students have learned and how much students think they have learned: "A study says smooth-talking professors can lull students into thinking they've learned more than they actually have -- potentially at the expense of active learning." Instead of focusing on the difference between strictly didactic lectures (passive learning) and those that allow students to work in groups, hold discussions and solve problems on their own (active learning), Flaherty sees that the difference really lies in how much students think they really have learned. Students can first be given the opportunity to solve problems on their own before being provided the answer or students can be spoon-fed. In the former case, students receive a more honest assessment of what they know, and more importantly, the realization that they need to learn. In the latter, students can easily imagine that they know the material without recognizing that the lecturer did all the work.

It is the discomfort in active learning that probably pushes the student to work harder and learn. On the other hand, it is the comfort in having the solutions handed to them that perhaps leads students to overestimate how much they know and how much they can really do on their own. And the interesting result of the study is that scores are indeed inversely proportional to feelings:

Above copied from
Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Louis Deslauriers, Logan S. McCarty, Kelly Miller, Kristina Callaghan, Greg Kestin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Sep 2019, 201821936; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1821936116

Traditional classes that make use of chalk boards and lectures in colleges should not be confused with the "passive" version of learning in the study. What makes learning "passive" is when "a smooth-talking professor lulls students into thinking they've learned more than they actually have."


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