Impact of Active Versus Passive Learning Approaches on Student Academic Performance

Split scenario with plants and lab items on the left and drawing of a plant on the right

The conversation between active and passive learning approaches has been ongoing, with educators and researchers examining which method yields better academic outcomes for students. Active learning involves engaging students directly in the learning process through activities, discussions, and problem-solving tasks. In contrast, passive learning is characterized by a more traditional approach where students receive information from the instructor through lectures and note-taking without much interaction. Understanding the impact of these approaches on student academic performance helps educators, school leaders, and policymakers make better decisions to enhance educational outcomes.

💡 Lessons learnt: The best theory is inspired by practice

Comparing Cognitive Outcomes in Active and Passive Learning

Passive Learning

Passive learning is characterized by traditional methods such as lectures, where students primarily receive information without engaging in interactive activities. Students are often considered passive recipients of knowledge, absorbing content through listening and note-taking. This method is usually efficient for delivering large amounts of information to many students at once and is commonly used in large lecture halls and foundational courses. It's implementation comes with benefits such as:

Structured Content Delivery:

Passive learning provides a clear and structured delivery of content, which can be beneficial for students in understanding and organizing foundational knowledge. This is particularly useful in subjects requiring a lot of theoretical knowledge, such as in introductory courses where the foundational concepts are crucial (Michel, Cater, & Varela, 2009).

Efficiency in Large Classes:

In large lecture settings, passive learning can be more efficient for delivering information to many students simultaneously. This method ensures that all students receive the same information at the same time, which is be particularly effective in large introductory courses (Wingfield & Black, 2005).

Perception of Learning:

Some studies indicate that students perceive passive learning as more comfortable and less cognitively demanding, which can lead to a higher sense of immediate satisfaction and perceived learning. Deslauriers et al. (2019) found that while students in active learning environments learned more, they felt like they learned less due to the increased cognitive effort required (Deslauriers et al., 2019).

Positive Outcomes in Certain Contexts

In contexts where rote memorization is necessary, such as in medical and law education, passive learning through lectures and repetitive review is beneficial. Mussell and Husmann (2020) noted that medical students preferred auditory study strategies like rewatching lectures, which helped in the retention of complex information (Mussell & Husmann, 2020).

Cognitive Load Management:

Passive learning helps manage the cognitive load by allowing students to absorb information at a steady pace without the additional pressure of active engagement. This is beneficial in learning environments where the material is highly dense and complex (Ali & Saif, 2023).

Active Learning

In contrast, active learning involves a more hands-on approach where students participate in the learning process through discussions, problem-solving, and collaborative activities. This encourages critical thinking and allows students to apply concepts in practical scenarios, often leading to deeper understanding and retention of material. Active learning strategies include group work, interactive simulations, and peer teaching, which foster a more engaging and dynamic classroom environment. It's impact on student outcomes include:

Enhanced Memory and Cognitive Skills

Research shows that active learning enhances memory by allowing students to control their learning experience. This control leads to better retention through distinct sensorimotor associations and elaborative encoding (Markant et al., 2016)

Higher Order Cognitive Skills

A systematic review of healthcare professions education found that active learning techniques are more effective than passive methods in developing higher-order cognitive skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving. Out of 69 studies reviewed, 84% supported active learning to enhance these skills (Harris & Bacon, 2019)

Student Preferences and Performance

In an undergraduate science course, students significantly preferred peer-led seminars over traditional lectures. This preference was accompanied by higher examination scores, indicating that students not only prefer but also perform better with active learning methods (Minhas et al., 2012)

Perceived vs. Actual Learning

A study examining student perceptions of learning found that students in active classrooms felt they learned less, despite actually learning more compared to those in passive classrooms. This discrepancy is attributed to the increased cognitive effort required in active learning, which students may misinterpret as less effective learning (Deslauriers et al., 2019)

Case Studies

Case-Based Learning in Higher Education

At the College of Wooster, the use of case-based learning was assessed for its impact on student knowledge, attitudes, and engagement. The study found that while active learning did not always result in greater knowledge gains compared to passive learning, it did lead to different types of learning gains. Students were better able to recall information and understand theoretical concepts, enhancing their overall educational experience (Krain, 2016).

Meta-Analysis of K-12 Settings

A comprehensive meta-analysis investigating the impact of active learning on K-12 students demonstrated significant positive effects on academic achievement and learning retention. The analysis of 398 studies revealed that active learning substantially increased students' academic performance and retention of material compared to traditional teacher-led instruction (Özgür, 2023).

Active Learning in STEM Courses

A meta-analysis by Freeman et al. (2014) documented that active learning in STEM courses led to an average increase in examination scores by about 6%. Additionally, traditional lecturing increased failure rates by 55% compared to active learning methods. This study highlighted that active learning is particularly effective in small classes but benefits all class sizes (Freeman et al., 2014).


Adiutor means "helper" - we do just that, by taking a load of your school administration and helping you focus on what matters most: the kids.


Michel, N., Cater, J., & Varela, O. E. (2009). Active versus passive teaching styles: An empirical study of student learning outcomes. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 20, 397-418. Markant, D., Ruggeri, A., Gureckis, T., & Xu, F. (2016). Enhanced memory as a common effect of active learning. Mind, Brain, and Education, 10, 142-152.Harris, N. A., & Bacon, C. (2019). Developing cognitive skills through active learning: A systematic review of health care professions. Athletic Training Education Journal. Minhas, P. S., Ghosh, A., & Swanzy, L. (2012). The effects of passive and active learning on student preference and performance in an undergraduate basic science course. Anatomical Sciences Education, 5. Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116, 19251-19257. Ashraf, S. M. A. (2022). Impacts of active learning on students’ academic performance at undergraduate level zoology classes. BL College Journal.Krain, M. (2016). Putting the learning in case learning? The effects of case-based approaches on student knowledge, attitudes, and engagement. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 27, 131-153. Özgür, T. (2023). Active learning improves academic achievement and learning retention in K-12 settings: A meta-analysis. i-manager's Journal on School Educational Technology.Hacisalihoglu, G., Stephens, D., Johnson, L., & Edington, M. (2018). The use of an active learning approach in a SCALE-UP learning space improves academic performance in undergraduate General Biology. PLoS ONE, 13. Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 8410-8415.White, P., Larson, I., Styles, K., Yuriev, E., Evans, D. J. R., Rangachari, P. K., ... & Exintaris, B. (2016). Adopting an active learning approach to teaching in a research-intensive higher education context transformed staff teaching attitudes and behaviours. Higher Education Research & Development, 35, 619-633. Talekar, P., & Fernandes, A. (2016). Attitude of teachers towards the use of active learning technique. Indian journal of applied research, 6. Abdelsattar, A., & Labib, W. (2019). Active learning in engineering education: Teaching strategies and methods of overcoming challenges. Proceedings of the 2019 8th International Conference on Educational and Information Technology.Vodovozov, V., Raud, Z., & Petlenkov, E. (2021). Challenges of active learning in a view of integrated engineering education. Education Sciences. Serban, C., & Vescan, A. (2020). Towards an evaluation process around active learning based methods. 2020 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE), 1-7.Ali, I., & Saif, M. (2023). The impact of learning strategies on academic performance of transnational higher education students (TNE). Journal of Arts & Social Sciences.Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(39), 19251-19257. Michel, N., Cater, J., & Varela, O. E. (2009). Active versus passive teaching styles: An empirical study of student learning outcomes. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 20(4), 397-418. Mussell, J. C., & Husmann, P. R. (2020). Rethinking student study strategies. The FASEB Journal, 34. Wingfield, S. S., & Black, G. S. (2005). Active versus passive course designs: The impact on student outcomes. The Journal of Education for Business, 81(2), 119-123.