Learning Part 7: Active vs. Passive Learning

I don’t know if you can tell, but I’ve doing a lot of reading and thinking about learning lately, so I’m going to share another important aspect of learning with you today: active vs. passive learning.

So what is active and passive learning?

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Passive Learning

Most people learn kind of like this, especially in school.  Originally, classes and lessons were “teacher-centered”, meaning that the teacher was the leader and the students were supposed to center their attention on her.  According to this model, students are supposed to be quiet and listen and do their best to memorize whatever the teacher says, and it was the teacher’s job to talk and talk and talk and…. talk.  A lot of student work was just drilling the information over and over again.

The idea behind passive learning is quite an old one.  According to older psychological ideas, and even modern folk psychology, our brains are basically “empty vessels” that need to be “filled up” with information.  Unfortunately, this model is mostly wrong and it has been shown that it mostly doesn’t work.  Despite that, a lot of teachers still believe it, and so do many learners.

Why doesn’t it work?  Well, for one thing, studies have shown that students remember as little as 5% of what they are told in lectures!  Even when it comes to reading or images, it’s still only about 20%.  On the other hand, when students are expected to demonstrate their knowledge by answering questions, practicing, or even explaining to others, they can remember anywhere from 50 to 80% of what they learn.  That’s a pretty big difference.

Unfortunately, lots of language learners carry these old habits into the home where they passively study English.  What does passive learning mean at home?  It means watching movies or listening to the radio.

Now, don’t get me wrong: watching English movies or listening to English radio is a fantastic way to learn English.  It’s not the material that is the problem, it’s the way it’s done.

Many learners think that just by having a movie or radio program on in the background will help them, but remember that percentage: if you are just watching passively, with your mind turned off or (worse) while doing something else, you’ll be lucky if you can even remember 10% of what you heard!  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation with a student:

Teacher: So did you study any English this week?

Student: Yes!  I listened to NHK radio show.

Teacher: Great!  So what did you learn?

Student: Umm… I don’t remember.

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So how about active learning?

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Active Learning

Active learning is a much less common but more useful way to learn.  Instead of just listening, make sure you are doing something that requires effort.  Let me give you some examples of what passive learners do vs. what active learners do.

Passive Learners

Active Learners

Write down everything the teacher says, no matter what it is. Write down what they think is important.  Ask the teacher about anything that still isn’t clear.
Read books, only sometimes writing down any new words they find. Read books with a notepad and a pen.  Mark words or expressions that are new or useful.  Write down any questions they have to ask the teacher the next time they have a chance.  Consider why the author choose certain words or expressions instead of others.  Consider how to use these words or expressions in conversation.
Listen to the radio, often while doing something else. Listen to the radio with a notepad and a pen.  Practice dictation or Ben Franklin listening.  Note any difficult parts to ask a native speaker for help next time.
Watch TV, often while doing something else or with Japanese subtitles Watch TV with the remote handy.  Use no subtitles or English subtitles.  Have a notepad and a pen.  Take any notes on difficult, new or interesting words or expressions they pick up from the movie.
Don’t take any notes and don’t ask any questions about what they read or heard. Take lots of notes and consider many questions when learning.  Writes the questions down to ask the teacher next time.
Only read or listen Read, listen but also practice and use

 As you can probably see, active learning is harder, takes more work and takes more time, but in the long run, it’s worth it.  If you really want to have long-lasting improvements as an English learner, try learning more actively next time.  Not only will it help you with your English skills, but it will help you with anything you want to learn in the future.

Also, to get the most out of your active learning experiences, make sure you have a really good teacher who supports active learning.  Many teachers are so used to the “teacher-centered” approach that they might not be able to accommodate your new way of learning.  They may even dislike it!  If this is the case, you may want to consider getting a new teacher (if you can), or finding someone else who can help you with your questions.

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