Teaching Experts: Active versus Passive, Part 3

Summary so far: In her book Evidence-Based Training Methods, Ruth Clark asserts that active learning is superior to passive. Because she is a careful scholar, she also references an article that provides disconfirming evidence, suggesting that there may be situations where passive learning may indeed be just as effective. Because I’m curious about under what conditions this is true, I went looking for information about the referenced study. The study found that in its particular situation that active learning led to learners appearing to be more engaged, but was less satisfying and did not increase learning.

I don’t want to focus too much on one article–decisions should be made based on a body of literature, not on a single study, but I am still interested in this idea that passive learning is sometimes just as good as active. Under what conditions? Clark suggests that it may have to do with high expertise and well-honed self-regulation skills when it comes to learning.

And, indeed, the 2012 literature review of team-based learning (TBL) in medical education settings by Ofstad and Brunner that I talked about previously hints in this direction. Ofstad and Brunner point to studies that suggest that it is the students who are struggling that most benefit from active learning. Presumably, these students have less expertise and fewer self-regulating learning strategies.

Ofstad and Brunner make one other interesting suggestion related to active learning. At a couple of points in their literature review they invoke Bloom’s taxonomy. While they only use the model to suggest active learning is superior for all of the Bloom levels, applying the model at all lends face validity to the notion that active learning may impact some levels (presumably the higher levels, application and above) greater than others.


2 thoughts on “Teaching Experts: Active versus Passive, Part 3

  1. Ellen

    I wonder how the struggling learners were evaluated. It seems to me that in a team setting, especially if the team as a whole is evaluated, a struggling student could slide by with other team members handling the load. Unless, of course, the teacher is clever enough to ensure that each team member must contribute equally, and how would you determine that? In other words, do they “do better” because they learn more or because they can hide their deficiencies better?

    1. robertmulcahy Post author

      I’m no expert on Team-Based Learning (TBL), as I’ve only read about this approach in the context of medical education, but my sense was that it was pretty rigorous in terms of individualized assessment. TBL includes pre-assessments, for example, that ask learners to prove they engaged with the pre-assignments before coming to class so they will be able to contribute to the team. I don’t know if TBL outputs are typically team-based or individual-based, but I imagine in medical education settings that there are significant incentives to engage with major learning activities to pass the inevitable tests! But, indeed, for this particular study I don’t know how they were evaluated as I couldn’t lay my hands on the article.


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