• by Blaine Helwig

Student Engagement – Active versus Passive Learning


You are a public school teacher. You are about half-way through your science or math lesson. The door opens and the principal walks into your classroom. He or she stops and looks around and surveys the classroom.


What is the principal looking for?

There are a variety of answers to this question depending on the nature of the lesson. But, what is the principal evaluating? I can guarantee you that 98 times out of 100 the principal is trying to get a sense of the level of student engagement in the classroom. There are a series of questions the principal is trying to answer as he or she observes the classroom.


What are those questions the principal is thinking upon entering a classroom?

  • Where is the teacher?

  • What is the teacher doing?

  • What are the students doing?

  • Are the students actively engaged in the lesson?

  • What is the lesson’s objective and is it written or viewable to students, so they know what they are supposed to learn?

  • How is the lesson closure assessed to determine if students learned what they were taught?

  • How is the teacher providing sufficient repetition in subsequent days so students ‘own’ and master the content?

These are the exact questions the principal is thinking as they survey the classroom, and quite frankly, if not, they should be considering.

Active versus Passive Learning Examples

Active learning occurs in a myriad of positive ways in the classroom.


What are typical examples of active learning?

  • The students are working in groups or individually with a set, intentional purpose to their work.

  • Students could be taking notes in their math or science spiral and clearly listening as the teacher is demonstrating a process or procedure.

  • The teacher is engaged in guided practice with students, and the teacher is also monitoring students' work for real time corrective adjustments, as needed.

  • Students may be independently completing an assignment as their teacher works with a small student group or actively monitors the students.

  • When students finish the activity early, the teacher has set clear expectations so students continue to be engaged in independent learning.

  • Kinesthetic (movement) learning - for vocabulary development or a set instructional intention.

Unfortunately, passive learning also occurs in a number of ways in the classroom.

What are typical examples of passive learning?

  • Students are sitting at their desks without a spiral notebook or paper on their desk and a pencil in their hand as the teacher talks to them.

  • There a lot of activity in the classroom, but limited accountable learning is occurring.

  • Students are watching other students in their group do the work since there is no specific group member accountability.

  • Students inactive or wandering around the room without a purpose.

  • Students are watching a video without any accountability of purpose during or at the end of the video.

  • The teacher is reading to the class without students following along in a novel or text -- or actively taking notes. Noted Exception: Read aloud in elementary primary grades, however, the teacher questions students during and after reading for general comprehension attributes.

The takeaway or reflective element in these two lists of active and passive learning examples is readily apparent. Teachers should engage substantial thought on active student engagement during their lesson planning. The following basic question may be reflectively asked during that part of the pedagogical planning process: "How can I increase active student engagement and its accountability during this lesson?"


I recommend the following active student engagement guideline when designing lessons or purchasing a curricular resource: If the percentage of the lesson/resource is not above 80 to 85 percent active student learning each day, then scholars are not sufficiently engaged. Thus, the teacher should redesign the pedagogy to allot for more student engagement and less downtime.


Active Learning is Key to Student Outcomes

Students must be engaged by writing, movement, talking in appropriate level voices or actively listening via teacher to student interaction during the lesson. When this is happening, the student is actively accountable for the learning. Students possess a reasonable chance to remember what they have been taught, if and only if they have been placed in an accountable position to do so via active engagement. The end effect is retention and student ownership of core content.


At the end of the lesson, students must be held accountable for the lesson’s objective. If they are not held accountable for active learning during the lesson, the probability students will demonstrate mastery of the lesson’s objective at its closure is not high. As the principal walks in the classroom and surveys the classroom, they are more than aware of this fact whether they are in the classroom for the lesson’s closure or not.


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