Lecturing vs Active Learning: Danger of Dichotomous Thinking in Education

Lecturing vs. Active Learning. Consider yourself lucky if you have not yet been pulled into the conversations comparing lecturing and active learning, and one colleague has approached you asking your opinion. Let’s analyze this comparison in detail and talk about the danger of dichotomous thinking in education. Lecturing: one of many teaching strategies employed during instruction to stimulate learning. Active learning: a fuzzy concept that may assume many definitions that is other than lecturing. Active learning means any technique that supposedly engages students during the learning activity. One may argue that my description is an oversimplified version. I will welcome other definitions in the comments section below. Prince (2004) provides an excellent literature review on the definitions of active learning and shed light on the problems with the definitions.

Before going deeper into the definitions of active learning, I would like to have your attention to the comparison. Comparing lecturing vs active learning is not different from comparing an apple and an orange. Lecturing is a teaching method which may or may not result with learning on the learner side. While active learning is an arguable concept, it inherently proposes the counter-argument: passive learning. This, itself, bears the question of what learning is and if there is a such a thing as passive learning. If learning is a process, the question is what is passive during the process. MRI studies show that during learning, our brain is active and depending on the cognitive skills different parts of the brain become active. So, passive may not be referring to the brain. However, this logic might be inaccurate since some definitions of active learning approach problem-based or collaborative learning as active learning. During the problem-based or collaborative learning the only active parts of the body might be our mouth and hands if we are taking notes. Perhaps, the argument is during lecturing our brain is passive and activities that trigger “active learning” transforms our brain into an active mode. Learning by its definition requires intentional action.

So as a cognitive activity, we can conclude that learning in any form is an active process and there cannot be a passive learning process in cognitive form. If active refers to the concept of engagement, we can apply the same logic. Is it possible to learn without engagement? If the learner is not engaged with learning, doesn’t it mean that they are engaged with another activity during the learning process? Is it even possible to be in a mental state that you are not engaged with anything? If selective attention brings the input into our sensory memory and later into the working memory, selective attention is the first step in our cognitive process which inherently refers to learning as always being an active process. Again, it becomes challenging to describe active learning from engagement perspective.

Active learning should perhaps refer to being physically active during learning. This is another form of learning by doing. This is the definition I may accept for active learning which also may not be entirely the opposite of learning from lectures. There are many other different types of learning and teaching strategies other than learning from lectures and learn by doing. So, my question is what makes learning from lectures and learn by doing so special? I think this dichotomy is a result of two schools of thought: learner-centered and teacher-centered teaching approaches in education. During the clash of these schools of thought the dominant teacher-centered teaching approach, namely, lecturing went under scrutiny as the quality of education was continued to be criticized. During this transition from teacher-centered to learner-centered approaches in education, what would be a better way to attack lectures and the sage at the stage and change the role of the teacher to a guide on the side. A student becomes a learner and stops sitting down on a chair and listening to the lecturer non-stop and stands up and engages during the learning activity. Learners are now in charge and in control and construct their own knowledge (hint to the constructivist approaches).

I wish everything is easy to address with dichotomous approaches in education. Unfortunately, that is not the case, and it can be quite dangerous in certain cases. If learning is a process and teaching strategies are tools to accomplish learning, perhaps, we can use a different metaphor to understand the complexity in learning and education. If I ask you, a screwdriver or a hammer is a better tool to fix. You wouldn’t select one tool right away. Instead, you would have asked, fixing what? The same applies to learn. Learning what? With the tool metaphor, it is obvious the tool should fit the purpose and the knowledge and experience of the user of the tool.

Any decision of the effectiveness of a learning or teaching strategy should start with the learning goal. Based on the learning goal, the available resources, the prior knowledge of the learner, the effectiveness of learning/teaching approach may differ. Besides, a collaborative learning approach which stimulates learning effective communication skills within a team environment may initially be an ideal learning approach in which the teacher becomes the moderator of the sessions and provides cases for the learners in role-play scenarios. However, if the moderator is not effective, the team never receives proper instructions, the amount of time provided ends up not being sufficient, a better-designed storytelling activity of effective and ineffective teams would be a better approach. Therefore in addition to the fit for the activity to the learning goal, the quality of the learning activity also becomes an important factor for its success.

In summary, decision making during the instructional design process of a course is nothing but a complex process which requires the instructors to consider many factors and the decision includes not only the selection of the strategy but also analyze the audience, to determine the goal, and identify the resources. The dichotomous thinking in education not only oversimplifies a necessarily complex process but also misleads the decision-makers to focus on the means rather than the ends during the decision making process. Therefore, it could be tempting to provide sensational titles to articles and workshops lectures vs active learning to create situational interest, but it could also mislead the educators. For those who are interested in a better direction, I will recommend you to read  “Reframing the lecture versus active learning debate: Suggestions for a new way forward” by Zakrajzek (2018).


Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of engineering education, 93(3), 223-231.

Zakrajsek, T. (2018). Reframing the lecture versus active learning debate: Suggestions for a new way forward. Education in the Health Professions, 1(1), 1.

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