Passive Versus Active Learning

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Most project management training is based primarily on passive learning: listening to an instructor, looking at slides or reading, for example. This kind of traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning.
Active learning, on the other hand, puts the responsibility on the student. Whether in class discussions or written exercises, they're compelled to read, speak, listen and think.

One of the most powerful active learning models is experiential learning. Participants find meaning in experience -- learning through reflection and doing. As ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius once said: "Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand."

Let's say you want to teach the importance of planning before executing, for example. Instead of just explaining it, try this lesson in experiential learning. Give a bag of LEGO parts -- the toy building bricks --  to a group of students and ask them to build a car in five minutes. When the time is up, show a slide with the project phases: initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing. Then ask them to identify which phase applied to which part of building the car.
I challenge you to consider experiential learning programs for project managers. They observe and evaluate the effects of a situation as they participate -- and then apply this learning on actual projects.
Have you tried experiential learning? What are the pros and cons over passive learning?
Posted by Abdiel Ledesma on: February 21, 2011 12:46 PM | Permalink

Comments (16)

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Dmitri Ivanenko
Great practical advice. I deliver productivity coaching program/course in this mode. Great to see minds that are alike :). It really is a much faster education, with the higher possibility to retain the knowledge.

It's also good advice to many course developers in project management. It's great to work with people that end up showing what they know through their work rather than just having conversations with people about how great what they know is. When it's practically applied, it shows how great it is. It also sells itself. Results always show how well a method is applied in practicality.

It reminds me of the PM Dome Workshop that I read about. It has this same idea behind it, showing the participants by directly involving them in the work through practice.

Thx for the post.

I recently moved into a project management role and came out of an MBA program where both passive learning and active learning were used.

In my new role, I was given the task of planning my learning and given some tools to get started. I was also included in active project meetings to simply listen and learn. I learned the process by watching it unfold in front of me on a live project. I would later ask questions to the project manager who would elaborate on the how, the why and the where of the details. This was invaluable.

The downside is that the project manager wasn't always available to provide answers to my questions. If you plan to use this course, be prepared to spend time with those who you are developing.

In my development, I was responsible for grasping the concepts of project management and was later handed a smaller, low risk project in order to actively learn. I was given permission to make decisions, make mistakes and ultimately make the project a success or failure. All the while, my mentor was available for guidance. I learned tons of valuable insights that were not found in the textbook.

For me, the structure was found in passive learning, but the lessons were learned in the experience.

I still support passive learning as it provides the vocabulary, the work flow, the documentation and rationale of project management.

Amit Chandra
Nice post, Abdiel! I can't agree with you more. Active learning is not only everlasting but also more satisfying. At the end of the day, it's something that makes you feel good about yourself.

I agree completely on this. It is very effective even while teaching to kids. Experiential learning is the way to learn!

Devesh Kumar
In Thomson Reuters, I worked on the roles and responsibilities of handling the release cycles as Release Manager for my group which included Defect Tracking for past, present and future, licensing activity, regular weekly statistics for some of the bigger running softwares, TFS maintenace, cor-ordination between Project Team members, regular Meeting updates and communication to Project team to bundle Project Management as package.

There is a lot to learn, apply and norm it. Currently handling three Project teams for the above tasks than one and learning multi project scenarios. Yet to learn project management metrics using PM Tools for different projects.

Athens Kolias, MPM, PMP
Thanks for this article!

As a trainer, I know that each student has his/her own way of learning, and this points out the flip side to traditional learning methods.

In the old days we talked about street smarts and book smarts, and people thought it was an either-or analogy, but it's not. It's an AND.

You need a balance of both types of learning, both passive and active, to reinforce retention of the content. Thanks for reminding us to balance our offerings!

My initial Program/Project management training was on the job. Basically I got thrown in the deep end and had to learnt to swim to survive. I am old enough where the formal practice of Program/Project Management was just starting to evolve. I would consider this a very active learning experience. As the formal practices were documented and PMI came into existence more formal training became available. I think that someone needs both to be an effective solution provider. What I must throw in is that the old on the job training. On the flip side I've seen folks take only traditional classes, study hard and pass the PMP exam. These folks have the certification but don't have the hands on experience.

John Galyon
As a project specialist in a PMO, I have encountered the roadblocks inherent to the passive training approach first hand. In fact, in an initial wave of training project management resources around the globe in six different regions, I attempted to utilize the passive approach. The passive approach simply did not work well for several reasons. First, it simply did not engage and grab the attention of the intended audience. I picked up on this early on when I would pause for questions and answers and very few questions were asked. Due to the logistics, the training had to be held via live-meeting - making it extremely tempting and easy for folks to dial into the meeting and then work on something else. After the first few sessions, I realized that I would have to actively engage the audience to ensure they grasped and ultimately applied the concepts being discussed. So I revamped the entire presentation in a way where I provided a framework of material for an example project, discussed a topic, and then asked the audience to actively apply the topic to the example project. This approach worked very well - in fact, I fielded questions and answers the entire time allotted for the audience to apply the topic themselves. Then we all went through the example together so that everyone was clear on how to apply each major topic discussed in the training. So in my case, experiential learning was simply a necessity. I suppose the only real "con" for this approach was that it did, indeed, take significantly longer than the passive approach. However, considering how ineffective the passive approach was at getting the points across, it actually saved time in the long run.

Cynthia West
I'd have to least from our experience with implementing software, we find that people do learn better by DOING the functions while they watch the trainer. We call it 'imprinting' on your brain and your BODY the way to do the function. Works way better than simply listening.

Kamal Jit Singh PMP MCP IGBC AP
Basic issue is of planning and thought process. More investment in thought process and identification of agreeable activities and schedules are most important. In my opinion Passive learning is comparatively important to active learning as of developing all aspects and thoughts which are imbibed . By giving attention to passive learning one can silently force upon interests and motivation which in turn develops interest in active learning. More of passive learning will mean more fire in the belly for active learning more more details and in depth knowledge. I am in construction industry where more of passive learning adds to motivation and inertia which one uses in getting more of productivity , clear understanding and direct steps to achieve scope.

John Dobson
Educators continue to tinker with passive/active or academic/hands on models for any subject to be taught. There is lots of informations and debate on the subject. Looking at that data, I submit that depending on how well it's presented the lecture or slides can "actively" engage with the student. At the same time an active scenario can be such that it does not get through to the student because the student remain in a passive mode. Having said that, Abdiel approach is a combination of both approaches but he chose to start with the hands on scenario first. The challenge for all of us as we teach, coach, train, and mentor is to make sure that we use a holistic approach to the subject and present it using both active and passive methods that fully engage the group you are trying to teach. In project management, we strive to bring clarity out of chaos in order to deliver a stated set of desired results. Look at each teaching challenge as a project. The end result is the full understanding of the student as demonstrated by their ability to apply the knowledge. Plan backwards from there and use every resource you have to transfer the knowledge as quickly, efficiently, and effectively as possible. Most importantly, I know have a use for the lego's I've been saving for grandchildren. Thank you Abdiel!

Nelson Alcantar
In my opinion, the learnig process is more interesting in "Active Mode" . Platon said that: "Learning is to remember" and it is true in all contents of the life, because if the students remember the life situations where they solved problems, they can to associate that practices with the standar practices of the management, we have to remember that "Life is a project too, it is the life project" and it meets the best practices of the management. It is very important to relate management knowledge with the everyday experiences to learn in a better way, always remembering.

Pritam Goyal
Passive Learning; This is the mode of learning most commonly present in classrooms. It is used to acquire ideas and information that is available for recall. Active learning; Involves the student through participation and investment of energy in all three phases of the learning process (input, operations, and feedback). This type of learning is more apt to stimulate higher cognitive processes and critical thinking. Both type of learning have their own merits and demerits. In project management both are essential. One gets learning of basic tools in class room learning. On the other side the same will be used in on site work & its add in to once learning. In infrastructure projects I experienced that both are very effective tools. However both become bore if stretched after certain extent.

A. Adams
I don't completely agree with the premise of this article. I would say that most project management training is not passive because project management is fundamentally about experience. That's why Expert Judgement is a tool/technique in almost every process group and knowledge area. Obviously it's passive to read about something vs doing it or to listen to a lecture rather than experience something yourself, but that applies to every discipline. We can't help but gain experience in a very active, experiential way simply by being project managers in charge of managing real projects. The definition of a project is a unique endeavour undertaken to achieve a specific objective within a specific time and budget. The key word is "unique". That's what makes every project an active experience.

Mohammad Odeh
Because of increasing competitive demands both in the business world and in the academic community, management educators strive to provide the most productive classroom experience for their students in order to prepare them for careers in the business world. To achieve this objective, management educators constantly search for new and improved teaching methods. For many years, college instructors and professors in the United States operated under a paradigm in which they sought to impart knowledge to students in a form of information transfer (Boyer, 1990). In this approach to teaching, students passively receive information from the professor and internalize it through some form of memorization. This process is characterized as passive learning (Stewart-Wingfield & Black, 2005). Although passive learning has been the dominant teaching method, many educators argue that students require more than a mere transfer of knowledge. The search for the best approach to business education has led educators to explore many different teaching techniques, ranging from the traditional lecture class to various experimental approaches such as active learning (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). Although researchers intuitively suppose that active learning should be superior to passive learning, such superiority has proved somewhat difficult to quantify (Whetten & Clark, 1996). Although some studies claim that active learning is more effective than passive learning (Benek-Rivera & Matthews, 2004; Dorestani, 2005; Sarason & Banbury, 2004), quantitative research directly comparing both methods is the exception. The fact that much of the active learning research has focused on attitudinal reactions (student satisfaction) rather than cognitive outcomes has complicated matters even more. Another difficulty in comparing previous studies is the wide range of activities that can be defined as active learning

Jill Vidosh
I grew up in a middle class suburb of Detroit. It was a great place to grow up. My Dad was an Engineer for Chrysler and gave us a very comfortable home. He started working there when he was 16 years old as a co-op student and retired at 52 years old. In our neighborhood, Mr. “Smith” (not his real name) worked for GM, Mr. “Jones” was a teacher, Mr. “Keys” worked for get the idea. People were identified by where they worked. Their blood ran Chrysler, Dow or whatever school district or organization they worked for. These people were dedicated. They worked hard and believed in their employer. In return, they were given a fair wage, good benefits and a retirement package.
Fast forward to today. I am a Project Manager and I love what I do. Technically, I work for a contract house where I have never met one employee. The location I report to is a large IT firm. The people are great and I make a good living.
Here’s the conundrum: In less than a year, this job will be done. I may be fortunate enough to have my contract extended for another year – I may not. And if it is anything like other contract positions, I won’t know until just before the contract ends. I don’t get benefits or a retirement package. And, I have no idea what my next place of employment will be. If I start looking for work before the end of the contract, there is a chance I could get an offer from someone who wants me to start before the end of my contract. Leaving early isn’t an option. As a Project Manager, I signed a code of ethics. It would be unethical to leave a project before its completion... If I wait, I could be off for one to three months looking for a new job. So now that good living is cut by however long I am off.
I can’t say I fully understand this trend from an employer’s perspective, either. In a larger organization, it takes months to learn the lay of the land – the tools the organization uses, acronyms used, the people, etc.
As Project Managers, we know the definition of a project. A project has a definitive beginning and a definitive end (which is why, I am assuming, so many PM jobs are contract positions). It’s that end part that’s tricky. How can a person plan their livelihood? And why would an employer spend so much time training someone just to let them go at the completion of a project?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. The days of spending a lifetime at one organization seem to be a thing of the past. But as long as we continue to learn, grow and plan, we just might be able to maneuver the “contractor conundrum”. We can network with others in our field, continue educating ourselves and keep in touch with recruiters. And, hopefully, organizations will start to see the benefit again of keeping folks around for a while.

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