Using Active Approaches to Support Learning

Neurons Blue

Using Active Approaches to Support Learning

Sophie Lanoix

By Sophie Lanoix

The lecture has had a hard life in recent years. As training specialists know, “active” learning methods are much more effective than “passive” methods. The lecture, seen as a passive learning activity, has therefore almost become a pariah amongst workplace training methods and to suggest using it sometimes amounts to blasphemy.

But why are active methods so much favoured? And are we really right? And to begin with, what is the difference between active and passive learning methodologies?

When Is a Learning Activity Active or Passive?

I often hear subject matter experts refer to an online course as “interactive” because it contains several videos and images that learners must click on to read additional information. As you have guessed it, this is not the right definition of “interactivity” in training.

In learning, when we say that a method is “active,” it means that the learner is focused on the learning content and that he or she must produce something with that content. Let’s illustrate this concept with an example.

Consider the case where a learner has to click on an element in an online course. This action can be “active” or “passive” depending on the context in which the learner must make the gesture of clicking on the element.

Question Slide

“Active” Learning Activity

The learner clicks on one of four elements as an answer to a question.

This is an “active” action, because the learner must think about the question, analyze the four elements and consciously choose one of them as an answer. His brain is then engaged in learning, as he must use knowledge stored in his memory to answer the question. In this case, they must produce a response choice.

“Passive” Learning Activity

The learner clicks on an image to bring up the next text box to read.

Here, the learner does not have to select anything related to the content. Clicking on the image to bring up the next text box is equivalent to clicking on “next” to bring up the next page of the course. The learner has nothing to produce with the content.

The same logic applies to classroom training. When the learner sits and listens to a lecture or watches a video, they are considered passive their learning. When answering questions, trying to solve a problem or analyze a situation, they are considered active in their learning, as they must activate their brain and use their knowledge to make connections between concepts.

Why Does the Brain Have to Be Active to Learn?

First, why do you offer training in your organization? Generally, because you want people to change their behaviour or adopt new ones. For example, if you provide leadership training, it is to make managers change the way they manage and be more effective and efficient. If you provide training on the use of a forklift truck, it is because you want employees to adopt safe behaviours when using the forklift.

To answer the question, “Why does the brain have to be active to learn? ,” you have to look at what’s happening in the brain while a person is learning. A person’s behaviour depends on their neural connections. To change behaviour, we must therefore create new neural or even create new neurons. This is the very definition of learning in neuroscience.

When a person learns a new skill or behaviour, neurons are activated and they connect together. If these neurons activate and connect together often enough, a path is created between the neurons, like a path in the forest. When the path is well traced, the skill or behaviour is well anchored, and the person is able to reproduce it. The more the trail is used, the deeper it is traced, the easier it is to follow. So, the more often you perform a gesture, the better and easier it is to remember.

Hebb’s Rule: Cells that fire together, wire together

Some examples of active learning activities

In an asynchronous online course

  • Associating an image with a word or concept
  • Answering a multiple-choice question, whether the options are presented with words or images
  • Putting process steps in order
  • Dragging and dropping a word or image into the right area
  • Identifying errors or good elements in an image
  • Etc.

In a physical or virtual classroom

  • Explaining a concept to a colleague
  • Answering questions
  • Writing a case study
  • Explaining the consequences of an action
  • Analyzing the possible options for solving a scenario
  • Making the gestures of the psychomotor skill to be acquired (driving the forklift, using medical imaging equipment, handling an instrument, etc.)
  • Practising a communication skill in a role-playing game
  • Etc.

So, Should You Throw Away Passive Methods?

That being said, we also learn when we read a text or listen to a masterful presentation, even if we consider them passive learning activities. Studies have shown that when an action is observed, the same neurons are activated in the brain as when the action is performed. So, if a learner is attentive and able to mentally follow the actions that the trainer explains during the lecture, learning begins in their brain. However, behaviour or knowledge will not be well anchored and active learning methods will be needed to consolidate them.

Passive methods such as lectures, video playback or reading are still useful. They are preferred when the task is completely new to the learner, or when the risk of error is very high. They will be used to lay the foundation knowledge that learners can then use to practise the skill with more active learning methods. In addition, lectures allow trainers to explain nuances more effectively than a text, to model behaviours and values and to stimulate learners’ motivation.


I admit it: I am one of those people who make life difficult for lectures and passive learning methods. However, I also recognize their value in certain circumstances. I still remain a strong supporter of active methods, especially considering that learners who enter our workplace training generally have prior knowledge related to the subject of the training. It is much easier to acquire new knowledge and skills when you are able to connect them to things you already know. 

We have created a simple and easy to use
Learning Method Variety Grid
to help designers determine how passive or active their online, classroom or virtual courses are.

Download the grid

Do you have any questions, comments or reactions? Feel free to share them with us in the forum below. Are you hesitating? You can write to us in private.

Need a helping hand to dynamize your training?
We can help you.

Contact us!

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Bradbury, N. (2016). Attention span during lectures: 8 seconds, 10 minutes, or more?. Advances In Physiology Education, 40(4), 509-513. doi: 10.1152/advan.00109.2016

Lachaux, J. (2013). Le cerveau attentif. Paris: O. Jacob.

Masson, S. 10 septembre 2019. « Principe 1 : Activation ». Cours Neuroéducation et didactique générale. Montréal : Université de Montréal. Montréal : UQAM.

Masson, S. 17 septembre 2019. « Principe 2 : Activation répétée ». Cours Neuroéducation et didactique générale. Montréal : Université de Montréal. Montréal : UQAM.

Masson, S. (2016). Pour que s’activent les neurones. Les Cahiers pédagogiques, 527, 18-19.

Mukamel, R., Ekstrom, A., Kaplan, J., Iacoboni, M., & Fried, I. (2010). Single-Neuron Responses in Humans during Execution and Observation of Actions. Current Biology, 20(8), 750-756. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.02.045

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2018). Neuromyths (pp. 147-149). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Adopting a Strategic Approach to Learning

Adopting a Strategic Approach to Learning

Sophie Lanoix

By Sophie Lanoix

Have you ever wondered if you are getting the most out of your training efforts and expenses? Are you tired of …

  • being reactive to training requests?
  • spending money on training that does not impact your organizational performance?
  • losing contracts or customers because your employees do not have the skills you need now and in the future?

How about taking a strategic approach to learning? You could transform the efforts and resources invested in training into real learning and growth for your organization. Training would become a strategic lever for your organization, and you would be in a better position to achieve your strategic organizational objectives.

“The ability to learn faster than competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”

Arie De Geus

Don’t know where to start? Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a miracle recipe. Each organization must implement measures adapted to its internal and external context. However, to help you get started, here are some avenues of action.

1. Stop wasting money on training that doesn’t work!

Organizations waste a lot of money on training, and for two reasons:

  • because they do training even when they don’t need it
  • because the training they provide to their employees is not effective

Here’s how you can easily fix this problem and increase the return on your training investments.

Organize Training Only When it is the RIGHT Solution to a Problem

Before designing or organizing training, it is important to ask yourself if the performance problem you are trying to solve is really due to a lack of knowledge, skills or competencies. In many cases, this is not the case. Here are questions you can ask to find the cause of a performance problem:

Do the employees …

  • have the tools to do the job?
  • know what standards they must meet?
  • receive feedback on their performance?
  • are rewarded or punished for good behaviour?
  • want to do the task?
  • have the physical or mental ability to do the task?

If you answer NO to any of these questions, training will not be the first solution to your problem.

However, you can implement the training if you answer NO to the following question:

Do employees have the knowledge and skills required to do the job?

In short, the only situation in which a performance problem can be solved by a classroom course, a virtual classroom or an online course, is if employees do not have the knowledge or skills required to do the job.

Organizing or designing training for any other reason is just wasting resources.

Ensure That the Training Design is Effective

Now that you know that training is the solution to your performance problem, will all training solve the problem? Not necessarily. To be effective, training must be well designed. Make sure that the training:

  • is available when learners need it, not six months in advance
  • be as participatory as possible
  • focuses on what the employee needs to do, back in the workplace and not on a mountain of things good to know
  • responds to the perceived need of learners—explain to learners why this training or skill will be useful to them
  • is directly related to the learner’s work and that they can apply their new skills in a real work project
  • is only available to employees who need it, otherwise it is a waste of time for others

2. Analyze Learning Needs Over 360o

Many organizations rely on the ad hoc needs of employees and expressed by managers to make their annual training plan. Although it is necessary to take these into account, a plan based solely on those learning needs is incomplete and reactive.

In order for the training plan to contribute to your organization’s priorities, it is also necessary to take into account the related training needs:

  • strategic objectives and major projects
  • succession needs
  • the results of customer surveys
  • the results of performance indicators

Learning Needs Analysis Diagram

Once you have identified the learning needs, you can write a comprehensive training plan that will truly contribute to the success of the organization. For each training session, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  • Who will be trained? — Who really needs this training?
  • On what? — What is the skill or ability to be developed?
  • Why? — What problem are you trying to solve with this training?
  • How? — Which training methodology is most appropriate?
  • When? — When do the target employees need training?

3. Develop an Organizational Learning Strategy

Survey colleagues and you will see: very few organizations are mature enough to have an organizational learning strategy in place. However, it is a simple document that can have a significant impact on the organization. A learning strategy includes, among other things:

For example…

  • your commitment to learning

ACME Inc. is committed to the training, development and continuous improvement of all members of the organization, to ensure that everyone is prepared to meet the current and future challenges of our organization.

  • the principles that guide for your training decisions
  • Learning initiatives are focused on developing skills that enable people to perform to the best of their abilities
  • Learning initiatives are designed using to the competency-based approach and not a content approach
  • Training methods are selected based on the optimization of learning and the use of resources and not based on the requester’s preference or the simple availability of technology
  • Etc.
  • the roles and responsibilities of each person with regard to training and learning 

List the responsibilities of the key learning actors in the organization, such as:

  • Senior management
  • Training or human resources team
  • Managers
  • Employees

With a learning strategy in hand, your training and learning decisions will be consistent with each other and over time. All the actors will know their role, and it will be easier for you to get the necessary budgets to implement your training plan.

4. Become a Learning Organization

For several years, there has been a lot of talk about learning organizations and the importance of developing a positive learning culture. Take a few seconds to think: what does your organizational culture look like? How do you experience learning in your organization? Are you learning from your successes? What about your mistakes? How do you encourage learning? Changing an organizational culture takes time, but it can be done.

Here are three concrete actions you can take now that will help you move forward on the path to a positive learning culture.

1. Plan the transfer of learning

Each time a person participates in training, they should have a conversation with their supervisor to determine:

  • expectations for behavioural changes following training
  • the opportunities to practise the skill or ability after the training
  • the support they have access to in order to apply the skill or ability
  • their margin of error when practicing the new skills or ability

2. Have pilots and prototypes

When you set up a new training program or use a new training methodology, have a pilot courses and prototypes. Testing with members of your target audience will allow you to make adjustments and ensure that the training really meets the needs of the learners and the organization.

3. Learn from Your Experience

Have post-mortem for your projects, including your training projects. Once you have identified good moves and mistakes, adjust your ways of doing things and procedures to improve and avoid repeating mistakes. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? You would be surprised to learn how many organizations never do post-mortems or, when they do, do not take appropriate action to address their findings.

5. Identify a Learning Leader

Do you have a Chief Financial Officer and a Chief Operating Officer? A head of learning is just as important. In large organizations, this learning leader may be in a management position. In small organizations, it can be the human resources manager or even an advisor.

The important thing is that there is someone who has a global vision of what is happening in the learning process in the organization and who is responsible for monitoring the performance indicators you have identified for training. Normally, this person is also the one who will have written the learning strategy and training plan. If this person does not hold a managerial or executive position, he or she should at least maintain a close relationship with the organization’s decision makers.


As you can see, taking a strategic approach to training is a long-term process. Each organization is different and your path to get there will be different from that of another.

Like all major projects, this can be achieved by taking one concrete step at a time and targeting actions in the short, medium and long term. Are there any other actions or paths than those described here? Certainly! But if you are thinking about it for the first time or on the contrary, for a long time without knowing where to start, you have here some ideas to start your adventure.

We have created a colorful infographics that you can use as a reminder of the actions described in this article.

Download the infographics

Do you have any questions, comments or reactions? Feel free to share them with us in the forum below.
Hesitating? You can write to us in private.

Need a hand to get started?
We can help you.

Contact us!

Spread the word!







Bowles, M. (2013). Lead learning strategy implementation. Launceston: Institute for Working Futures.

De Geus, A. P. (1988). Planning as learning(pp. 70-74). March/April: Harvard Business Review.

Gilbert, T. (1996). Human competence: Engineering Worthy Performance, Tribute Edition. Silver Spring, Md.: International Society for Performance Improvement.

Roussel, J. (2011). Gérer la formation, viser le transfert. Montréal: Guérin, éditeur ltée.

Senge, P. (2006). The fifth discipline. London: Random House Business.