Active Learning vs. Passive Learning in Photography
Remember back in the day when you were still in school? How you’d enter the classroom and sit down at your assigned desk.
The teacher would pronounce, “Okay, everyone. Open your books to page 35.”
Inevitably, a wave of groans wafted across the room, and minds immediately drifted away, thinking about what they would have for lunch or what to do on Saturday with their friends.
To be honest, much of the information taught in this manner didn’t stick. Why? It was passive learning!
Active Learning vs. Passive Learning: Is There a Better Way to Learn?
Kent DuFault downloaded an eBook and several cheat sheets on long exposure photography one Saturday afternoon some years back.
The newly developed style of shooting long exposure photos in broad daylight using dense ND filters had just rocketed onto the scene, and he wanted to learn about it.
He read the eBook, but it didn’t help. The concepts discussed were too vague and not relevant to his situation.
You see, Kent DuFault is a doer. He learns by doing. Even in his school days, he struggled because he couldn’t learn by staring at a book or listening to a teacher lecture.
He was, and is, a hands-on type of guy.
How active learning differs from passive learning
It’s proven in many national studies that most people learn by doing rather than by listening to a lecture or reading a book.
Active learning involves the student in the process by using relevant activities and methods of self-evaluation. The active approach reinforces a student’s conceptual understanding of the material by engaging them in the lessoning process instead of merely listing facts and explaining topics through long-form reading.
Active learning kickstarts divergent thinking. This helps a student think less of individual concepts and more about the big picture. It also increases a student’s ability to draw real-world connections, especially to their own lives.
Can there be a downside to active learning?
✅ It requires a student that is more spontaneous and flexible.
✅ It limits the amount of material that can be presented at one time.
✅ A student must be self-motivated, or they can get caught up in distractions.
Passive long-form learning (eBooks/workshops/courses) also has disadvantages.
The disadvantages to long-form learning are-
☑️ It is far more dependent upon the teaching abilities of the instructor or writer.
☑️ It can be tedious and seem repetitive.
☑️ The information is fixed and offers little latitude for adjustment.
☑️ A student is less involved in the learning process.
☑️ Students are less likely to push themselves beyond their own current comprehension of the topic.
An essential step in the learning process, and photography is no exception, is discovering how you learn best.
A critical component of Active Learning is known as ‘Reciprocal Questioning.’
In reciprocal questioning, a student takes on the role of both the teacher and the student by creating their own learning path and their own learning questions. They then follow by resolving those questions through self-analysis. – Prodigy Learning Organization
This idea of learning by choice fascinated Kent DuFault.
Kent says, “I love photography. I also enjoy talking about it and teaching others through my eBooks. But I couldn’t get it out of my head that this approach doesn’t work for all people- creative people. Photographers are creative people, and they tend to learn best through active learning. This was on my mind constantly.”
Kent himself wanted to learn something new in daylight long exposure photography.
DuFault was well versed in nighttime long exposure imaging, having created images like this all the way back to the 1970s.
“I knew the tech on long exposures. I knew you needed a tripod, a shutter release cable, and an extended time value. But the concept of mixing blurred motion with sharp static details in bright daylight using deeply dense ND filters was new to me. There was going to be a learning process.”
On his journey to learning daylight long-exposure photography, he looked at several eBooks. Most covered what he already knew and did not cover the areas where he was experiencing problems.
Being a lifelong photographic self-learner, Kent turned his attention to cheat sheets.
Kent describes the moment:
He tried to do just that, and this is where problems began to appear.
One cheat sheet printed too tiny to read. Another was too large to fit onto a single piece of paper. Another had some crazy unreadable font. All were poorly designed and lacked any kind of cohesive training content.
This realization caused Kent to set out on a process of discovery. There had to be a better way!
First on his list. What exactly is the concept of learning?
Kent says, “I dove into research on what exactly is learning. I discovered that learning is comprised of seven unique steps. They are-
✅ A universal process
✅A change in behavior that is permanent
✅ It has a purpose with an end goal
✅ It resets experience
✅ It is a byproduct of activity
✅ It transfers from one situation to another
✅ It facilitates intended change in knowledge and behavior.”
Kent thought- An eBook touches on some of these learning points. But a well-created cheat sheet would touch on ALL of them.
That was an illuminating moment.
Kent says, “I suddenly understood the exquisite benefits of a cheat sheet. But what was currently in existence had major problems.”
❌ Poor design
❌ Varying information based on individual tastes
❌ Unfocused information
❌ No purpose and goal-setting features
❌ Time-consuming both in finding, downloading, and using current cheat sheets
❌ Too broad in scope
❌ A lack of developmental thinking skills
❌ No process for a photographer to self-check their learning
How could this be improved? Keep the benefits of a cheat sheet. Yet, providing the deeper learning experience of an eBook.
“I started to brainstorm some thoughts on what I thought the ideal cheat sheet learning experience (active learning) would be? I wanted all positives and no negatives.” – Kent DuFault
Here are the learning parameters that Kent devised:
✔️ Cover only the topics that are common learning challenges for new to intermediate photographers. He finalized 44 topics.
✔️ Group issues into like categories. He ended up with nine categories and color-coded them for user efficiency. He also used simplified graphics as much as possible.
✔️ Use a cohesive design that is easy to read and print. (This was decided using a study on what font was widely accepted and what size would be readable yet compact for the final printable version.)
✔️ Every cheat sheet would correctly print using the exact same settings.
✔️ Each cheat sheet should have a primary teaching objective and several more minor points supporting the primary objective. (When you look at it, you know immediately what you will learn!)
✔️ Include some self-study analysis (Questions for which the photographer must come up with their own answers.)
The categories included are: Basic and Advanced Camera Operation, Basic and Advanced Proper Exposure Concepts, Basic and Advanced People Photography, Composition, Flash Operation, and Special Techniques.
Here is an example of what these cards look like.
When asked why he chose the categories and learning points he did, Kent says, “I have thirty years of experience training other photographers.
This experience covers a wide range of students. I taught basic photography to adults in an adult education program. I trained employees when I owned my commercial photography studio.
And I worked as a corporate trainer of photographers and photo retouchers for a large chain of photo studios within the United States.
Those experiences taught me the touchpoints for learning photography, especially for those new to it.
It was just a matter of whittling things down to the core learning points.”
In creating the design, it was decided to have a header with a clear statement of the primary learning objective. Each sheet would also include three to four sub-headings that drive home essential learning points relevant to the primary goal.
Assignments were intimated or directly given when appropriate, and finally, in some instances, DuFault included several self-examination questions.
We asked Kent if he could break down one of these cheat sheets for us to better understand how it works and is relevant to the Active Learning process.
“I’d love to. Let’s take a basic camera function cheat sheet- shutter speed. By the way, I named these cheat sheets the Snap Cards. Because you learn in a snap!
Beginner to intermediate photographers often have trouble conceptualizing what the shutter speed of their camera actually does to their pictures. Let’s look at the Camera Exposure Basics / Shutter Speeds cheat sheet.
You can read about shutter speed in a passive long-form study eBook, but will you remember the necessary information when you’re out in the field taking pictures days, weeks, or months later?
In this format, you print the training material on your home printer and put it in your camera bag. It’s always with you.
Looking at this example cheat sheet (Snap Card), you can see how it’s elegantly designed, uncluttered, and easy to read.
In the header bar, we have the overall learning point about shutter speed and what it does in the photo-taking process.
Below that, we have three sub-headings that teach a vastly important learning point relative to shutter speed.
Icons and graphics keep the view uncluttered and easy to digest.
A photographer can do a quick review of this sheet and immediately know where their shutter speed should be set based upon the situation in front of them!” – Kent DuFault
I asked Kent about the outcome of this project. Was it worth the effort? Do people enjoy using it, and do they learn faster and better?
It’s interesting how the most straightforward idea can become a game-changer worldwide.
“I have written another set of cheat sheets called the Action Cards, which follows a similar formula. And we are soon to release a new set of cheat sheets on the topic of travel photography.
I feel that this unique approach to the cheat sheet concept has helped far more photographers than I ever imagined that it would!” – Kent DuFault
This concept in photo education was groundbreaking for sure!
For anyone interested in learning more about active learning and the cheat sheet concept-
You can learn more here.
Kent DuFault’s (cheat sheet / active learning) Snap Card idea was a remarkable breakthrough in thinking outside the box.
It has undoubtedly made its mark in the photography world.
BONUS: There's something special for you on the next page...
If you’re interested in trying something different– If traditional linear training methods have left you somewhat in the dark…
If the idea of self-guiding learning, in a non-linear fashion, while you’re out shooting, appeals to you…
Click below now, to read about the Snap Cards on the next page…