The hypothesis that active learning is beneficial relative to passive observation was assessed in the context of spatial knowledge derived from maps. Active and passive participants studied a map either while performing a simultaneous spatial tapping task (high cognitive load) or in the absence of this task (low cognitive load). Active participants controlled how the map was learned, with passive participants observing map learning without exercising control. Spatial recall was assessed in two tests, directional judgements and map drawing. Map drawing and directional judgments showed a similar pattern of results, with performance detrimentally affected by a high load for active participants, but not for passive participants. The results indicate that activity and cognitive load interact, suggesting that active learning can be detrimental to spatial learning in cognitively demanding tasks.