Students collaborating in class. November 2, 2017

Understanding Student Resistance to Active Learning


Fear of student resistance prevents many college teachers from adopting active learning strategies. That’s unfortunate, because these strategies have been shown to significantly increase student learning, improve retention in academic programs, and provide especially strong benefits to traditionally underrepresented student groups. Addressing two key questions may reduce instructors’ fears and increase the adoption of active learning strategies:

  1. Are instructors’ fears of student resistance to active learning well-founded?
  2. Are there effective ways to minimize that resistance?

What is student resistance and is it widespread?
From a practical standpoint, student resistance can be defined as any observable student behavior that makes an instructor less likely to use an instructional strategy. Resistance-related behaviors include passively refusing to participate in an activity, actively complaining or disrupting groups during an activity, or giving low course evaluations to the instructors who use active learning. Some authors define resistance as an affective outcome, describing it in terms of student motivation or whether students like or value the activity. But while student attitudes drive their behaviors, it’s the behaviors that faculty see. It might therefore be more accurate to think of student attitudes as a mediator of resistant behavior.

How much do students actually resist active learning strategies in practice? As with most interesting questions, the answer begins with “It depends.” How much students resist active learning sometimes depends on the type of active learning used. Active learning is not a single technique but an umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of instructional practices. Some of those practices, such as “minute papers,” in which the instructor asks students to take a minute and anonymously write down the most confusing point from that day’s lecture, aren’t likely to generate much student resistance. On the other hand, active learning approaches like problem-based learning that significantly increase expectations for student ownership of their learning generate more resistance (Woods, 1994).

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Bored student November 9, 2015

It’s Not Me, It’s You: Coping with Student Resistance


A little before the middle of each semester, I ask my students to fill out an anonymous one-minute paper to indicate what they would like to “stop, start, or continue” in my course. I like to think I am a good teacher, and good teaching, it is generally acknowledged these days, asks us to reflect on our teaching, scrutinize our teaching, and challenge our assumptions about teaching. We’re also encouraged to ask for and be responsive to student feedback.

January 26, 2015

Strategies for Preventing Student Resistance


“What if the students revolt?” “What if I ask them to talk to a neighbor, and they simply refuse?” “What if they do not see active learning as teaching?” “What if they just want me to lecture?” “What if my teaching evaluation scores plummet?” “Even if I am excited about innovative teaching and learning, what if I encounter student resistance?”

When teachers try something different in the classroom and students resist, the teacher may back down. Often, this is due to fear of what will happen to their student evaluations and contract renewals. I have been told by many instructors that they once tried active learning but the students hated it, so they went back to what was tried and true. (Silverthorn, 2006, p. 139)