[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ear 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:
What is student resistance and is it widespread?
- Are instructors’ fears of student resistance to active learning well-founded?
- Are there effective ways to minimize that resistance?
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).
While there is very little research that specifically examines the impact of different instructional practices on student resistance, some of those research findings are likely to surprise many faculty. For example, Nguyen et al. (2017) examined a number of student responses (participation, value, positivity, and evaluation of the course and instructor) to several instructional strategies, including traditional lectures, simple active learning, group-based activities, and activities that required a significant degree of self-directed learning. The authors found that course and instructor evaluations were not significantly influenced by the type of instruction, and that the majority of students liked group-related activities and saw their educational value.
In fact, many empirical studies suggest that student resistance to active learning is not the dominant response to this instruction. Early meta-analyses of collaborative and cooperative learning strategies, for example, showed uniformly positive effect sizes for a number of student attitudinal outcomes (Johnson et al., 1998; Springer et al, 1999). Even for radical instructional practices such as problem-based learning, students’ attitudes about the learning environment were generally quite positive (Vernon and Blake, 1993). One recent study examined the responses to active learning by approximately 1,000 engineering students in 18 different classrooms (Finelli et al., in review). Results again showed little evidence of student resistance. The most frequently reported responses to being asked to engage in an activity were “I felt the instructor had my best interests in mind when asking me to do the activities” and “I participated actively (or attempted to) in the activities,” both of which students reported doing often. The least frequently reported student responses to being asked to do an in-class activity were “I planned to give the instructor a lower course evaluation because of the activities,” “I distracted my peers during the activities,” and “I did not actually participate in the activities,” all of which students reported occurring seldom.
None of this, of course, means that some students won’t resist active learning in any of the ways that instructors fear. It does, however, provide some comforting context for faculty thinking about using active learning in their classes. Overall, the existing research suggests that the majority of students will not exhibit significant resistance. When resistance occurs, it will more likely involve a small fraction of the students in class and will most often involve passive resistance rather than more confrontational behaviors. That’s important to keep in mind, because while those behaviors from a minority of students are still troubling, passive resistance by a small number of students is very different from a situation in which most of the class actively challenges the use of learning strategies.
What causes the resistance?
The causes of student resistance have not been identified empirically, but a number seem plausible. Perhaps the most reasonable reason is an obvious one: it’s more work! Many active learning approaches ask students to do work they are used to having the teacher do for them—generate examples, solve problems in class, prepare study questions, and learn from each other. Who wants to sit around with classmates and struggle to solve problems when the teacher already knows how to solve them? Unfortunately, having the instructor always solve problems means students get less experience learning how to solve them on their own. Closely related is how active learning strategies make students more responsible for tasks related to learning. Many students aren’t used to making the decisions about learning processes. When the teacher stops telling students what assumptions they should make, where to find all necessary information, or what questions or issues should be discussed in each class, students become uncomfortable. They have to make these decisions themselves. They resist because these approaches put them more in charge of their learning, and that’s unfamiliar territory for many students.
Further, resistance may not be to the strategy per se but to how it’s being implemented. Student resistance to active learning “itself belies a common tacit assumption that the culprits foster[ing] these resistance behaviors are somehow the techniques themselves. However, little evidence from the research literature appears to support this assumption.” (Seidel and Tanner, 2013) Group work is a good example. Students don’t learn automatically when they work in groups; the group work must be designed with features that structure the learning experience. A lot of group work being used in college courses is not well designed and consequently teachers are regularly dealing with students who’ve had unsuccessful learning experiences in groups. These students naturally resist when they’re asked to work with others. However, the problem is clearly the implementation. Poor learning is not an inherent feature of group work. In fact, research suggests that just the opposite is generally true (Johnson et al., 1998; Springer et al, 1999).
And finally, it’s human nature to resist change. Classrooms are different when the teacher is no longer doing all the talking, when students are working with each other, participating in activities, and regularly reporting outcomes. Silverthorn (2006) notes, “at this point, my main challenge is to overcome their resistance to change.” She does that with a grading system that minimizes the weight of poor grades earned early in the course. Finally, because the causes are related and overlapping, it is likely that an individual student’s resistance is the result of a combination of factors.
Responding to resistance
When teachers understand what might be causing the resistance, it clarifies the best ways to respond. Here again, the recommendations are generally more anecdotal than empirical, but still sensible.
Respond without blame
– When resistance occurs, reconsider the causes and don’t automatically blame the students. Blaming may make the teacher feel better but it doesn’t reduce the resistance. Resistance to change is a naturally occurring human phenomenon. It has been known to affect teachers as well as students.
Respond with open communication
– Before asking students to participate in an activity, explain the educational rationale that justifies the approach. There are strong, empirical reasons why students need to be engaged and involved. People learn by doing, but that may not be explicitly understood by students. And the communication needs to flow in both directions. Students need opportunities to voice their concerns and share their experiences. Any discussion should focus on learning—not whether students “liked” doing the activity or assignment. Did it help them learn?
Respond positively –
Answer resistance with support (“I am here to help”), constructive feedback (“You’re on the right track but you haven’t gone far enough yet”), and unwavering belief in the students’ abilities to do what you’ve ask (“You can handle this”). Of course, that’s assuming what you’ve asked them to do is reasonable, and therefore this positive feedback is a realistic endorsement of effort and the results it can produce.
Respond by transforming the resistance into teachable moments
– Students can make important discoveries about themselves as learners when they recognize resistance and explore the reasons behind it. Understanding resistance can enhance students’ intellectual maturity. Moreover, the potential for significant learning is greater when students are working outside their comfort zone.
Respond with resistance
– Resist their resistance. Students have been known to use resistance to try to persuade the teacher to back down. They hope that if they complain, question the approach, groan, look confused, exchange knowing eye contact with each other, the teacher will decide that the approach is not working and get back to doing what teachers should be doing. “Giving up is a mistake,” according to Felder and Brent (1996). They acknowledge that the learning curves can be steep for students and teachers, but encourage teachers to persevere with patience and confidence. The rewards are students who are learning more deeply and with better attitudes.
When teachers understand resistance, they can respond more effectively. They can go into courses knowing that it happens, but not expecting a revolution. The research is building a strong case that resistance is not expressed all that often by all that many students. Moreover, some of the reasons students resist active learning approaches are legitimate. Active learning requires more work from students. It makes students more responsible for learning. Mature learners recognize these features as assets. When teachers explain why they are using active learning, respond positively to resistance when it occurs, take advantage of teachable moments created by active learning, and show an unwavering commitment to what active learning accomplishes, less mature learners can move forward in their understanding of learning and see themselves as more independent and accomplished learners.
Finelli, C., Nguyen, K., DeMonbrun, M., Borrego, M., Henderson, C., Prince, M., Shekhar, P., Waters, C. and Husman, J. Reducing student resistance to active learning: Strategies for instructors, Journal of College Science Teaching
, (in review)
Felder, R. M. and Brent, R. (1996). Navigating the bumpy road to student-centered instruction. College Teaching, 44
Johnson, D., R., Johnson, and K. Smith, 1998. Cooperative l returns to college: What evidence is there that it works? Change
Nguyen, K., Hussman, J., Shekhar, P., Prince, M., Finelli, C., Henderson, C., DeMonbrun, M. and. Waters, C. (2017). Students’ expectations, types of instruction, and instructor strategies predicting student response to active learning”, International Journal for Engineering Education
Seidel, S. B. and Tanner, K. D. (2013). “What if students revolt?” –Considering student resistance: Orgins, options and opportunities for investigation. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 12
Silverthorn, D. U. (2006). Teaching and learning in the interactive classroom. Advances in Physiology Education, 30
Springer, L., Stanne, M. and Donovan, S. (1999). Effects of small-group learning on undergraduates in science, m, engineering and technology: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research
Vernon, D., and. Blake, R. (1993). Does problem-based learning work? A meta-analysis of evaluative research. Academic Medicine
Woods, D. (1994). Problem-Based Learning: How to Gain the Most from PBL.
Waterdown, Ontario, Canada: Woods.
Mike Prince is a professor of chemical engineering at Bucknell University. Maryellen Weimer is a professor emerita at Penn State Berks and the longtime editor of The Teaching Professor newsletter and Teaching Professor Blog.