What can instructors do when students resist engaging in effortful learning activities?

March 17, 2015

Have you ever hesitated to try a new assignment or learning activity because you thought students might resist the new work and complain about your teaching? Many instructors say they continue to lecture because they worry their students will refuse to cooperate with new learning activities. A small literature documents the possibility that some students retaliate with poor class evaluations when an instructor asks them to take a more active role in class learning (e.g., by using a flipped class format or asking student to work together in groups).

Seidel and Tanner (2013) claim students resist both novel and traditional teaching activities for similar reasons, some based on student behaviors and others based on instructor behaviors.

What does student resistance look like?
Students are most likely to resist by engaging in passive behavior that undermines the quality of the learning activity. They might engage in social loafing, avoid class, avoid participating in group activities (not contribute to discussions or sit at a distance from others), or pretend to be prepared when they are not. A few students might actively resist by engaging in disruptive behavior during group learning work or voicing complaints about the instructor or the learning activities.

Why do students resist a new approach?
Students who have prior experience with fellow students who engaged in resistant behaviors may be reluctant to participate in future group work. Collaborative learning requires specific communication and interpersonal skills. Students might resist participating in collaborative activities because they do not know how to negotiate a civil discussion of a sensitive or challenging topic with a student they have just met. Team work requires skills in communicating expectations to team members and conflict management skills that hold team members accountable for meeting expectations. Students might be unaware of or unskilled with specific strategies they need to prepare for in-class collaborative activities, including how to do more than surface reading of assigned material or prepare substantive questions for group discussions. Worse, they might be unconvinced of the value of these effortful activities for their learning.

How can instructors minimize student resistance?

  • Promote a sense of community and instructor immediacy. Instructors should engage in behaviors that promote immediacy, that is, classroom behaviors that reduce the social distance between instructors and students. Most behaviors that promote immediacy also build a sense of shared community: learn student’s names, make eye contact, smile, reduce the physical distance between you and your students by leaving the podium and moving among students in the classroom.
  • Reflect on your behavior as an instructor and minimize behaviors that create obstacles and inspire resistant behavior in students. Be aware of behaviors that create barriers and motivate resistant behavior in students. Seidel and Tanner (2013) discuss instructor behaviors that contribute to student resistance. Their list includes a number of behaviors that often appear in comments students write on course evaluations: sarcasm directed toward students; apathy or inaccessibility (cancelled or late arrivals for class or office hours, missed appointments); confusing or off-topic lectures (straying from course content to personal opinion or other tangents); disorganization; unfair testing or grading practices; too much or too information (or challenge) in the course.  
  • Tell students about your reasons for the choices you made when you organized the class and selected assignments, learning activities, and teaching methods. Encourage students to reflect on how they learn and explain why the assigned activities will help them improve. Do this on the first day of class; repeat as needed when making new assignments.
  • Pay attention to fairness. We are all sensitive to injustice and inequities.  Use rubrics to explain expectations and help students understand how you will evaluate their work. Structure collaborative assignments and large projects to promote effective student interactions and equitable distribution of work. Because large groups encourage social loafing and demand better team management skills, create small groups. Students working in small groups experience fewer difficulties finding times to meet and are better at negotiating conflicts between members and ensuring that all members contribute to sharing ideas. Create mechanisms for students to formally evaluate the distribution of work and fairness in contributions made by individual members.
  • Vary your approaches to teaching and assessing student learning. Create multiple opportunities for students to practice important skills in different ways (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010). Clicker questions create safety for shy students. Short, in-class reflective writing gives students an opportunity to gather their thoughts and prepare for small group or full-class discussion. Varied strategies benefit students in two ways. From a Universal Design perspective, multiple strategies increase the likelihood that students will encounter a strategy that allows them to capitalize on one of their strengths. From a developmental perspective, multiple strategies require students to sometimes practice less preferred activities and develop skills they ordinarily avoid. If you create a large enough number of these activities, no one activity will deliver a “fatal” blow to a student’s overall grade (they do worry about the impact activities will have on the final grade).
  • Give students a voice. Conduct a mid-semester feedback activity and ask students to tell you what helps them learn in your class, what interferes with their learning, and what they would like to see you change. Their requests are not mandates. They will appreciate the fact that you cared enough to listen and considered making changes. Explain why you keep certain learning activities and identify changes that you intend to make based on their input.



Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.   

Seidel, S. B., & Tanner, K. D. (2013). “What if students revolt?” – Considering student resistance: Origins, options, and opportunities for investigation.  CBE—Live Sciences Education, 12, 586-595. doi:10.1187/cbe-13-09-0190 

4/01/2015 ecr