Minimizing Student Resistance to Active Learning

resisting active learning

This research was motivated by the persistent belief that use of active learning approaches engenders student resistance. Despite the well-documented benefits of active learning, students don’t always endorse these approaches with enthusiasm and that makes faculty reluctant to use these approaches. Up to this point evidence of student resistance has been more anecdotal than actual. This research begins empirical exploration of student resistance, including a focus on strategies instructors can use to reduce it.

The study

Finelli, C. J., Nguyen, K., DeMonbrun, M., Borrego, M., Prince, M., Husman, J., . . . Waters, C. K. (2018). Reducing student resistance to active learning: Strategies for instructors. Journal of College Science Teaching, 47(5), 80–91. [PDF available here]

The research questions

  • What are students’ responses when instructors use active learning?
  • How frequently do instructors use strategies that reduce student resistance?
  • What is the relationship between use of these strategies and students’ responses to active learning?

Interesting background information

Many faculty still rely on lecture although now most use what’s being called “interactive” lecture. For example, teachers engage students with questions, in large courses often using clickers, or they may encourage students to talk to each other about an aspect of the content. Wider use of these engagement strategies has decreased reports of student resistance to them. But with other active learning strategies like having student work together in groups, faculty are still seeing strong student resistance. Students don’t want to learn with other students and believe the teacher ought to be the one offering explanations and answering questions. There are reports in the literature that initial student resistance tends to diminish as they gain more experience with active learning approaches.

The study cohort

One thousand fifty-one undergraduate students, enrolled in 18 different engineering courses, each taught by a different instructor and at a different US institution, participated in the study.

Methodology (a succinct summary)

The research team developed a “Student Responses to Instructional Practices” instrument that solicited students’ assessments of a collection of strategies known to reduce resistance and noted their emotional and behavioral response to those strategies. The collected responses were analyzed with descriptive statistical tests for significance and correlations, as well as hierarchical linear regression models.

Key findings

  • “We found little resistance to active learning among students in our data set” (p. 88). The most frequently reported response was to “feel the instructor had students’ best interest in mind when asking students to do the activity” and the least frequently reported response was “plan to give the instructor a low course evaluation because of the activities” (p. 88).
  • When instructors used explanation and facilitation strategies to reduce resistance, they correlated significantly with improvements in students’ behavioral responses to active learning. Students participated more, reported fewer distractive behaviors such as checking social media and their evaluations of the instructor and course were higher.
  • Students perceived their instructors used more “explanation” strategies (where the instructor describes the purpose of the activities and discussed why they were valuable), than facilitation strategies (where the instructor interacted with students or encouraged participation in active learning strategies). The activity most often used address resistance was to “clearly explain what students were expected to do for the activities” and the least frequently used strategy was confronting students who were not participating in the activity.

Cautions and caveats

There are several concerns to keep in mind when considering these findings. First, actual student behavior was not observed. Students reported their perceptions of their behavior. The cohort was not cross-disciplinary. All the students in the study were taking engineering courses. Also, the instructors volunteered their classes for this study which means they were likely teachers who used active learning approaches and had experience dealing with student resistance. Researchers did find significant variation between the individual courses which means students had different understandings of how their instructors used strategies to reduce resistance. The study did not explore what might have caused those differences.

Practical implications (what you might want to do about the findings)

The findings should encourage faculty to begin or make further use of active learning approaches. These students did not report a wholesale negative response to strategies designed to engage them, quite the opposite. This research is also useful in that it identifies concrete ways to respond when students resist and includes evidence that these responses diminished the resistance. Teachers could use the Student Response to Instructional Practices instrument developed for this research (and included in the article) to solicit input from students on their perceptions of resistance and teacher responses to it.

Related research

Nguyen, K., Husman, J., Borrego, M., Shekhar, P., Prince, M., DeMonbrun, M., . . . Waters, C. (2017). Students’ expectations, types of instruction, and instructor strategies predicting student response to active learning. International Journal of Engineering Education, 33(1A), 2–18.