Understanding Student Resistance

It's often unexpected and usually something of an affront: The teacher has devoted time and energy to preparing a new activity (or series of activities) for students. The teacher has opted to use the activities because they are consistent with what the research says about how students learn best. But instead of endorsing the new and exciting (at least from the teacher's perspective) learning experience, student resist. Most of the time they do so passively, with nonverbal behaviors that eloquently convey their distaste for what is occurring. Occasionally they speak to the issue directly: “We don't want to do this in groups. You need to lecture. That's what we want teachers to do.” Unfortunately this kind of resistance can often be the tipping point for teachers. If they're feeling a bit uncomfortable using the new approach, if they really enjoy, say, lecturing, if they think student objections will lead to lower course evaluations, these factors collectively or individually can be enough to persuade teachers to return to those tried-and-true instructional approaches.

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It's often unexpected and usually something of an affront: The teacher has devoted time and energy to preparing a new activity (or series of activities) for students. The teacher has opted to use the activities because they are consistent with what the research says about how students learn best. But instead of endorsing the new and exciting (at least from the teacher's perspective) learning experience, student resist. Most of the time they do so passively, with nonverbal behaviors that eloquently convey their distaste for what is occurring. Occasionally they speak to the issue directly: “We don't want to do this in groups. You need to lecture. That's what we want teachers to do.” Unfortunately this kind of resistance can often be the tipping point for teachers. If they're feeling a bit uncomfortable using the new approach, if they really enjoy, say, lecturing, if they think student objections will lead to lower course evaluations, these factors collectively or individually can be enough to persuade teachers to return to those tried-and-true instructional approaches. A recently published and very comprehensive article on student resistance identifies three reasons students resist new instructional approaches. The first one grows out of student discomfort with interacting with peers. Students think they should be learning from the teacher, not from one another. Authors Seidel and Tanner make the point that the problem is not with peer interaction per se but with how students may have experienced it in the past or are experiencing it now. The challenge for teachers is designing activities that ratchet up the caliber of peer exchanges—discussions to which students come prepared, prompts that require analysis and thought, or products that can't be produced by one member, for example. Students can and do learn from each other—research documenting that is overwhelming. Students need experiences that convince them of this conclusion. Secondly, Seidel and Tanner point out that resistance is not always to the new activity. Gently and constructively they point out teacher behaviors that are known to generate student resistance. The article contains a list of 20 such behaviors, culled from the research. Examples include sarcasm and put-downs (often delivered nonverbally, even unintentionally), not being responsive to student questions, coming to class unprepared and disorganized, and not being accessible to students. “While we doubt that any instructor reading this [list] will see him- or herself as egregiously or extensively engaged in any of these behaviors, we are all no doubt occasionally guilty of many of these instructor behaviors (authors included).” (p. 589) Finally, Seidel and Tanner propose that there is a relationship between faculty reluctance to use new instructional approaches and students resistance to them. “Just like faculty, students enter classrooms with extensive personal experiences that lead them to have preconceived expectations about what teaching and learning should entail.” (p. 590) Add to that the fact that most faculty and students haven't learned or been trained in the use of alternative instructional approaches. Put students together in a group, task them with discussing a set of readings, and students don't know how to proceed. Are they supposed to ask one another questions? Are they supposed to summarize the readings? Make comments about them? Share their opinions? Disagree? Sometimes resistance is due to the fact that learning with others (or on your own) takes more work. Who wants to try to figure out what's important in the reading when you're used to finding that out from the teacher? “While we would like to think that students view learning as the primary incentive in their course work, the reality may be that some students view high grades, minimal effort, and ease of completion as motivating incentives in the college course work.” (p. 590) If you're concerned about resistance or you have experienced some, this article is a great resource. After identifying these causes of resistance, the authors offer a series of suggestions for preventing resistance and another set of options that describe constructive responses when resistance does occur. Reference: Seidel, S.B. and Tanner, K D. (2013). “What if students revolt?”—Considering student resistance: origins, options and opportunities for investigation. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 12 (Winter), 586-595.