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Managing student resistance

One of the most frustrating situations a teacher can face is student resistance to our efforts to teach them. However, we need to begin by recognizing that what we perceive as resistance may not be resistance at all. Once we are sure the behavior is resistance, we then can better manage that resistance by understanding the reasons behind it. Once we understand the reasons for resistance, we can better employ strategies to help manage that resistance.

Is it really resistance? What does resistance look like?

Resistance can take many forms.  Students can act passively by mentally withdrawing and not attending to tasks.  They may perform other activities, such as text messaging and surfing the Internet.  They may take a more active role, by not completing required assignments or, sometimes, outwardly protesting class activities.  Resistance can also result in absenteeism.

However, the signs mentioned above may have other causes, not just resistance.  It’s imperative that we diagnose resistance, and not allow our preconceived notions of student behavior prejudice our beliefs and actions.  For example, a student may be text-messaging another student to ask a question about a topic you just covered in lecture.  They may be looking on the Internet to help them better understand something you did not explain very well.  Mental withdrawal could be due to your lack of organization or poor teaching skill. Absenteeism could be due to family needs. It is imperative we correctly interpret behavior before we assume a student’s actions are a form of resistance.

With that in mind, we’ll now talk more about resistance.

Why do students resist our effort to teach them?

Mental models

Students, and faculty, come to higher education with beliefs about the nature of teaching, learning and activities that take place in the classroom. These beliefs and mental models are due to years of experience in the educational system and are oftentimes subconscious (Leamson, 1999). Some of these beliefs and mental models include

  • What happens on the first day of class
  • What happens during a class period
  • Purpose of evaluation
  • Role of adults, teachers, and students
  • What is teaching?
  • Relationship of class to life
  • Purpose of feedback
  • The purpose of learning
  • The use of technology in learning and socialization

When students are offered techniques, actions, and/or beliefs that contradict these mental models, a disequilibrium can take place. This is the nature of learning.  However, when we offer students something far outside their mental model, resistance, not learning, takes place.  It is the instructor’s role to give students circumstances that cause change; these circumstances should be within the student’s tolerance.  If the circumstances are outside the student’s tolerance, the teacher must provide increased structure and support in order to decrease resistance.

Level of cognitive development

Students, especially undergraduate students, are still undergoing cognitive development. There are many models or theories of cognitive development.  Most of these theories, however, posit that cognitive development takes place when the learner is offered circumstances that are different from what they know, but not so far outside of their understanding as to cause resistance. 

Other reasons for resistance

There are several other reasons for resistance (Brookfield, 2006):

  • Poor self-esteem as learners
  • Fear
  • Disjunction of learning and teaching styles
  • Irrelevance of the learning activity
  • Culture
  • Poor instructions from the instructor
  • Student’s dislike of the teacher

What can we do to support students as they learn?

  • Read the literature on how people learn and adapt your teaching accordingly. Parts of this guide may help you.
  • Understand your students.
    • Read up on the characteristics of the millennial, or Net Gen, student.
    • Use techniques to understand the individual students in your classroom.  For example, come to class early and chat, invite them to join you for coffee instead of office hours.
    • Use some type of pre-course activity that allows you to understand what they already know about your subject.
    • In smaller classes, use some type of icebreaker or informative introduction.
  • Have a clear and informative syllabus.
  • Have a clear and informative Blackboard site (if you choose to use Blackboard.)
  • Tell students why you choose to teach like you do.  Justify your assignments.   Show your students the purpose of classroom activities.
  • Have students create classroom policies (but remember it is your classroom – have a veto vote for those policies you absolutely can’t live with.)
  • Link the purpose of your class to everyday life and their futures.  How is this material relevant to them?
  • There are several techniques that can be employed with student groups.   See “Minimizing the perils of small group discussion.”

One last hint

Student resistance can be extremely frustrating.  In dealing with resistance, we must support not only our students, but ourselves.  Avoid the tendency to blame students, as it can create a downward cycle and self-fulfilling prophecy. Seek help in dealing with resistance, changing your teaching, or learning to cope.  Our students are best served when we ourselves remain outwardly calm, responding to them with empathy, fairness, and professionalism.

Where can I learn more?

  • Allen, D. E., Duch, B. J., & Groh, S. E. (2001). Strategies for using groups.  In B. J. Duch, S. E. Groh, & D. E. Allen (Eds.), The power of problem-based learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Press.
  • Bain, K. (2004).  What the best college teachers do.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. (2001). Effective strategies for cooperative learning. Journal of Cooperation and Collaboration in College Teaching, 10, 69-75. Available online at http://www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Papers/CLStrategies(JCCCT).pdf
  • Oakley, B., Felder, R. M., Brent, R., & Elhajj, I. (2004). Turning student groups into effective teams. Journal of Student Centered Learning, 2, 9-34.
  • Brookfield, S. D. (2006). The skillful teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Leamnson, R. N. (1999). Thinking about Teaching and Learning: Developing Habits of Learning with First-Year College and University Students. Stylus Publishing, Sterling, Virginia
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Last updated: 06/20/2013
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