Student responses to active learning

2 January 2017

Trying something new in the classroom is always a bit nerve wracking. It requires extra preparation, and it is unclear how students will respond. Though research shows that students learn more through active learning pedagogies, students themselves sometimes resist new approaches. After investing a lot of effort to implement a particular in-class activity, on more than one occasion, I have been frustrated to receive student evaluations that say, “Melissa should lecture more.” Long lectures don’t fit with my teaching philosophy, and on top of that, I’m not a strong lecturer. As a junior faculty member, I remember being particularly unsure of how to handle the occasional student who was resistant to certain active learning pedagogies. Hence, I was intrigued to come across an article titled, ” ‘What if students revolt?’ — Considering Student Resistance: Origins, Options, and Opportunities for Investigation.” It provides food for thought for those of us worried about student responses to pedagogical experimentation.

One factor that the article mentions as contributing to student resistance to active learning pedagogies is related to expectations based on what students have experienced in high school or in other classrooms. If students are used to being passive in class, they can find themselves frustrated by the enhanced engagement demanded in active learning classrooms. If students lack confidence in how to engage in the classroom because they are unfamiliar with the pedagogy, it can contribute to student discomfort.

Poor peer interactions in the face of increased classroom collaboration required by many active learning pedagogies can also contribute to student resistance. Although the author of the article considers “social loafing” as the main source of frustration, I can imagine any number of poor social dynamics that might contribute to student unhappiness with active learning approaches.

The article does provide suggestions for gathering feedback about student concerns with regards to new pedagogies and responding to that feedback, in addition to identifying ways to minimize resistance. I particularly encourage faculty to take a look at Table 3 in the paper. What are some of the approaches that you use to help mitigate student resistance to your pedagogical experiments? How have you responded when you face student challenges to active learning approaches?