University of Minnesota
Office of Human Resources

Scene One: My Students Don't Want Active Learning!

Read a Transcript of This Scene


Being asked to learn actively is often a new experience for college students. Many enter classrooms expecting to sit quietly and listen while their instructors fill the period by lecturing. Using active learning strategies violates these expectations, making some students uncomfortable, resentful, and resistant. Students may act out by rolling their eyes, complaining, or refusing to participate in the activities altogether.

Student resistance is a concern for instructors interested in using active learning, particularly for those who are new to it. They might see student resistance as a challenge to their authority or an indictment of their teaching ability. Often, it's read as a sign that active learning simply won't work in their discipline or context. Some student resistance to active learning is to be expected, especially at first, and can be overcome relatively easily by attention to the strategies recommended below.

The following scene dramatizes student resistance to active learning.


Catherine is an assistant professor of geography teaching a survey course that enrolls non majors from across the university. A dedicated instructor, Catherine is very interested in improving her teaching. She attends teaching workshops as often as her busy schedule allows and frequently asks her colleagues for ideas and recommentions. Recently, Catherine attended a workshop on active learning and left the session excited about the possibilities she'd heard discussed. She resolved to try one strategy–an informal small group exercise–in her following class session.

Catherine began the session with a content overview. After spending half the period explaining principles and providing examples of the day's topic, Catherine introduced her active learning strategy. When she asked students to break into groups, however, the results were not what she expected.


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Implications of the Scene

The situation dramatized in episode one is all too common: a well-intentioned instructor tries a new and risky teaching strategy for the first time, and it fails miserably. Rather than chalking the situation up to experience and resolving never to try such a thing again–a common and unfortunate response to this kind of occurrence–we might consider the reasons the students in the video clip resisted active learning and what we might do to change their behavior in the future.

First of all, the instructor (Catherine) hadn't used active learning in her class prior to this session, so the concept and format of it was foreign to her students. In fact, an implicit contact had developed between her and her students spelling out the roles and expectations of each party. The students had learned that their role was to sit in class, listen, and take notes, while Catherine's was to present information and ocassionally ask questions. When Catherine violated this contract by asking students to learn actively, they were confused, uncomfortable, and a little insecure in their new learning environment.

Second, active learning is undoubtedly more work for students than attending to the typical lecture. It's much easier to sit in a darkened auditorium, mind wandering comfortably, than it is to actively engage difficult problems in individual or group activities. Active learning pushes many out of their comfort zone, and their response might be anger, belligerance, or resistance.

Seen from the students' point of view, resistance to active learning is understandable. It falls on the instructor to counter these feelings by clearly explaining why she is using active learning (appealing to their reason, which Catherine does in the second episode), taking charge of the situation, and presenting a confident, positive attitude.

In episode one, however, Catherine fails to do any of these things. She walks around the class asking students to get into groups, but there is a sense that she herself is a bit unsure about the strategy. Rather than taking charge, she seems to hope that the situation will resolve itself. With enough importuning, Catherine's students would eventually get into groups and begin the activity, but their level of engagement with it would probably be very low. The activity would be time consuming, difficult to manage, and yield poor results. Faced with an experience like this, it's no wonder that most instructors would consider the activity a failure and go back to lecturing.

In episode two, Catherine takes charge of the situation in two important ways. When she realizes that students are resisting the idea of group work, she intercedes immediately and explains her rationale, showing students that she is in charge and has thought the strategy through. She then manually puts students into groups to get the activity started and to break down student reluctance.


To overcome student resistance to active learning, consider the following:

  • Begin using active learning strategies early in the term. Introduce the concept on the first day of class and let students know that they will be expected to participate in such strategies throughout the course.
  • Be true to your word and use active learning frequently–at least once a class period initially. After the first several sessions, students will understand that you're serious about active learning and will accept their role as participants readily.
  • Give clear instructions. State the goal students should meet, how much time they have for the activity, what procedures they should follow, and with whom they should partner (ie, "turn to the person next to you" or "form groups of four with the people nearest you.") It is often a good idea to put directions for in-class activities on an overhead or a PowerPoint slide so that students have something to refer to as they begin the activity.
  • Explain to students why you're using active learning and the benefits they can expect from it.
  • Be committed to your choice to use active learning and communicate that confidently to students. Students will be put at ease if they understand that you're in charge and have good reasons for what you're doing.
  • Manually break students into groups. This can be an effective way to overcome student reluctance and demonstrate that you're in charge.
  • Start small and simple. Use low-impact strategies such as think-pair-share or in-class writing exercises. These strategies are easy to implement, take only a few minutes, and are "low stakes" for students who may be unsure or uncomfortable. As you and your students gain experience, you may decide to graduate to more involved activities.