Understanding Students’ Resistance to Learning

Like author Stephen Brookfield, many teachers tend to take on the responsibility for students; resistance to learning as as personal failure by “internalizing the myth chronicled by Britzman (2003) that “everything depends on the teacher” (Brookfield, p. 213).

Once again, it is important here to consider the composition and character of the adult learner. Adult learners come to the classroom with a host of life experience and biases and opinions that stem from this experience.

They are wildly unique individuals. In addition to their roles as students, they are parents, employees, caregivers, spouses, teammates – and play many roles in their day-to-day lives.

As a result, students’ personal resistance to learning may be completely out of the control of the instructor.

Students may have a fear of learning, then changing who they are. They may lack self confidence, and turn away from course work because they are scared to fail, or succeed. Many have a fear of the “unknown”. They may have learner fatigue. They may not understand the relevance of the lesson. They may not “click” with the instructor, and close up as a result.

While he notes that resistance may never be overcome, Brookfield suggests several ways to contain and mitigate students’ resistance to learning:

  1. Try to sort out the causes of resistance.
  2. Ask yourself if the resistance is justified.
  3. Research your students’ backgrounds (cultural, racial, ability levels, previous experience, preferred learning styles, etc).
  4. When appropriate involve students in educational planning.
  5. Use a variety of teaching methods and approaches.
  6. Assess learning incrementally (if students are going to receive a low grade, they need to know this as early as possible).
  7. Check that your intentions are clearly understood.
  8. Build a case for learning
  9. Create situations in which students succeed
  10. Don’t push too fast.
  11. Admit the normality of resistance.
  12. Try to limit the negative effects of resistance.

Ultimately, adult students have the right to resist learning, if they so choose. They are paying customers and have the ability to control their approach to the learning experience.

As instructors, we should do our best to ensure a learning environment that meets student needs; however, we must understand that it may not be possible to please all students – and not take this personally.

Brookfield, S. (2015). Exercising Teacher Power Responsibly. In The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Characteristics of Adult Learners or Non-Traditional Students in College. (2013, November 7). Retrieved January 5, 2016, from http://www.brighthub.com/education/college/articles/85182.aspx


About robincookbondy

My name is Robin Cook Bondy and I live in Ladner, BC with my husband and three sons. I am a communications and public relations professional pursuing further education in the area of adult learning.
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