You’ve created new lesson plans and are experimenting with active learning in the classroom. The problem is, your students are completely resistant to the idea. Here’s how to engage students in active learning—even if they are initially reluctant.
Active learning teaching strategies are effective teaching and learning methods. But that doesn’t mean everybody understands the benefits. Indeed, for students, there may be a great deal of frustration and annoyance that the educator is making them do ‘extra’ work.
Active learning, like the term suggests, is a teaching method that engages students in the learning process. As it’s collaborative in nature and student centered, they can’t tune out; they have to think about what they’re doing. Instructional strategies range from calling on students in class to problem-solving in small groups, and can be deployed in several ways—including blended learning, or flipped classrooms.
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So why are learners resisting, and how can you, as an instructor, overcome this reticence and engage students in active learning? Human beings tend to resist change; they do what they know. Taking students out of their comfort zone — where they listen passively to lectures and take notes — could make them uncomfortable, anxious or frustrated.
They might not see the point, particularly if they’re only focused on getting good grades. “Students resist learning when they don’t see how or what an activity contributes to their efforts to learn. If it looks like busywork or a waste of time, students resist,” writes Maryellen Weimer in an article for Faculty Focus1.
Oftentimes, it’s not what learners expect, or even want, from post-secondary education. They may not have been exposed to active learning in high school, so they associate the learning experience with lectures, note-taking and homework. Active learning also requires more work from students—and that could lay at the root of resistance.
“Students may not easily or immediately perceive the learning advantage of active classroom learning strategies,” according to Shannon Seidel and Kimberly Tanner in the journal CBE Life Sciences Education2. “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 …”
How to engage students in active learning when anxiety is an issue
Some students may even think that educators aren’t doing their job. Because students are used to credential-based learning, “some will think you are trying to get out of work or pulling a fast one by having them do the thinking and taking responsibility for their own learning,” writes Cathy Davidson in a blog on HASTAC’s site3. “Some, conversely, will feel as if they just want to know what’s on the test so they can study for it the night before and get their passing grade.”
While this teaching strategy can boost learning outcomes, it can also cause anxiety in students who are shy or introverted. Unlike a traditional lecture, where they listen and take notes, active learning requires students to participate in class and collaborate with classmates.
They might also feel academic anxiety, because it forces them to demonstrate how much they’ve learned (or not). Some students are uncomfortable with group work or may not want to take learning risks in front of their classmates.
Even though active learning techniques are meant to be learning experiences, some students may view them as a form of evaluation, so “it is likely that active learning courses have a higher potential to increase student anxiety compared to traditional lecture courses and this could potentially explain why some students are resistant to engage in active learning,” according to research in the International Journal of STEM Education4.
So what can you do to reduce resistance and improve student engagement? Explain your teaching methods—and the benefits—up front. If students understand why they’re doing a particular activity or assignment, they’ll be more willing to give it a chance.
Trisha Sippel, a postdoctoral fellow and science teacher at the University of Washington’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, suggests in an article in The Swaddle that students should be given time to think before sharing in class, or use homework to prepare students for class discussions; instructors should also let students know it’s okay to make mistakes or have differing opinions5.
Start using active learning strategies early in your course design and syllabus—don’t foist it upon students mid-year and suddenly change their learning environment. Introduce them to the concept, use activities frequently, and vary those activities (since students have different learning styles). Start small, such as with writing assignments or a think-pair-share activity, before going on to more complex exercises such as group work or cooperative learning. Be transparent and explain why you’re using active learning to teach—metacognition, students learning about student learning—is a powerful discipline in your toolbox.
A study published in Plos One found that student resistance to active learning activities decreases over time as it becomes normalized6. The study also found that, eventually, each learner will connect active learning to their growing achievement. So, if all else fails … just give it time. Even if they resist, they won’t resist forever.
Ideas for interactive study activities
1. Weimer, M., PhD. (2010, July 20). Student Learning: Six Causes of Resistance. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/student-learning-six-causes-of-resistance/
2. Seidel, S. B., & Tanner, K. D. (2013). “What if students revolt?”–considering student resistance: origins, options, and opportunities for investigation. CBE life sciences education, 12(4), 586–595. doi:10.1187/cbe-13-09-0190
3. Davidson, C. (2017, November 15). An “Active Learning” Kit: Rationale, Methods, Models, Research, Bibliography. Retrieved from https://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2017/11/15/active-learning-kit-rationale-methods-models-research-bibliography
4. Cooper, K. M., Downing, V. R., & Brownell, S. E. (2018). The influence of active learning practices on student anxiety in large-enrollment college science classrooms. International Journal of STEM Education, 5(1). doi:10.1186/s40594-018-0123-6
6. Shaw, T. J., Yang, S., Nash, T. R., Pigg, R. M., & Grim, J. M. (2019). Knowing is half the battle: Assessments of both student perception and performance are necessary to successfully evaluate curricular transformation. Plos One, 14(1). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0210030