Whether improving academic performance, collaboration or problem-solving skills, active learning has become the gold-standard for instruction in higher education. Yet despite the positive press, most lecturers still embrace the traditional sage-on-stage approach to teaching.
A study of physics professors found that one-third who had implemented “research-based learning methods” ended up abandoning the approach in favor of lecturing (1). Prep time and lack of institutional support are frequently cited obstacles, although overcoming student resistance to active learning may be among the most daunting. The apprehension is well warranted. Many instructors are concerned about receiving negative evaluations as well as feelings of resentment among students who dislike being held accountable for their own learning (2).
Active Learning is Hard Work
According to a 2019 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, part of the reason active learning is such a tough sell is because it requires more effort on the part of students. Active learning obligates individuals to problem solve, speak up in class, collaborate with peers or play the role of instructor. Unlike the relative ease of listening to a lecture, active learning demands a level of effort students may neither expect nor want.
A key insight into the challenge of resistance is how students perceive or “feel” about the quality of their learning. As the study acknowledges, when students “experience the increased cognitive effort associated with active learning, they initially take that effort as a poor sign of learning.” The result is that they are more likely to believe they learn less compared to a traditional lecture when in fact the opposite is true.
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Overcoming Resistance Starts with Context
One of the central issues uncovered is that of perspective. Students who are unaccustomed to the demands of active learning “may not appreciate that the increased cognitive struggle accompanying active learning is actually a sign that the learning is effective.”
Explaining the rationale for using active learning is one way to help reduce resistance, especially if this is done at the start of the semester. This includes discussing what active learning is, what it looks like and the positive impact on academic performance.
Even so, providing context may only go so far in shaping student perceptions. The bigger challenge lies in fostering the mental flexibility needed to embrace a style of teaching many may be experiencing for the first time.
Getting Students to See the Bigger Picture
A 2018 study in Behavioral Analysis in Practice offers another approach that may be helpful in overcoming student resistance to active learning (3). The study sought to understand the impact of using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) on academic performance and psychological flexibility among graduate students.
For the uninitiated, ACT is a branch of clinical behavioral analysis that uses self-reflection and mindfulness-based activities with the aim of improving psychological flexibility (4). This includes increasing awareness of the present moment, learning to let thoughts and feelings simply “come and go” and connecting with a “transcendent sense of self”. At its core, ACT is about understanding what is important to oneself and setting goals in accordance with one’s values.
Over a six-week period, one group of graduate students was engaged with exercises designed to help them clarify how to be successful in their chosen program. This included “determining why it matters to you” and encouraging them to “choose to be committed” to their own achievement.
In the first week, participants were asked to think about their values in terms of Education/Work, Leisure, Personal Growth/Health and Relationships and to reflect on how closely they were living their lives in accordance with those values. Subsequent weeks introduced the concepts of committed action, goal setting and dealing with the challenges of remaining committed to their academic goals. By contrast, the control group received a series of weekly exercises focused on developing effective study habits.
The ACT-based intervention group showed a significant improvement in academic achievement, including psychological flexibility, compared to students who received study tips alone. Most interestingly, the intervention group also reported feeling “better prepared for academic success as well as success outside of the academic setting.”
The study suggests that improving psychological flexibility may help students become more accepting of the rigors of academic life. By understanding what’s important on a personal level and tapping into their intrinsic motivations, students are better able to contend with whatever comes their way—be it an increased workload or the style of teaching employed in the classroom.
Putting ACT into Action
While there are many worksheets and approaches available, applying ACT in the classroom needn’t be a complex exercise. What’s important is getting students to take a step back and think about the values that matter most to them. Education and work are natural starting places.
Have them reflect on what these are along with their aspirations for living a life in alignment with these values. What are their fears? What are the barriers that have held them back in the past? How will they overcome them in the future? These cover the key bases to create a Committed Action Plan. This worksheet from the University of Exeter offers some good ideas to get started.
The Power of Why
Connecting the day-to-day of academic life to the bigger picture can help students find the grit to embrace new learning methods. This is particularly important for first-year students who may be unclear about their career goals, let alone which major they will settle on. Understanding their ‘why’ can help build the resolve to persist through the numerous challenges of adjusting to life at school.
Vincent Tinto, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University, believes that all too often students are left to figure out the value of what they are learning on their own. He argues that more attention needs to be placed on helping students apply what they are being asked to learn “to meaningful situations” and “in ways that have relevance to the issues that concern them.” (5)
Active learning, when done correctly, is one of the most powerful tools in helping students do exactly this. By setting the right context, and employing problem-based learning to tackle real-world situations, students can uncover a deeper sense of value behind the subjects they are being taught. This is especially true when students are challenged in pursuit of learning they find personally meaningful.
Henderson, C., Dancy, M., Niewiadomska-Bugaj, M. Use of research-based instructional strategies in introductory physics: Where do faculty leave the innovation-decision process? https://journals.aps.org/prper/pdf/10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.8.020104
Deslaurier, L., McCarty, L.S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., Kestin, G. Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. https://www.pnas.org/content/116/39/19251
Paliliunas, D., Belisle, J., Dixon, M.R. A Randomized Control Trial to Evaluate the Use of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to Increase Academic Performance and Psychological Flexibility in Graduate Students. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6182845/
Tinto, V. From Retention to Persistence. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2016/09/26/how-improve-student-persistence-and-completion-essay