PIDP 3260: Brookfield Chapter 16: Understanding Students’ Resistance to Learning


The resistance in learning from students can present a tough and frustrating scenario for any teacher.  We tend to look at ourselves and take inventory of our shortcomings in order to account for the resistance.  However, this may not be the case.  Adult learners come to our classroom with a variety of life situations, biases, socioeconomic backgrounds and beliefs that my present as obstacles to learning.  Adult learners have personal responsibilities such as work, bills to pay, children, spouses, and other non-learning obligations that could negatively impact their drive to learn.  This is out of the control of the teacher.  I asked a very good student why he was not doing well over the last few sessions and is there anything I can do to help him.  He said that his mother had asked him not to come home during Christmas holidays.  He was sad and devastated.   His resistance to learning was not related to the course or my teaching. It was personal.

One of the most interesting parts of my PIDP learning is understanding how fragile the ego of an adult learner really is.  The learner fears failure and looking foolish in front of others. They may fear poor performance results. They may lack confidence in their ability to learn and perform under the current technological era.  Finally, the learner may just shut off if they do not like their instructor for one reason or another.  The reason may not be related to our teaching nor our class.  Last year, I had a student who was very confrontational last year. I gave him a poor rating with respect to his professional conduct.  A week later, I spoke to his group supervisor who informed me that the student had requested to be removed from my class as he did not like having a female instructor.  In his culture, men are in charge and men direct other men. Women do not direct men and the student did not like receiving feedback of any form from me.  It was my first introduction to resistance to learning that was not in my control.

Although resistance may not be able to be overcome at times, instructors can take a few steps to attempt to deal with it.  At times, we may be able to change the resistance.  My student was assigned to a male instructor and is now thriving in his learning.  So, once the source of the resistance was sorted and addressed, it resolved.  Not all sources are so easily discovered and/or addressed, but instructors should try.  In one course, I found students would not do their assigned reading before class. I would send repeated email requests, but they would ignore my requests.  Finally, I decided to address the class and voice my frustration.  I found out that the course preceding mine was a higher credit course and demanded a lot more attention and preparation; they did not have the time to spend on my course requirement.  Needless to say, I still needed the pre-readings.  So, I compromised and reduced my reading expectations but introduced an I-clicker pre-lecture test for each session.  This change was very effective in reducing the resistance.

Brookfield (2000) explores various ways to address resistance to learning. These include self reflection of your teaching/subject/requirement to address any areas that may be causing resistance to learning.  Adult students will shut off if they feel that the course is not delivering the content they believe they should be learning.  This requires instructors to establish clarity and intention.  This also may require to seek learner involvement in planning of educational sessions and activities.  Engagement is a great way to feel empowered and a part of one’s own learning.  Ensure materials are being devised to meet the need of the learner; they are in line with the learner’s background in education, experience, style of learning, technological savvy, and more.  Direct application of learned materials may help exhibit the importance and immediate application of learning thus engaging the adult learner.  If one teaching method does not work, seek other methods of teaching.  Perhaps students will be more interested and engaged in another method. If the other method works, evaluate why and how is it more effective. Try to devise more activities around the learner’s desired method of learning.  Ensure learner trust is maintained by being clear, consistent and transparent in your learning outcomes, expectations, agendas and evaluations.  It is hard to gain the trust of an adult learner. It is very easy to loose it.  Evaluation must be fair and confidential and respect the learner’s ego.   Evaluation should not surprise the learner at any time. It should be provided as to help the learner gain a better self reflection regarding their learning.  Teach at a pace that the learner can succeed and engage in the class; do not overwhelm the learner by going too fast.

Even though students may resist learning, we need to ensure we have done our best to create a safe and effective learning environment that respects the principles of andragogy at all times.  We can not take the resistance personally but should attempt to devise ways to reduce it when possible.  I think CIQ forms can help teachers understand the class and their needs much better. All we can do is address our findings and understandings. The rest is up to the learner.


Brookfield, S. D. (2000). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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