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March 22, 2018

Teaching at Pitt

Teaching Resistant Students

Whether it’s a student texting in the back of the classroom or a student vocally challenging the necessity of completing a general education requirement, all instructors have experienced student resistance. Causes and manifestations vary, but the effects are the same: disengagement; an uncomfortable classroom climate; and often, poor academic outcomes. Although it can be disheartening to teach bored or defiant students, there are plenty of tactics you can use to stop resistance from disrupting your courses.

Start with Prevention

In an article titled “What If Students Revolt? —Considering Student Resistance: Origins, Options, and Opportunities for Investigation,” authors Shannon Seidel and Kimberly Tanner argue that one of the most effective approaches to resistance is prevention. Try the following simple strategies (which are also instructional best practices) to head off resistance before it starts:

  • Decrease social distance between yourself and your students by using students’ names, making eye contact, moving closer to students as you speak to them and generally conveying that you are comfortable in your classroom.
  • Be transparent about the purpose and relevance of instructional activities, assignments and how you plan to evaluate student performance to avoid student perception that learning tasks are meaningless or unfair.
  • Be intentional about planning student-to-student interaction. Give clear instructions for group tasks so that poor interaction with peers doesn’t lead to resistance.
  • When teaching about controversial topics, set specific guidelines for behavior and respectful dialogue.
  • Switch up teaching techniques to appeal to learners with different needs and to keep class interesting.

If prevention doesn’t work …

Determine the Cause

Sources of resistance run the gamut and may be caused by internal factors (like fear of failure) or external factors (like actions of the instructor). In order to successfully address resistance, first figure out where it’s coming from. You can do this by building in opportunities for students to give you feedback throughout the semester. Frequent quick, low-stakes formative assessments techniques like “the muddiest point” can help you determine how well your students grasp course content and where there are gaps in their knowledge. Creating short Blackboard or Qualtrics surveys to anonymously ask students questions about the course and your teaching strategies can also yield helpful information.

Although it’s impossible to please every student all the time, collecting feedback from your class on a regular basis can allow you to pinpoint academic or attitudinal trends which lead to resistance.

Once you know why it’s happening … 

Combat Resistance

In “How to Motivate Reluctant Learners,” Robyn Jackson offers a list of strategies to address different types of resistance:


Students Resist Because Strategies to Try
They fear failure. ·    Link new information to prior knowledge.
·    Treat failure as a learning opportunity.
·    Build in more opportunities for practice.
·    Provided detailed, improvement-focused feedback.
·    Give students some say in the assessment process, whether that means choosing an assignment topic, using questions from student generated study guides on exams or allowing them to revise and resubmit work.
Course content or activities seem irrelevant to them. ·    Point out or ask students to identify the real-world relevance of learning tasks.
·    Allow students to learn in ways that are most effective for them.
·    Stress long-term gains.
·    Generate curiosity using strategies like simulations, problem solving scenarios or engagement activities.
·    Make the case that learning is worthwhile.
They don’t feel you are invested in them. ·    Communicate clear goals and high but achievable expectations.
·    Create support structures to help students succeed.
·    Be responsive to student needs (within reason) and present yourself as a resource.
·    Invite student involvement in class.


I spoke to Assistant Professor Elizabeth Harkins from the special education program in the Division of Education at Pitt–Johnstown about her experience addressing a trickier problem: resistance to controversial topics. Harkins described how her students pushed back against diversity exercises and discussions noting that, “Although many students had never interacted with anyone of a different race, religion or sexuality for example, they were resistant to concepts of privilege, bias or oppression.”

Harkins took several steps to address her students’ discomfort, including continuing her own learning about biases and privileges, exploring ways to engage and build trust with her students, taking advantage of university resources like the Extended Diversity Experience to talk to colleagues about challenges she faced and embedding a variety of activities to allow students to learn about and reflect on inclusion and intersectionality throughout the semester.

“I needed to learn how to listen more — to both the loudest students and to the ones who didn’t talk — and how to present information around these concepts in a way that would allow students to draw their own connections. I also needed to learn how to be uncomfortable while facilitating, and give students varied opportunities to reflect regularly,” she explained.

Although Harkins successfully reduced resistance in her course, her experience, which she described as a work in progress, illustrates that sometimes, addressing these problems requires trying a few strategies to see what works best for you and your students.

Need Help?

Whether you’re experiencing passive student disengagement or active opposition in your courses, consultants in the University Center for Teaching and Learning can help you explore strategies to prevent or stop it. Email us at to schedule a consultation.


Lindsay Onufer is a teaching and learning consultant for the University Center for Teaching and Learning. She can be reached via email at


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