How to Manage Student Resistance
by Annie Peshkam
You have prepared the course down to the very last detail. Syllabus. Teaching notes. Slides. Readings. Cases. Problem sets. You have rehearsed the flow several times before each session. Are you ready? Quite possibly not at all. Why not? Because it is difficult to anticipate the gamut of your students' responses, reactions, and behavioural norms, and group dynamics. Particularly if you have little or no experience with the audience you are about to teach.
The most challenging part of course preparation is anticipating and managing student resistance. Resistance that is negative (rather than positive challenges that enhance learning) and intended to distract.
Passive resistance is an overwhelming lack of enthusiasm for preparing and carrying out tasks in class. Whereas active resistance is confrontational, open and delivered with emotions, objections, and frustration. Even partial compliance - carrying out tasks half-heartedly - is a form of resistance.
Resistance might arise as a function of student relationships, claims to status, showing off to peers, displaying expertise, or group scepticism towards a specific subject. It might arise from fundamental issues with content and design.
But, there are indications that resistance is linked with teacher behaviour.
When professors signal distance through a lack of eye contact and a lack of proximity to students this communicates perceptions of unfriendliness and disinterest so resistance tends be displayed actively. However, when professors signal closeness through nonverbal behaviours such as forward body leans, purposeful gestures, and eye contact, they communicate perceptions of warmth, and friendliness, and resistance tends to be displayed passively (for a review, see Kearney & Plax, 1992).
My experiences with instructional coaching also show that professors who consistently maintain nonverbal behaviours that display closeness and likability have few episodes of active resistance in class.
If you have a hard day with classroom dynamics and find yourself brooding, ask yourself: what is this really about? List the moments (what you were teaching in the session) and the forms of student resistance (examples of active and passive) in your mind. When you cross reference the two, think about how you were presenting that information or interacting with students in moments that triggered resistance. Is there a pattern? Do the same exercise by thinking of moments where students showed interest, and genuinely participated.
Repeating this exercise a few times may help you uncover the underlying dynamics that trigger classroom disruptions so that you have a clear starting point for overcoming them.
Kearney, P., & Plax, T. G. (1992). Student resistance to control. In V. P. Richmond & J. C. McCroskey (Eds.), Power in the classroom: Communication, control, and concern (85-100). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.