The Wall of Resistance: Understanding Student Barriers to Learning (Part 1)

Screen Shot 2017-06-25 at 1.10.52 PM

Photo Source

Case Study 

Susie is in her final year of nursing school. She is consistently late for the mandatory lecture based class, is known to challenge instructors during the lecture about the content or concepts being discussed, chooses controversial material to write the essays on, sits at the back of the class, chats with those around her during the lecture and rolls her eyes when chastised in class by her teacher for her troublesome behaviours.

Susie’s behaviours are creating a barrier for learning – for her and possibly for the students around her. Although it would be easy to assume that Susie is struggling with content material this isn’t the case – turns out she is excelling in the clinical setting and is at the top of her class academically. What is going on?

Brookfield (2015) acknowledges that while some students may fit the stereotype of “ . . . individuals who just can’t be bothered to work and who have no natural aptitude for the struggle and tedium that learning sometimes entails . . . it’s a simplistic and somewhat lazy cop-out from taking resistance seriously. Resistance is a multilayered and complex phenomenon which several factors intersect” (p 219).

Let’s take a look at what some of the root causes of resistant student behaviour are (Brookfield, 2015):

  1. Poor self-image as a learner (p 219). This learner has a lack of confidence in their abilities as a learner and will resist efforts to move them forward (Brookfield, 2015).
    • Barkley (2010) describes these students as “failure avoiders” who will avoid tasks that are perceived as too challenging as a way to preserve their self-worth (p 12), or as “failure acceptors” who have resigned themselves to failure and are disengaged from learning (p 13).
  1. Fear of the unknown (p 219). This learner is afraid how the learning will affect their status quo and will therefore be resistant to learn.
    • Brookfield (2015) states that “(t)he ground zero of resistance to learning is the fear of change. And learning, by definition, involves change” (p 213).
  2. A normal rhythm of learning (p 220). Learning something new takes learners into uncharted lands and can lead to feelings of confusion during the process of integrating new concepts and/or skills. It is during this time that learning something new is overwhelming.
    • Interestingly, Brookfield states that while this processing state is temporary, it is “ . . .experienced as permanent until some external prompt reignites forward movement” (p 220).
  1. A disjunction of learning and teaching styles (p 220)
    • While teaching to the preferred learning style of the student has been shown to be ineffective for improved learning, it still can be a problem as Brookfield explains, “ . . . an anal-compulsive, extremely organized learner who is taught by an improvisational intuitive teacher will resist that teacher’s tendency to make changes in the middle of a planned activity because of some change in the classroom mood or teachable opportunity she detects” (p 220).
  2. Apparent irrelevance of the learning activity (p 221).
    • Knowles’ 6th assumption about adult learners that that they need to know the reason for learning something (Merriam & Bierema, 2014). If there is no purpose to the learning activity, adult students will be resistant.
    • Pink (as cited in Merriam & Bierema, 2014) makes the case for humans as “ intrinsically motivated purpose maximizers” (p 147). According to Pink, purpose is one of the three principles that drive motivation along with mastery and autonomy (Merriam & Bierema, 2014).
  3. Level of required learning is inappropriate (p 222).
    • If the level of the learning is too hard, students will resist learning. “Enthusiastic teachers who travel too far, too fast, for their students and don’t’ regularly check in to see if students are keeping up with the pace, quickly leave learners behind” (Brookfield, 2015, p 222).
      • Interestingly, “ . . . students’ belief about their ability to succeed at a learning task is more important than their actual skill level or difficulty of the task. If a student is confident in her ability to perform a task successfully, she will be motivated to engage in it” (Barkley, 2010, pp 11-12).
  4. Fear of looking foolish in public (p 222).
    1. I really don’t think that there is anyone who isn’t horrified of making a fool of themselves in public. Brookfield states that “(s)tudents’ egos are fragile creations . . .” (p 222). I would suggest that all of us have fragile egos so it can hardly be a surprise if students resist engaging in situations where they fear embarrassing themselves.
  5. Cultural suicide (p 223).
    • Pairs with root cause #2- as the students’ status quo is challenged by the learning, cultural supports may lost. The realization that this is occurring may cause the student to resist any further learning.
  1. Lack of clarity in teachers’ instructions (p 223).
    • Students want transparency and full disclosure of expectations. Anything            less may feel to the student that they are “ . . . being set up for failure”               (Brookfield, 2015, p 223). This will lead to resistance.
  1. Student dislike of teacher (p 224).
    • These can come from personality mismatches (see root cause #4) or from             inappropriate behavior from the teacher (Brookfield, 2015).

11. Going to far too fast (p 224).

  • See root cause # 6.

Brookfield (2015) suggests that the first step to dealing with resistance is to sort out the cause. Let’s take a closer look at Susie’s case study to see if we can come up with a list of some of her potential causes of resistance.

  1. Poor self-image as a learner. Susie is at the top of her class. It does not appear that she has a poor self-image as a learner.
  2. *Fear of the unknown Susie may have a fear of the unknown. This is her last year of classes and she will be graduating soon. I wonder, have her behaviours been consistent like this for her entire undergraduate program or have they been escalating in the final year?
  3. A normal rhythm of learning Susie’s marks and clinical performance seem to indicate a solid understanding of the material. I think it would be safe to say that whatever challenges she has encountered with the normal rhythm of learning she seems to have been able to adapt to so far.
  4. *A disjunction of learning and teaching styles A disconnect between how Susie likes to learn and how she is being taught could be an issue here.
  5.  *Apparent irrelevance of the learning activity Susie is a strong student. Perhaps      she does not see a purpose to the mandatory class lecture. This may explain her rebellion by coming in late.
  6.  Level of required learning is inappropriate As Susie is a strong student, I do not think that the material is too hard. Perhaps it is too easy.
  7. Fear of looking foolish in public It does not appear that there have been any situations that would indicate that Susie is worried about embarrassing herself in front of the class.
  8. *Cultural suicide This could be an issue.
  9. *Lack of clarity in teachers’ instructions Has there been full disclose of class expectations by the instructor?
  10. *Student dislike of teacher There may be personality conflicts with the teachers.
  11. Going to far too fast Given that Susie has not attending class regularly but is still top of the class makes me think that the content is not over her head or that the pace is too fast.

Let’s go to Part 2 Scaling the Wall of Student Resistance: Responding to Student Barriers in Learning to see how the teacher could work with Susie to help overcome her resistance to learning.


Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques – A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S.D. (2015). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom 3rd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Merriam, S.B. & Bierema, L.L. (2014) Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass


One thought on “The Wall of Resistance: Understanding Student Barriers to Learning (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Scaling the Wall of Student Resistance: Responding to Student Barriers in Learning (Part 2) – teachingadventuressite

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s