Why don’t they want to learn?

Unlike Brookfield (2006), I haven’t been overly concerned with students who appeared resistant to learning. This I see as a key difference between college and high school; if they don’t want to learn, it’s not my problem; I don’t have to ‘force’ them. I don’t take it personally, though I don’t understand it (someone is paying a lot of money for them to be there, after all).

As I matured as an instructor, I began to consider the reasons that students may appear resistant. Being aware of the reasons, I can begin to recognize them, better empathize and in some cases work with students to overcome them.

Brookfield (2006) lists reasons including: Poor self-image, Learning and teaching style disjunction, apparent irrelevance of material, and Level of required learning.

Poor self image: I frequently encounter students that have a very low opinion of themselves as learners. This might be due to past failures, current performance, or general malaise (i.e. depression). I try to highlight to all students the idea of Gardner’s multiple intelligences and the existence of different learning styles. It saddens me to see students call themselves “dumb”, but sometimes the idea is deeply seated and requires more than my gentle prodding.

Learning and Teaching Style Disjunction: Many of my students come from very traditional education systems, with very strict rules of teacher vs. student roles, and sometimes almost complete reliance on memorization for learning. Since the college I work at is partly trying to prepare students for Canadian post-secondary education, I deliberately try to blur those roles and introduce higher order thinking skills. I have to be careful to do so in moderation, and provide clear introductions and reasoning so as to not turn students off. Even so, that happens; as with everything else, not everyone is able to adapt as quickly as others.

Apparent Irrelevance of Material: I think anyone who teaches required courses encounters this. Students now seem to increasingly have a specific career goal in mind, and are not interested in straying from that path. They often have very clear (if incorrect) ideas of which skills that job does and does not require. I teach a pre-nursing lab course, with a very minimal component of simple math (basic arithmetic). There are a disturbing number of students who believe very strongly that they will not use math as a nurse (let alone in life!). I don’t know what to do about this (I’m not a health professional, and they don’t believe me when I tell them otherwise), I just know that I have a fear of nurses miscalculating my medication!

Level of Required Learning (being insufficient): This is a tough one for me. I have to maintain equivalency standards, so I can’t ‘water down’ the course content. Many of my students have the additional challenge of English learning, and are often simply not proficient enough in the language to succeed in the course. I can frequently detect this at the outset, and the best I can do is encourage them to drop the course. Instead, some of these students just tune out, appearing uninterested, and, I assume, resigned to failing the course. There is language help available at the college, but that won’t come soon enough when they have enrolled in my course and we both know they are in over their head.

Finally, there is resistance to learning that is just that, resistance. There are those students that simply don’t want to be there, for one reason or another. There is a small segment of the international student population that have been sent halfway around the world to learn in a different language against their will (usually at their parent’s insistence). Some do their very best to fail so they can go home and ‘teach their parents a lesson’. I don’t see that there is anything I can do to prevent them from failing if that is their goal. I’m also not sure I should do anything if I could. There are lots of students who do want to be there who will eagerly take their place.

Brookfield (2006) helped me understand some of the causes for resistance in the classroom, many of which made sense and matched my experience. Understanding the cause is the first step to helping students overcome their resistance, if they are open to it.


Brookfield, S. (2006). The Skillful Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.



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