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Why Students Resist Learning: A Practical Model for Understanding and Helping Students

reviewed by Miriam B. Raider-Roth & Amy Rector-Aranda - June 21, 2017

coverTitle: Why Students Resist Learning: A Practical Model for Understanding and Helping Students
Author(s): Anton O. Tolman & Janine Kremling (Eds.)
Publisher: Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA
ISBN: 1620363445, Pages: 296, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

Why Students Resist Learning: A Practical Model for Understanding and Helping Students is truly a book for our time. Meticulously describing a theoretical framework of resistance, crafting an operational definition, and offering polyvocal narrative examples of resistance in action, this volume offers a model of resistance that is highly useful to researchers and university/college teachers alike.

The beginning chapters of the book define student resistance and offer a full theoretical framework for the notion of student resistance. Anchoring the definition as a “motivational state in which students reject learning opportunities due to systemic factors” (p. 3), the authors distinguish their definition as both residing within the individual as well as within the multiple contexts in which a student lives. Chapter One delineates this definition in detail, and compares the authors’ framework with others. The Integrated Model of Student Resistance (IMSR) is described in detail, setting the stage for the rest of the book. In order to illustrate this conception of resistance, Chapter Two is coauthored by students who offer their perspectives on the different dimensions of resistance. In Chapter Three, the authors argue that student resistance has a societal cost and further understanding the dynamics of resistance can help us reclaim the democratic purposes of education. Chapter Four explores the importance of institutional culture and its effect on student and faculty behavior. This chapter is illustrative of the authors’ systems perspective, helping readers understand that student resistance is shaped by the culture of higher education and reflective of fundamental tensions in this culture. Chapter Five details the connection between student identities, such as race, class, gender, first generation college student, and passive or active resistance. They explore theories such as “hidden curriculum” and “opposition culture theory” to help examine the pervasive challenges to students who identify with a minority culture or feel marginalized. Chapter Six returns to students’ voices and highlights the internalized expectations of higher education that students bring to their college experiences. Positioning themselves as consumers of a product (education) can breed a sense of academic entitlement, which may lead to resistance if the product does not meet their expectations.

The remainder of the book takes a closer look at these kinds of localized, individual, and interpersonal circumstances that influence student resistance. Chapter Seven explores the role of negative classroom experiences in student resistance, noting how student-teacher interactions, teacher non-immediacy and misbehavior, teacher attitudes, and student biases can contribute not only to resistance in one class setting, but may also result in future resistance in similar settings. Chapter Eight considers three existing models of cognitive development and their roles in student resistance, contending that instructors can encourage active engagement through scaffolding, course design, and relevance to guide students toward more mature and less resistant developmental positions. In Chapter Nine, Dweck’s (2006) “self-theories” or “mindsets” help readers think about the role of students’ and instructors’ metacognition– or self-awareness and regulation of one’s own thinking and knowledge acquisition– in student resistance. This author recommends measuring students’ readiness for change rather than static traits in order to work toward fostering a “growth mindset,” hopefully alleviating resistance due to “fixed” mindsets about learning and knowing. Chapter Ten takes these discussions to the administrative level, outlining specific institutional actions and policies necessary to support the preceding suggestions at the classroom level.

One of the strengths of the IMSR model and this book are that they urge instructors to own up to our own roles in student resistance. Whereas it can be easy to write off student resistance as resulting from shortcomings of the individual students themselves, it takes humility and self-awareness to examine how our own biases, behaviors, methods, and curriculum might initiate or exacerbate their resistance. The authors offer several useful lenses for finding solutions within our control. Another promising contribution is the model’s linking of neural/cognitive underpinnings to emerging understandings of the relational aspects of teaching and learning. Showing the role of classroom relationships in students’ cognition and neural development reinforces many initiatives to specifically incorporate relational supports across learning contexts.

A core contribution of this volume is its discussion of the tension between college as an educational experience meant to help students become “informed citizens in a democracy” (p. 53) and traditional classroom practices that prioritize individual effort and compliance with demands of an authority figure. The authors contend that “only by altering the power dynamics and relationships between instructor and students can a more democratic environment … be realized.” They compellingly argue that “such an environment cannot be created without accepting and working with student resistance” (p. 53). Thus, there is a civic, dare we say ethical, responsibility for university teachers to learn to recognize and address student resistance.

As readers, we are left thinking about certain topics that were not examined in this text and that we believe are worthy of attention and future exploration. First, although we recognize that this writing is geared toward helping higher education instructors/leaders understand and intervene in student resistance, we wonder about the premise that most students arrive in college classrooms unprepared for and resisting the learner-centered approaches the authors advocate. The argument and findings in this volume lead us to question how the systemic structure of the PK-12 education system has presumably failed students in this regard. This remains an important question for the larger field of education.

This volume is written for university and college teachers and is meant to tie theory to practice. It is written clearly and persuasively with the purpose of encouraging the adoption of these practices for instructors across disciplines. As professors of education, we were eager to read even more of the theoretical underpinnings of this work, but understand that the intended readership is cross-disciplinary. As such, the authors have done an excellent job introducing the IMSR model in a tone that is unambiguous and well-grounded in literature from multiple fields of study, making its suggestions practicable for those with or without a background in educational theory.

Overall, Why Students Resist Learning: A Practical Model for Understanding and Helping Students introduces a much-needed systems perspective for understanding student resistance in higher education. While many of the factors discussed have been examined discretely, the IMSR model recognizes the ways these multiple factors cannot, in fact, be separated, and that several may be concurrently at play in individual cases of student resistance. The editors and their authors understand and make visible the relational, contextual, and systemic contributors to resistance and offer invaluable tools to help educators examine and address resistance in their own settings.


Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 21, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22057, Date Accessed: 11/26/2021 7:22:46 PM

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About the Author
  • Miriam Raider-Roth
    University of Cincinnati
    E-mail Author
    MIRIAM RAIDER-ROTH, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Studies and Educational & Community-Based Action Research at the University of Cincinnati. She is also the director of the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute. Her research focuses on the relational context of teaching and learning; children's and teachers' conceptions of their relationships in school, practitioner action research and feminist qualitative research methodologies. She is author of Professional Development in Relational Learning Communities: Teachers in Connection (2017, Teachers College Press).
  • Amy Rector-Aranda
    Texas A&M University
    E-mail Author
    AMY RECTOR-ARANDA is a visiting assistant professor at Texas A&M University in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Culture, who studies matters of educational equity, care, and critical consciousness. Her recent practitioner and participatory action research inquiry examines the use of the Critically Compassionate Intellectualism framework in her pre-service teacher education classes, and is the basis of several publications in progress. A forthcoming article proposes relational-cultural theory as a conceptual tool for understanding the role of care and compassion in social justice teacher education.
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