7 Ways to Engage Resistant Learners

You’ve just been told: “The adult learners you’re going to be instructing are a tough group – very serious-minded and not at all willing to participate in activities. They just want the information given to them via a lecture, without any fluff.” What do you do?

unhappystudentQuite possibly these adult learners have been bored to tears by previous instructors, either because the instructor lectured the entire time or because he/she used activities that were totally irrelevant to the topic. The bored learners might have shown their feelings in a number of ways: complaining that the activities were “a waste of time,” working on their laptops or smart phones during the class, leaving for part of the class (“I have an important meeting, call,” etc.), or visiting with others in the class in quiet side conversations throughout the content-delivery.

I’ll let you in on two little secrets: NO ONE likes to be bored, and most adult learners dislike both lengthy lectures and irrelevant activities. So here are 7 ways to keep your classes and training programs both interesting and relevant while easily engaging even the most resistant learners. FYI: Since “engineering” can mean “to arrange, manage, or carry through by skillful or artful contrivance,” I have used the verb “engineer” in each of these 7 engagement tips.

1. Engineer the content-delivery. Divide your lecture material into VERY SHORT segments of time (10 – 20 minutes maximum). Each segment should have an interesting opening, middle, and closing. See: How To Teach It So They Learn It.

2. Engineer review/revisit activities. Between each lecture segment, insert a short TOPIC-RELATED review activity (about 1 – 2 minutes) that engages learners while quickly revisiting the content you’ve just presented. See: Marking the Middle: Involving Learners in the Middle of A Lecture.

3.  Engineer the environment. If possible, request round tables, rather than rectangular ones or desks. Arrange seats so that adult learners are facing each other and not just facing the front of the class. If the tables are rectangular, position them in an inverted “V” shape so that table members are sitting across from each other and can talk to one another while still being able to see the front of the class. If there are desks in rows, arrange them in clustered groups of 4. If numbers allow, there should be 4 – 5  people per table group. 3 is usually too small; 6 will work in a pinch. Groups larger than 6 usually break down into subsets.

group4.  Engineer the table groups. Post a chart that participants read upon entering the room that tells them how to form their table groups. Examples are: “Please sit with people you don’t know well; people from different departments/jobs/sites/countries; different generations, a mix of “newbies” (new employees) and “oldies” (experienced employees); a mix of genders, ages;” etc. As participants enter the room, greet them and remind them to read and do what is printed on the chart.  

5. Engineer the expectations. Before you begin the instruction, let learners know that they will be working in collaborative groups because brain scientists have proven that humans learn better and remember information longer when they can discuss the information with others. Also let them know they have the “right to pass,” and can just listen quietly, if they wish. The “right to pass” is a psychological safety net that dramatically lessens resistance because the choice to participate or not rests with each learner; no one is coerced into doing something he/she doesn’t want to do.

6.  Engineer the conversations. On a slide or chart, pre-post a topic-related question for learners to immediately begin discussing when they form their table groups. Examples are: “What are three facts you already know about the topic? What do you want to take away from this class? What is a question about the topic that you want answered?” After each lecture segment, have another question ready that relates to the content you just presented. Examples are: “What is the most important fact you just learned? If a reporter asked you to summarize what you just heard, what would you say? How might you use the information you’ve just learned?” Give table groups a time limit to discuss each question (from 1 – 3 minutes). Vary the people they converse with: pairs, triads, people sitting next to them, across from them, people from another table, etc. 

7.  Engineer more physical movement. Make sure you balance both passive (sitting) and active (standing, stretching, walking) review activities so that participants move often enough to get more oxygen to their brains. Less oxygen equals lethargy and decreased learning; more oxygen equals alertness and increased learning. See Stand, Stretch, and Speak: Using Topic-Related Energizers, and Who’s Doing the Most Talking, Moving, or Writing?

Now, when you’re told that you will have a tough group of “resistant learners,” just smile confidently because you know that you have engineered a class that is interesting, relevant, and engaging for all.


  • Hi Celia: You’re not “doing it wrong” and you know your students better than anyone else. You can choose to experiment with the “pass method” and see if it works for some students some of the time (nothing works all of the time!). Best of luck! 🙂 Sharon

  • I feel that I am doing it wrong, in the way that I ask ALL of my students to participate. I don’t do the Pass method.

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