Motivating and Engaging the Unmotivated Student

At the high school in which I work, we come across a lot of highly unmotivated students. These students seem to dislike school, hate being involved, and are often considered disrespectful to their teachers. It would be very easy to write these kids off and let them fail. However, that is not our job.

There are a plethora of strategies for teachers to get seemingly apathetic students engaged in substantial learning. Like many other solutions to problems in the classroom, the first step is to build a respectful, professional rapport with all students. Teachers do not need to be friends to our learners, but being kind, constructive, and supportive is important. We do need to know who our kids are, what they like, and what they don’t like. Over time, creating random discussions about who they are builds that concept. Just like adults, students prefer to work with people whom they feel genuinely care about them. Adding instructional strategies that compliment this environment takes the learning a step further.

Here are a few ways I am able to get to some of my more indifferent and unenthusiastic learners:

  • Positive Reinforcement

Nobody wants to work in an environment in which they feel threatened or looked down upon. Instead of focusing on consequences for inappropriate behavior or failures in academics, push towards what students can do. From expectations to rules, everything should focus on the positive, not the negative. A concrete, positive relationship between educator and learner creates a safe learning environment in which most children will be more motivated to thrive in.

  • Setting Goals

Setting goals is important for anyone. These can be framed through learning targets or objectives. The idea is that these goals are challenging, but attainable. Goals often need to be differentiated for varied ability levels within our classrooms. Understanding who our students are helps us figure out where they need to be compared to where they are coming from. With this in mind, we are better able to reach our kids because they feel like the goal is worth working toward for success. Plus, they like working for you, and generally speaking, people don’t want to disappoint people they look up to.

  • Varied Learning Experiences

No two students are identical in how they learn or process information. Differentiating content and assessments makes learning more fun, more interesting, and overall more achievable. Some students enjoy reading while others do not. Some students prefer to make a visual representation of the information. Individual work and group work should be peppered in lessons, as well. No two lessons should be the same in terms of the experience for the students.

  • Collaborative Interaction

As humans, we are social beings. That’s a scientific fact. While there should be individual work in lessons, many students enjoy working on a team to achieve the expected outcome. In this case, kids can learn from each other in ways that teachers often cannot provide. Students have a different perspective from teachers; students can often explain something in words or phrases that are more relatable between each other than between teacher and student. Plus, students are excited to be able to talk to one another. Keep the chats focused on the content or topic and we have a win-win situation.

Group work also facilitates the learning of time and project management skills. All students should have a role and a deadline within the group. Students will generally work together and motivate each other to reach a common goal.

  • Constructive, Timely Feedback

When students do not understand a topic or why they missed something on a quiz, test, or essay, they tend to get down on themselves. In many cases, this results in a student completely shutting down in the classroom. We can fix this before it becomes a problem by providing constructive, timely feedback on what went well and what needs to be worked on.

For example, in a writing workshop, I may notice that a student is having a difficult time with spelling and using proper grammar. Every few days or so, I will have conferences with all students regarding where they are in their work. During this time I will go over their paper and discuss with them what can be better and what they are doing very well. This little bit of time I spend with them shows them that they are, in fact, making some sort of progress, and challenges them to keep developing in a specific area I mention. Once that piece is mastered, we go on to the next area each student can work on. It is fun and students enjoy individual attention with the teachers they like!

  • Self-Reflection

Reflection is often the most over-looked piece of instruction. How do we learn from our experiences if we do not take time to really think about what we did, how we did it, and why it matters? I have my students write a reflection at the end of every major assignment and unit. I prompt them with questions at the beginning of the year, and slowly release them into self-reflecting on their own work without prompting. I have a “Journal for Juniors” program in my classroom in which (through donations) journals are provided for each student to keep tabs on how they are developing in their learning. So far, this is the most acclaimed series of assignments by my students.

Motivating students does not have to be grueling work. Motivating students who are otherwise uninterested can be a bit challenging, but with a few little tweaks in how we approach the content, material, and our learners, it can be done. Giving up on students is the worst thing a teacher can do in my mind. There are so many strategies out there that really work. There’s no point in discontinuing the effort. Sometimes our students just need a little push.

What are some strategies you use in your classroom?

If you’re a student, what motivates you to learn?