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How to Motivate Students that are Disengaged

Jordan Catapano

We have a wide variety of solutions for the students who can’t: Differentiation, tutoring, one-on-one aid, independent studies, tracking, and so on.

But what do you do for the student who won’t? Do you know how to motivate students who just don’t try to be engaged?

We are all aware of the importance of education, and do what we can to impart this to our students. Students themselves will easily tell you why having an education and a diploma just makes sense. But there are some students who, even when they entirely understand the point of education, just don’t try.

How to Motivate Students: Root Causes of Disengagement

Like any problem, you have to take a look at the root causes for a student’s willful disengagement. I wish I could tell you why some students won’t engage with learning, but the truth is that the reason is different for every student.

Pernille Ripp, teacher, blogger, and author, has polled her students and received an array of feedback. Sometimes, she admits, the reason for their disengagement lies with her, and sometimes it doesn’t. The students may be bored, disconnected, or restless – and “While I am a part of the problem, that also means that I can fix it.” Answers she receives from students range from “They feel no connection to you” to feelings of lack of purpose and power.

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Other times the reasons might be deeper and be far outside your realm of control. They might even be outside the control of the students themselves. But it is important to take time to try and understand why a student may be disengaged rather than ignoring them, trying strategies that don’t relate to the cause, or telling them to get it together.

I wish I had the silver bullet that fixed every problem standing in the way of a student’s successful engagement in education, and how to motivate students. I don’t. But the ideas listed are intended to at least get you thinking about what approaches might help you both identify causes and find make headway toward getting the unmotivated student learning.

Walk-and-Talks

The walk and talk singles out students from the classroom setting and takes a much more personalized approach. It’s simple: Walk side-by-side through the building or around the campus and have a conversation. It’s OK to ask pointed questions in a caring manner, and it’s equally OK to stray from the topic at hand and simply get to know them in a way that doesn’t have to do with completing classwork or misbehavior.

There may be other similar approaches: Eating lunch together, sitting in the hallway, playing a game, or inviting them to a club activity. Anything that helps to break through the scripted teacher-student scenario and allows you each greater insight toward one another can go a long way toward forging a solution that results in the student stepping up their motivation.

Make Sure Work Has Purpose

This should be true for all your course content, but the purpose needs to be doubly obvious for your disengaged students. Many students might just follow your instructions because you’re the teacher and they are ready to comply. The unmotivated student might have their motivation increase if they recognize there are tangible outcomes from engaging in the process along with you. How can you help them recognize it?

The purpose that you establish should not just relate to the learning goals of the course or your own perceived importance. Ask yourself: “How would this content relate to a student’s own interests and goals?”

Offer Choices

There are a few variations of choice you can build into your instruction and assignments that may help a student feel more connection. You might offer a simple “Either THIS or THAT” choice. When you provide two options, both of which you approve, then the student feels like there is a degree of choice, and “Not doing it” doesn’t feel as strong of an option any more. This also helps avoid overwhelming students with too many options.

You could try building an array of options for a task, allowing students to demonstrate their learning in ways that are more likely to suit them. The unmotivated student might suddenly see that they can express their understanding in a way they normally aren’t permitted to. This requires some creativity on your part as you compose a list of options – but it affords you the opportunity to think about what might specifically motivate a student and include it on the list!

One step further, of course, is to allow your students – especially your unmotivated ones – to decide what they want to do independently. Each course has a set core curriculum that everyone is expected to follow along with, but where you can offer opportunities for students to develop their own questions, chose their own readings, and explore their own content? It is this degree of independence that may spark a learner far more than a teacher’s established curriculum.

Gamify

Games are known to inspire competition and engagement far more than many other activities. When teachers gamify a component of their class, it may just do the trick for getting the disengaged student into the right mind frame. Sure, they may be focused on “Winning” or “Beating their high score,” but if it’s a hook that draws them into learning, then it’s a hook worth including!

This is not about hiding learning inside of a game or tricking students into learning something they don’t want to. It is about simply taking the elements that keep students coming back to games again and again – such as rewards, goals, feedback, and trials – and building those concepts into how we go about conducting education. Students who don’t respond to traditional feedback and rewards – like grades, report cards, and scoldings – might respond differently when the elements of competition and gaming are incorporated.

Start Small

Remember that it’s not about going from zero to hero in one shot. There is no single thing you can do that will “Fix it” with a student. If a student lacks motivation or engagement, it might be more realistic to start small. Students who have counted themselves out of learning may not be accustomed to putting forth effort, finding interest in school, following directions or receiving guidance, or applying their knowledge to new settings.

For a student who has reached this level of disengagement, I give the (unusual) advice that you might want to start by not worrying about teaching the content … just teach them anything!

Think of the Key Factors, and Try

Jennifer Gonzalez, blogger and pre-service teacher trainer, writes on her site Cult of Pedagogy, “So let’s look at our own practice. When we set aside all the outside factors and just focus in on our time with students, how are we doing? How much alignment is there between our own instructional moves and the research on student motivation?” She identifies from the research how students are motivated by positive relationships with their teachers, choice, lack of extrinsic rewards, relevance, and belief in their own growth as key factors in motivation.

At the end of the day, you can only lead a horse to water. While you can’t make it drink, you can certainly employ the variables proven to increase the likelihood. The only option for teachers of unmotivated students is to try, and to keep trying to find that connect that may result in the student engaging in their education.

Do you know how to motivate students and your unmotivated learners? Share your thoughts on this article and your own strategies that have been successful by leaving a comment below!


Jordan Catapano taught English for twelve years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.