Student Engagement

How to Inspire Students Who Dislike School

Students must be willing participants in their education, and we have a few ideas on how to help them feel motivated.

June 12, 2018
A student talks to her teacher about her frustrations in school. She looks down at the floor with sadness and uncertainty.
©iStock/sturti

As I was getting ready to make a change from my last teaching job to an administrative assignment, a student approached me. He was a sophomore who had been in my Spanish classes for two years. He was the kind of student who doesn’t fall into any of the categories I’ve heard high schoolers assign to each other—bookworm, preppy, punk, or stoner. He was one of those students who seem to go unnoticed by peers, and I knew that school was a struggle for him. On that day, he said to me, “Hey Dr. J. Sorry to see you go. You know, you are the only teacher I don’t hate.”

That “compliment” got me thinking about our students who dislike school for one reason or another. Although we say we don’t do it, we do classify kids into groups—kids aren’t the only ones who do this. We classify students as high or low achievers, for one thing, and that does have an effect on how they see themselves—and how they view school.

As cognitive scientist and educational researcher Daniel Willingham aptly stated, “Children are more alike than different.”

Ways to Motivate Students

If students are more alike than different, then remembering this oft-forgotten truth will help us: Learning cannot be forced on students—they must be willing participants. So how do we inspire students with low motivation to be more willing participants? I’d like to propose a few approaches that can help students move beyond simply tolerating school.

Give students options to show what they know:  Be creative in allowing new options and learning environments for students who are disengaged. Perhaps instead of a test, they can design a comic strip that demonstrates the same learning? Or they can invent a 3D display, or even create a test and review sheet for their classmates and then lead them in playing a review game.

In an economics class, for example, one teacher gave students the option of creating a business model that required them to use every element of the learned content, including an online evaluation process to qualify for a higher pay grade.

Use the rule of three: When designing learning opportunities, we have to think of the rule of three: preparation, practice, and application. Due to time constraints, we sometimes only get as far as the preparation stage and the lower cognitive levels necessary at the preparation level.

But without ample practice and application, rules two and three, students stay passive in their learning. Meaningful practice helps them make connections with other knowledge. The practice has to be more than simply test-like questions, though to succeed at the testing game they should be familiar with those.

We also need to guide them through application—they need a rationale for learning. They need to know that what they are learning is a valuable gem of knowledge that they can apply and transfer to solve other problems.

Make it doable: We can provide a clear and accessible target that students can strive to achieve. Remember, learning is not what we do to students—it is done with them. In making learning accessible in a math class, for example, the teacher might say, “At the end of this class today, when each of you can correctly factor polynomials, I will know that you have achieved success. Now let’s find out what that means, what it’s good for, and how to do it.”

Another example comes from my classroom. One of the hardest things to learn in Spanish is the gender of nouns. This is what I tell my students, “Today, we are going to be learning something that doesn’t exist in English: Every noun is either male or female. Your goal is that by the end of the class period you will be able to identify which words are male and which are female. Let’s get started.”

Go public with their learning: Why do students draw, paint, play an instrument, or compete? The reason why students create art, practice sports, participate in drama, or play in the band is to perform. Why should the math or science classroom be any different?

Students seek authentic opportunities to acquire recognition, so we can do things such as invite family members to the class on the day of a debate. We can be sure to provide opportunities for students to perform, to show their skills their peers, their teachers, and their family members. Another great way to make students learning visible is to host an after-school competition or performance so your students have an audience beyond their classmates.

Ever try to encourage a child to eat something they don’t like? We try everything to positively promote what we want our child to do, except perhaps ask our child what they would like to eat from a list of healthy choices. Teaching doesn’t have to be so different. At the end of the day, guiding successful learning is all about understanding what motivates students.