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4 Ways to Motivate Reluctant Learners

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Nov 12, 2013 10:07:00 AM

reluctant learners“I just wish my students cared more.” Most teachers—first-year and veterans alike—have said or at least felt like this at some point.

But consider for a moment how subjective “care” is. What does a student who cares even look like? Care is an ambiguous goal, one that needs to be translated to concrete behavior if we are going to help our students become more motivated.

To help your students become more invested in your classroom, we’d like to share four tips from Robyn Jackson’s book, How to Motivate Reluctant Learners.

4 Ways to Motivate Reluctant Learners

The Investment Must Be Specific
Very often what looks like resistance is actually confusion about our vague requests. Consider the difference between the following:

  • “Will you try harder to pay attention in class?”

  • “During class, I want you to keep your head off the desk, keep your eyes open and on me, and have all of your materials out on the desk.”

You’ll notice how the former not only lacks specific instructions, but does not give the student a clear picture of what you expect from him or her. Always give your students concrete steps for making the investment. 

The Investment Must Meaningful
It’s frustrating when our students miss class or don’t do their homework. If only they knew how important attendance and homework were, we think to ourselves, they’d change. Wrong.

It’s not that students don’t think these things are important; it’s more likely that they don’t share the same value system as us. As Jackson suggests, “Unless we identify an investment we want that is meaningful to them, they will choose not to invest.”

So how do we determine whether or not the investment we want them to make will be meaningful to them? Ask yourself the following two questions:

  • Does the investment provide students with a way to use the currencies they have to get something they want? The investment should involve them using something they know and can do to accomplish a goal, acquire new and useful currencies, or solve an interesting problem.
  • Does the investment provide students with a way to use their currencies to satisfy a need? The investment should involve them using something they know or can do to meet a need for safety and survival, connection and belonging, power and competence, freedom and autonomy, play, enjoyment or fun.

The Investment Must Be Observable
We all want our students to care, to want to learn and to try, but stop right there and consider what these three things have in common. They are all emotions, which means that they are intangible. You can’t touch boredom, irritation or passivity and very often you can’t even see the physical manifestations of these emotions.

To keep ourselves from being frustrated, Jackson urges teachers to “couch the investment we want students to make in terms of observable behaviors” rather than emotions.

If you want your students to try harder, you must be able to articulate what “trying harder” looks like. Otherwise, you have no tangible way of knowing whether or not your students are actually trying.

Consider the difference between the following:

  • “I want you to try harder.”

  • “I want you to turn in all of your work according to the set requirements on the rubric, attempt to answer questions—even when you are unsure if you have the right answer—ask for help when you don’t understand, and revise your essay according to the standards we discussed last class.”

Unlike the former statement, the latter gives you a concrete way of determining whether or not the students see “try harder” in the same way you do.

The Investment Must Be Realistic
Most students respect teachers who challenge them and maintain high expectations, but pushing students beyond what they are capable of can lead to disengagement, hostility, even mutiny.

Ask students to commit to something that is achievable, but not insultingly simple. To find an achievable investment, Jackson suggests that teachers “pay attention to what the students are investing in already and then select and an investment that is similar but perhaps one step beyond—something achievable with support.”

Tags: struggling students, Classroom Community, Classroom Climate, student independence, student engagement, classroom, management, reluctant learners, Relationship-Driven Classroom

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