How to Motivate the Unmotivated Student


What is more frustrating than trying to teach or help a student that isn’t interested and doesn’t try?

Nothing, really.  It’s hard to understand..isn’t it?…. especially when you know the student is capable of doing so much more.

Let’s take this scenario…


We’ll call our student Johnny.  Johnny is a 9th grader. Up until this year, he has done ok in school, struggled with different skill areas, but was able to get by.  He’s a pretty smart kid. Now, the classes are a little harder, and he is really just not interested. He’s not doing the homework and not studying for tests. He is focused on other things (could be sports, band, girls, etc.???).  These things seem much more important to him. So…due to his lack of participation, he has failed a class the first semester of high school.

Unmotivated is defined as “not having interest in or enthusiasm for something, especially work or study”.

Do you think this student is unmotivated?

Absolutely he is!  But…. what causes lack of motivation and what do we do about it?

Causes of lack of motivation                                                        6157711

1. Low self-esteem

Kids who have a poor self-image avoid activities that they deem beyond their     capabilities. Even if they can actually complete a given task, these students engage in self-defeating behavior to protect the little self-worth they do possess. For them, it is better to withhold effort or to procrastinate rather than risk trying, failing, and feeling even worse abouW

2. Lack of support at home

The home environment shapes the initial attitudes that children hold toward learning. In a home where curiosity, questions, and exploration are encouraged, children are given the message that education is worthwhile and personally satisfying. These kids are more likely to take the risks that are inherent in academically challenging pursuits. On the other hand, in a home where learning is not encouraged, children are given the message that education is of little value and that they lack the competency and ability to learn.

3. Low expectations in the classroom

Students mirror their teachers’ attitudes. If teachers believe that their students can learn, their students are more likely to trust in themselves and their abilities. Such teachers assign challenging, meaningful, and achievable tasks that promote motivation and link effort and success. Conversely, if teachers take the stance that they are the source of all knowledge and that their students are incompetent, their students are more apt to tune out, stop trying, and fail.

4. Pressure

Many unmotivated students are simply responding negatively to pressure. Whether the tension is perceived or real, these kids rely on defense mechanisms to protect them from the discomfort pressure generates. Through procrastination or avoidance, these students are trying to escape from their fears of failure and inadequacy. In time, they come to accept the consequences of their behavior, so they appear nonchalant and composed, even as the pressure they are trying to dodge mounts.

What can we do to help?

1. Praise Students in Ways Big and Small      download

Recognize work in class, display good work in the classroom and send positive notes home to parents, hold weekly awards in your classroom, organize academic pep rallies to honor the honor roll, and even sponsor a Teacher Shoutout section in the student newspaper to acknowledge student’s hard work. 


2. Expect Excellence

Set high, yet realistic expectations. Make sure to voice those expectations. Set short terms goals and celebrate when they are achieved.


3. Spread Excitement Like a Virus
images (1)

Show your enthusiasm in the subject and use appropriate, concrete and understandable examples to help students grasp it. For example, I love alliteration. Before I explain the concept to students, we “improv” subjects they’re interested in. After learning about alliteration, they brainstorm alliterative titles for their chosen subjects. 


4. How to Motivate Students: Mix It Up

It’s a classic concept and the basis for differentiated instruction, but it needs to be said: using a variety of teaching methods caters to all types of learners. By doing this in an orderly way, you can also maintain order in your classroom. In a generic example for daily instruction, journal for 10 minutes to open class; introduce the concept for 15 minutes; discuss/group work for 15 minutes; Q&A or guided work time to finish the class. This way, students know what to expect everyday and have less opportunity to act up.


5. Assign Classroom Jobs

With students, create a list of jobs for the week. Using the criteria of your choosing, let students earn the opportunity to pick their classroom jobs for the next week. These jobs can cater to their interests and skills.

Classroom Job Examples    images (3)

  • Post to the Class blog

  • Update Calendar

  • Moderate review games

  • Pick start of class music

  • Watch class pet

  • Public relations officer (address people who visit class)

  • Standard class jobs like Attendance, Cleaning the boards, putting up chairs, etc.


6. Hand Over Some Control

If students take ownership of what you do in class, then they have less room to complain (though we all know, it’ll never stop completely). Take an audit of your class, asking what they enjoy doing, what helps them learn, what they’re excited about after class. Multiple choice might be the best way to start if you predict a lot of “nothing” or “watch movies” answers.  After reviewing the answers, integrate their ideas into your lessons or guide a brainstorm session on how these ideas could translate into class. On a systematic level, let students choose from elective classes in a collegiate format. Again, they can tap into their passion and relate to their subject matter if they have a choice. 


7. Open-format Fridays

You can also translate this student empowerment into an incentive program. Students who attended class all week, completed all assignments and obeyed all classroom rules can vote on Friday’s activities (lecture, discussion, watching a video, class jeopardy, acting out a scene from a play or history).


8. Relating Lessons to Students’ Lives

Whether it is budgeting for family Christmas gifts, choosing short stories about your town, tying in the war of 1812 with Iraq, rapping about ions, students will care more if they identify themselves or their everyday lives in what they’re learning. 


9. Track Improvement

In those difficult classes, it can feel like a never-ending uphill battle, so try to remind download (1)students that they’ve come a long way. Set achievable, short-term goals, emphasis improvement, keep self-evaluation forms to fill out and compare throughout the year, or revisit mastered concepts that they once struggled with to refresh their confidence.


10. Reward Positive Behavior Outside the Classroom

Tie service opportunities, cultural experiences, extracurricular activities into the curriculum for extra credit or as alternative options on assignments. Have students doing Habitat for Humanity calculate the angle of the freshly cut board, count the nails in each stair and multiply the number of stairs to find the total number of nails; write an essay about their experience volunteering or their how they felt during basketball tryouts; or any other creative option they can come up with.



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Even if we can’t turn every apathetic student into an enthusiastic one, motivating them enough to enjoy some aspects of school and work for that diploma is a great starting point. And who knows? Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky teachers who reaches a student on a level that inspires him for greatness in other lifetime endeavors.


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