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Student Disinterest: Is it Curable?


Voice of Experience

What happens when students "check out" of the learning process? Is it an educator's job to re-engage them? If so, how can that be accomplished? This week, educator Brenda Dyck reflects on some ways to tackle the sticky problem of student disinterest. Included: Practical ideas from middle-level teachers, plus links to additional articles on the subject!

Disinterested students -- they are easy to spot! They meander into class, drop their books, and slide into semi-reclining positions at their desks. Indifference is written all over their faces -- and all over the work they do.

Meanwhile, teachers scratch their heads and huddle together, trying to make sense of the lack of pride and drive those students show. We wonder if motivation can be taught and we speculate on whether inspiring students is really part of our jobs.

All of us secretly hope that a tonic will be discovered to fix what ails those students; and we pray (outside of school, of course) that the disease is not contagious.

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Students check out of the learning process for a variety of reasons -- including poor self-esteem, being under- or over-challenged by the curriculum, turmoil at home, boredom, or illness. Most educators, however, are always seeking concrete ways to re-engage those disinterested students in the learning process. Following are some fresh ideas and words of wisdom I've gathered from my colleagues on the MiddleWeb Listserv.

Turn Their Weaknesses Into Strengths

  • Work with what you've got. Middle-schoolers flourish in herds -- it's the nature of the beast. Group projects and an abundance of lunch-hour and after-school clubs will meet those students' need to be part of a group.
  • Create projects that tap into their innate desire to make a difference in their world. Check out the a few of the many Service Learning Web Resources available or connect learning themes to such social justice topics as famine, child labor, and children's rights.
  • This generation loves to interact. Capitalize on that by integrating instant messaging (MSN) and online bulletin boards into your assignments. They'll be so busy writing that they won't even realize they're learning!

Engage Students in Participation

  • Enlist students' opinions whenever possible. Involve them in the creation of assignment rubrics. Frequently seek their feedback concerning what is happening in your classroom.
  • Provide plenty of opportunities for student choice in the way they learn and in the ways they are allowed to demonstrate what they know. That will encourage them to take more ownership of their learning. Acquaint yourself with Howard Gardner's work in multiple intelligences and be open to project work that goes beyond the traditional.

A Thought to Ponder

"The educational equivalent to location, location, location,' is motivation, motivation, motivation,' for motivation is probably the most significant factor educators can target in order to improve learning."

That quote, written by Diane Walker in "The Art and Craft of Motivating Students," reminds me that motivating my students is more than a good thing to do it actually is part of my job.
Reward Them!
  • Create a bulletin board headlined "Great Moments in Room 32." If you see a student doing something thoughtful or kind, write it down on an index card and hang it up on the board.
  • Create a bulletin board that shouts "Stupendous Students." Let students choose the work they are most proud of to display.

Make Sure Structures Are in Place

  • Communicate clear, reachable expectations. Routinely provide benchmarks and rubrics at the beginning of an assignment, so students know what they have to do to achieve.
  • Do whatever you have to do to help students meet your learning expectations for them. If reading 100 minutes a week at home is a turn-off for a disinterested student, start with 50 minutes and work up gradually. Students will be encouraged to make an effort if they know you are willing to work with them.

Meet Their Emotional Needs

  • Consider publishing student work online. Nothing seems to motivate students quite as much as knowing their work will have an extended audience.
  • Encourage administrators to make a special effort to work with troublesome students. They can offer extra love and support, a sincere "How are you doing?" in the morning, an extra hug when they need a time out, maybe even a trip to McDonald's at the end of a successful week.
  • Ensure that learning is meaningful to the student. Whenever possible, make connections between the curriculum and their lives. Doing so will enhance their interest and make the learning (and teaching) easier.
  • Teacher energy and enthusiasm can be significant to getting disinterested students engaged in learning. Nothing is quite as captivating as a teacher who is continually on the brink of new learning discoveries -- students can't help being enticed to jump on board for the learning ride ahead!

Brenda Dyck teaches at Master's Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching sixth grade math, Brenda works with her staff in the area of technology integration. Her "Electronic Thread" column is a regular feature in the National Middle School Association's Journal, Middle Ground. Brenda is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.