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Dr. Ken Shore's Classroom Problem Solver Series

The Unmotivated Student

A motivational problem is not always easy to define, although teachers usually have no trouble recognizing it: The unmotivated student is the one whose attitude toward schoolwork screams, "I don't care!"

The unmotivated student actually is highly motivated when it comes to schoolwork -- he's motivated to avoid it. He puts more work into avoiding academic challenges than he puts into tackling them. Although his test scores often convey high potential, his classroom performance suggests something else. When given an assignment, the unmotivated student will shrug his shoulders and complain, "Why do we have to do this?" He gives up at the first sign of a challenge. He is content with just getting by.

When working with an unmotivated student, you face two challenges. The first is to change his thinking so he comes to believe that, if he puts forth effort, he can be successful with academic tasks. The second is to figure out what does motivate him -- to identify the settings, situations, and conditions that he responds to and that can be used to foster his interest.


Interrupt the cycle of failure. An unmotivated student often is a demoralized student. Try to alter his perceptions by orchestrating positive academic experiences. Assign work that gives him a feeling of accomplishment, but that he is capable of completing successfully. Structure the assignment so the beginning is relatively easy, hopefully giving him confidence to move on. If he struggles with a task, focus on what he has done well; gently correct his mistakes without criticizing. Help him understand that setbacks and mistakes are a normal part of the learning process. As he begins to enjoy more success, his confidence will grow and he will become more willing to take risks.

Give a choice of assignments. An unmotivated student often is more likely to put forth effort if he has a say in the assignment. For example, you might allow him to choose from among three assignments -- each of which meets your objective. In studying the Civil War, for example, he might choose to do a book report, an oral presentation, or an art project. (Of course, you reserve the right to require him to do certain essential assignments.) Keep an eye out for other ways to give the student some ownership over the learning process; by having him choose what book he will read or what topic he will write about or what reward or he will receive for reaching a goal.

Incorporate the student's interests into the lesson. Find out some of the student's interests. (You might have him complete an interest inventory.) and try to integrate those interests into your lessons or classroom activities. If the student has a paper route, for example, you might design math problems requiring him to calculate how much he would earn delivering papers under various conditions. If you are doing a transportation unit and the student builds model airplanes, have him bring in some models to show the class. If the student is artistic, invite him to help you design your bulletin boards. If he excels on the computer, have him become the class troubleshooter.

Relate lessons to real life. Students who are unmotivated often want to know "Why do I have to know this?" Help them see how classroom lessons can be applied to life outside the classroom. When teaching shapes, for example, have students point out shapes in the classroom. Show why being able to count is essential when buying things at the store. In a unit on plant life, have students make a leaf collection. Plan field trips that show how their lessons work in real life. For example, plan a trip to a recycling center as part of a unit on the environment.

Break tasks into manageable steps. Some students put forth little effort because they see the task as overwhelming. If that's the case with your student, present the task in small chunks. Give the student one step at a time, and don't move on until he has mastered that step. As the student gains skill and confidence, gradually expand the size of the task, give him more difficult problems, or move at a faster pace. Apply the same approach to homework. If the student struggles with math and rarely completes those homework assignments, consider giving him half the number of problems the other students do; select problems you are confident he can complete.

Expand your teaching style to spark interest. A student who appears to be in the dark when listening to classroom lectures can light up during hands-on activities. For example, you might have students participate in a debate about a controversial historical issue, conduct an experiment to demonstrate a science principle, or do a cooking project to learn about different units of measurement. Those kinds of activities stimulate students' interests and help them retain concepts.

Focus on the student's individual progress rather than on his performance in relation to his peers. A student who is compared to classmates who outperform him -- even if his poor performance is due to a lack of effort -- eventually can become discouraged and shut down completely. You can avoid that by focusing on the student's improvement rather than on his performance relative to his classmates. You might evaluate the student through a portfolio assessment in which you examine his work during the year and consider his progress a measure of his performance. The student might receive a confidence boost by seeing how his work has improved over the course of the year.

About Ken Shore

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist and chair of a child study team for the Hamilton, New Jersey Public Schools. He has written five books, including Special Kids Problem Solver and Elementary Teacher's Discipline Problem Solver.

Click to read a complete bio.


Last updated 2/6/2017