Slumped bodies, rolled eyes, defiant words, and off-task behaviors announce (not-so-subtly) that instruction isn’t working. So what can teachers do to encourage participation and task completion when students are reluctant to participate or complete tasks? When it comes to engaging reluctant learners, there are no guarantees or magic words, but certain principles and strategies can help harness the intrinsic motivation that lies at the heart of each learner. Here are 5 ways to engage reluctant learners in the classroom.
1. Proactively get to know and connect with each student. All students come alive somewhere in the world beyond school. Teachers can intentionally uncover these passions by having students make a pie chart or graph of their interests, using simple prompts like, “What do you enjoy spending time on?” You could also take attendance by saying, “When I call your name, tell me your ideal superpower.” Once that information becomes public domain in classroom conversation, teachers can reference it in examples, explanations, and assignment options. Such connections honor what reluctant learners value and can increase their sense of belonging.
2. Foster community and collaboration by design. Letting students stay in the same cliques—or to themselves—as they are prone to do, can erode community. Because most students don’t spontaneously or independently form bonds or reach out to one another, teachers must lay a relational foundation from the start. At minimum, this calls for students to work with a wide variety of classmates over the course of a week or month. Teachers can form partnerships or teams by asking students to line up in order of their birthdays or bedtimes, and then grouping by similar or dissimilar traits. If the line-up question changes each day, so will the configurations. Over time, students begin to regard everyone in the class as a colleague.
3. Make interactive learning experiences the norm. One solution to reluctant learners is requiring students to be active producers in class discussions. If this expectation is sprung on students once in a blue moon, with few opportunities to practice being team players, they may rebel against or passively resist collaborative work. Approaches like the line up described above create a simple structure for grouping students to interact with one another around content and skills. Individual accountability in fun and nonthreatening ways is a great method for engaging reluctant learners.
4. Whenever possible, provide choice. All human beings are more motivated when they feel like they have a say in what they are doing. Teachers can provide options for what to read or study (e.g., “Here are 4 ads – analyze the ad of your choice for its persuasive techniques”) or for how to demonstrate what they’ve learned (e.g., summarize your findings via a letter to the company or a blog post rant). You can also ask students to choose the problems they want to solve, while maintaining the level of difficulty required by the teacher.
5. Build an off-ramp. It’s impossible for teachers to know or understand all of the beyond-the-class challenges and traumas many students confront each day. There are some days that a student may simply need an out. Many effective teachers establish a safe haven in the classroom where students can work independently when the need arises. A learning environment that encourages regular participation but allows for exceptions has a better chance of gaining the trust – and investment – of all students.
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