Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘There Is No Such Thing as an Unmotivated Student’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 17, 2013 13 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the first post in a three-part series on this topic.)

Fitta Astriyani asked:

How can I deal with unmotivated students? I’m a little bit frustrated when I know my students don’t do their homework and sometimes they talk during my lessons.

This question highlights a never-ending challenge to educators, and it’s one that requires regular examination. I’ve previously published thirteen posts on this topic, and you can find even more resources at The Best Posts and Articles on “Motivating” Students (not to mention my three books on the subject). I don’t have any new thoughts to share, but I’m pleased to say several well-respected educators have agreed to contribute to this new three-part series on motivation. In addition, my final post will include suggestions from readers.

Today’s “line-up” is impressive with guest responses from Cris Tovani, Josh Stumpenhorst and Eric Jensen.

Response From Cris Tovani

Cris Tovani taught elementary school for ten years before becoming a high school reading specialist and English teacher. She currently teaches at Adams City High School in Commerce City, Colorado. In addition to teaching full-time, she is a nationally known consultant focusing on issues of reading and content comprehension in high school classrooms. She is the author of three books, I Read it but I Don’t Get It, Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? and So, What do They Really Know? Cris is also featured in three instructional DVDs that show her in action with adolescent readers. These DVDs, Thoughtful Reading, Comprehending Content, and Talk to Me are available through Stenhouse Publishers.

Planning for Motivation and Engagement

It’s the last staff meeting of teacher work-week. In two days students will fill the building and the first bell will ring signaling the beginning of the school year. Before this happens, teachers will have the chance to hear from selected members of the student body. They have been asked to share what motivates and engages them.

Javier starts, “Know our names. When teachers know who I am, I act better.”

“Yeah,” says David. “I try harder when you try to help me. Help us when we get stuck.”

Marisol quietly follows, “I try hardest for teachers who ask me how I am. Sometimes you could ask us how we are doing.”

Smiling, with eyes down, Humberto shyly says, “Try not to be boring. Teach us stuff we need to know. Make class interesting.”

All down the line similar responses emerge: Know us. Care about us. Engage us. It is clear kids want to like school. They want to be motivated.

Backed up to the reclaimed Rocky Mountain Arsenal sits Adams City High School. Housed in a beautiful new building rests the traditions of 99 previous graduating classes. The institution is a mainstay of this humble community. The school needs its families and the families need the school. It’s a good marriage.

Unfortunately, Adams City High School is entering the third year of “turn around” status. Test scores are low, graduation rates are dismal and student engagement is minimal. Stakes are high for these kids and their teachers. Faculty and administrators are working furiously to figure out why students aren’t succeeding. Some hypothesize the difficulty stems from students not being native English speakers. Others blame poverty. Many worry that students lack motivation and engagement.

What Does Motivate Learners?

Thinking of last year’s students reminds me that there isn’t a magic bullet when it comes to engagement. Motivating students is complex but it is something that teachers can plan for. If I strive to engage students at the emotional, behavioral, and cognitive levels, I can increase the number of motivated students (Fredrick, 2004).

For me, engaging students at the emotional level is the easiest. This means I need to work to build personal relationships--to know and care about students. When that relationship is developed kids will often “work” harder just because they like me. However, just engaging them at the gut level isn’t enough. I also need to set up rituals and routines and model how they work in the classroom if I want behavioral engagement. However, just being behaviorally engaged isn’t enough either. There also has to be behavioral engagement. This means there is predictability in the classroom. I post learning targets on the board each day so students know what my instructional goals are. I also want to identify what students will produce in terms of annotations, drafts of writing, double entry diaries etcetera so they understand what they will create to show me what they know and need. When students understand how the classroom work in terms of rituals and routines, they can better manage the rules of school.

The level of engagement that I’m trying to harness more is cognitive engagement. When students are cognitively engaged, they are motivated to learn because the topic is compelling and they see a purpose in their own life for the learning. This requires I flesh out why my content matters. I have to help students see how what we are studying has relevance to the world outside of school and how it will empower them as learners. Content can’t sit in a curriculum guide if it is going to be compelling to students. It has to connect to their lives. When I hit the sweet spot and get students engaged at all three levels, my classroom is humming.

Another body of work I consider when I’m trying to motivate students is Daniel Pink’s book Drive. Pink synthesizes the work of researchers like Mikal Csikszentimihalyi and concludes that human beings are motivated when autonomy, mastery and purpose are in place. In school, autonomy means that students have some choice in their learning. Sometimes they can choose what they read or how they show their thinking. Sometimes it means they have choice in what they work on and what the final product will look like. In other words, choice drives engagement.

Mastery also drives engagement. In my class, it means that kids have models so they can see what exemplar work looks like. They also get feedback from me and they have time to use the feedback to gain more mastery and make their product better. Ebony a student in my CP 11 English class would often rewrite her papers five or six times. She was dazzled by the idea that she could take the feedback I gave her and improve upon it. She must have asked me a hundred times if I was sure she could make the revisions. Ebony didn’t think of herself as a good writer and at the beginning of the year, really avoided doing any writing at all. I think she thought that good writers were born that way. Once she realized that with practice she too could be a good writer, she was willing to dig in. For Ebony, like most learners, success bred success.

Pink also emphasizes the importance of having relevant work to do. When students see a need for the learning or a connection to their lives, they are more motivated to struggle through the difficult parts. I think about Fernando. He was another student of mine last year. Two weeks after school was out, he sent me another draft of his Dream Speech, an assignment that was due in May. Fernando’s speech was about his “crossing” to the US when he was four. He wanted his audience to know why Mexicans were coming to the US and why it was so important for immigrants to get legal status. In the email that Fernando sent me he wrote, “Dear Ms. Tovani. I know the final draft of my speech was due weeks ago, but I wanted to keep working on it so it was good. I hope this draft is better than my last one. Maybe you can share it with people so they know why the Dream Act matters.”

The importance of doing something that has relevance to a learner’s life is a powerful motivator. Fernando didn’t turn the new draft in for points. He did it because he wanted to make his world better.

Compliance Isn’t Engagement

Engagement is very different from compliance. Motivated students don’t just show up in classrooms. Teachers have to plan for them. Considering what will engage students is a challenge that I look forward to. Like a doctor, I get to try and diagnose what each student needs to be motivated. Some need more autonomy than others. Some need choice, even if that choice is picking between one of two articles to read and annotate. I would argue that most learners need a purpose for their learning while others need a combination of autonomy, choice, and purpose.

Recently, I worked with district instructional coaches. I asked them to brainstorm what motivated them.

Sara started the group off, “I’m motivated when others care about my learning.”

“I need people to collaborate with,” added Colleen.

Denise agreed and then shared, “I need a purpose for the learning. Without a one, I’m not very invested in the task.”

After a bit of quiet thought, Mimi said, " I need time and opportunity to revise my thinking in order to get it right.”

Katie, ended by saying, “I need something interesting to think about. If it’s boring, I’ll find something more interesting to do.”

Just like the high school kids, adults, need certain conditions in place if they are to be motivated. Motivation doesn’t come from some mysterious, unattainable place. For me, it starts with knowing and caring about my learners. It also requires that I plan so kids have time to practice and I have time to give them feedback. Last, I need to remember that no one wants to give his time to busy work or learning something that has no relevance. My job as the teacher is to help my students see why what I’m teaching is compelling.

Fredericks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C. & Paris, A. H. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concept, state of the evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74(1), 59-109.

Pink, Daniel. 2011 Drive, Riverhead Books.

Response From Josh Stumpenhorst:

Josh Stumpenhorst is a 6th grade Language Arts and Social Science teacher in suburban Chicago, IL. He is the 2012 Illinois Teacher of the year, 2012 Illinois Computing Educator of the Year and an ISTE Emerging Leader in 2011. He blogs at www.stumptheteacher.blogspot.com and tweets as @stumpteacher:

An unmotivated or under-motivated student is probably the most thought about and talked about issue among educators. Every teacher I have ever worked with can name off their unmotivated students and all the things they have tried in their classroom. We have all faced that student that seems to defy all logic and rationale through a complete refusal to do any work. If as a teacher you have not faced this student then you are not a real teacher or I need to know where you work :).

Since we can all guarantee we will have an unmotivated learner in our class every single year, what do we do about it? For me, I have three beliefs that I hold to be true.

First, I can’t make or force a kid to do anything. No matter how much a teacher yells at a kids or punishes them, at the end of the day you cannot make a kid do anything. Period. Once you accept this, it is easier to move to the other two beliefs.

The second belief I have about unmotivated students is the reason they are unmotivated is because we are asking them to do things that are a waste of their time. We ask students of high skill levels to do basic tasks dictated by a standardized curriculum and wonder why they don’t want to do it. In addition, we ask our more struggling students to do thing far beyond their abilities and again wonder why they refuse. Motivating students to see value in something that is applicable to their skill level as well as their life is a simple and yet highly effective strategy for motivating students.

Finally, I have found kids will do just about anything a teacher asks them to do if they have a positive relationship with that teacher. Teachers that take the time to invest in a kid’s personal life will ultimately have more success in motivating that student. We too often get wrapped up in teaching the student that we forget to learn about the kid. This is in no way an endorsement that you are best friends with all of your students. However, if you have a personal relationship with a kid you can connect with them, tailor your instruction, and motivate them to learn because they care about you and know that you care about them.

Response From Eric Jensen

Eric Jensen is the author several books, including Turnaround Tools for the Teenage Brain: Helping Underperforming Students Become Lifelong Learners (Jossey-Bass) and Engaging Students With Poverty In Mind: Practical Strategies For Raising Achievement (ASCD):

First, stop labeling students. There is no such thing as a unmotivated student. If they’re in school, they at least willing to give school a try. They may be in unmotivated “states.” States are mind/body “moments” such as the experience of confidence, apathy, fear, cynicism, intrigue, anger or curiosity or defiance. Very few states are good for learning and the best teachers orchestrate “hungry to learn” states like anticipation. But these can be shifted with the right strategies.

Good strategies include the using of more compelling, inclusive questions. Better states come with more engagement, dance, stretch breaks and energizers. You can use music and cooperation learning to boost states. To that list, I would also add the use of celebrations, mystery boxes, partner work and competition. When orchestrated well, teachers can usually elicit the states they need with the kids that need it most. Then, when kids go home, and they are asked about their day, they say, “I love my class!”

When kids seem motivated or struggle, never call them your “low kids.” You wouldn’t call underperforming teachers, “Low teachers” would you? Yet many teachers call kids, “Low kids. This labeling has got to stop. Maybe there are no “Low kids,” only kids who have had “low teachers.” After all, some teachers get fabulous results and with kids and another teach will struggle. High flyer teachers can often get one and a half to three years AYP with their kids while other teachers struggle to get one year’s of progress in one year.

Instead of pointing fingers at how some kids are “low,” start moving them into better social, psychological states. Kids who struggle are often very poor at regulating their own internal states.

Second, above all, build relationships in ways that kids really get that you are vested in their success. This goes way past the name and 2 hobbies stage. Learn about their family. Attend sporting events and give them an extra helping hand when needed.

Third, find the leverage points. All kids care about something: family, dreams, proving themselves, etc. Find what they care about and use that hook them in and foster dreams and the effort to reach them. One kid loved football, so the teacher of this student with severe behaviors simply organized a behavioral system around a football field on a flip chart. When he behaved poorly, he was thrown for a “loss.” When he did well, he moved his piece towards the end zone. This idea works for all of us; find out what we care about and use it.

Finally, be willing to be in it for the long haul. You don’t need to turn kids around in a day. But nibble at it every day and show students that you will not let them fail.

Thanks to Cris, Josh and Eric for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. As I mentioned earlier, the last post in this series will include many reader suggestions.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and will be ending this year with Stenhouse.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of this blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from this school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking in the monthly archives link on this blog’s sidebar.

Also, Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Look for the second post on this topic in a few days...

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.