The Top 4 Reasons Why Your Students Are Unmotivated & Disengaged

engagement Jan 29, 2020

You might feel like you have tried everything to motivate disinterested students in your class and get them engaged in lessons, but have you thought about why they are currently lacking the drive to become actively involved? 

I have listed below four possible reasons why your students might be reluctant to participate. This list isn’t exhaustive but these particular de-motivators will counteract even the most determined and ingenious  efforts made by teachers in a bid to raise engagement. Reducing and addressing these de-motivators is something I'll cover later posts - although if you're eager for support right now, I'll direct you to some useful resources at the bottom of the page.

Reason #1 : Lack of RELEVANCE 

Responsible students and those who have a positive family and parental influence work hard in school because they know the value and importance of education and its necessity for success in life. But many of our students simply don’t see a connection between school and real life.

“What’s the point in this sir?” and “Why do we have to do this?” are the more polite ways a student might complain about the relevancy of a lesson on trigonometry, but if their complaints stop at that level you’re very lucky. Bored, frustrated and unmotivated students who see no point in the work usually become a major disruption in lessons.

Reason #2: FEAR 

Fear is a crippling emotion. It prevents us from taking risks such as putting a hand up to answer a question in front of ‘clever’ peers and therefore keeps us from growing and learning. How can you stretch out and try new things if you’re crippled by fear and don’t want to look foolish?

On my live courses, I often introduce the idea that everyone present will have to get up on stage at some point during the day to either take part in a role-play or do something to entertain the rest of the group. It doesn’t go down well with some people – particularly the shy ones, or those who have left their banjo at home. Frequently I watch as they mutter to each other “we don’t have to do this” and “I am NOT doing that!” – very similar comments to those made by students who are given work they don’t ‘like’. The look of sheer horror on some of the participants’ faces at the mere mention of ‘role play’ is priceless.

But after enjoying seeing them squirm for a few moments I smile and say “Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to come up to the front unless you want to. But you might like to think about this for a moment…

…how many times do you present your students with tasks about which they are probably equally fearful?”

When I was in primary school I developed an incredible fear of reading aloud in class (and vacuum cleaners, but that’s another story). My fear was so profound that I used to shake and stammer uncontrollably. The terror I experienced had such a hold on me that I was unable to speak at all – I would try but the words just wouldn’t come out and I would be reduced to a bright red, teary-eyed terror-stricken mute.

By the time I reached secondary school this fear was so entrenched that I avoided all requests to read out in class at all costs. I avoided Wednesday’s English lessons for a whole year because that was the day we did group reading. Half my English lessons that year were spent hiding in the toilets with the other skivers. (Which could explain the high percentage of typos in my books and blog posts!)

I should point out that I wasn’t a wallflower at school. Far from it. Many teachers considered me to be something of a class clown – outspoken, cheeky and lively with size 20 boots – which made my deep fear of reading aloud all the more confusing to me and also to my friends. How could a normally gregarious big lad be so self-conscious and fearful when it came to reading out loud? I never did find the reasons behind my fear of public speaking (although the way I got over it is a subject for another time) but I did learn something incredibly important for my teaching career: fear is one of the main reasons for work avoidance among students.

Think how you feel when you’re asked to do something outside your comfort zone, and remember that the fierce arguments, bold complaints and other seemingly offensive or vindictive actions from some students may simply be a means to conceal the real reason they appear unmotivated: fear of embarrassment, ridicule, criticism or failure.

Reason #3: INADEQUACY

School is a miserable and frustrating experience for many students, and teachers come to think of it! By the time they reach 11 or 12, students who have experienced failure almost every day for years have a clear image in their heads that they can’t learn. School has become somewhere they struggle and they see no light on the horizon. They see other students doing quite nicely, producing lovely pieces of artwork, writing neatly, understanding concepts, answering questions etc, whereas they simply fail every day.

Their work is messy. They can’t keep up. Sometimes they get a glimmer of success when a friendly teacher congratulates them for a single piece of work but their image of themselves as a failure is so entrenched that they quickly revert back to the comfortable and known feeling of themselves as inadequate.

Would you feel motivated to learn a new concept if you’d had experiences like that for years on end? Would you turn up for class with an eager smile on your face?

Reason #4: FRUSTRATION

Let's face it, some lessons are B-O-R-I-N-G. There’s just no getting away from it. Teachers have limited time and resources and can’t possibly make every lesson a big hit with their students. Now and again you can be forgiven for having a lesson of bookwork or worksheets. Now and again you can be forgiven for a lackluster performance and for not displaying your usual enthusiasm and love for your subject. No problem there, that’s life.

The problems arise when the majority of lessons all follow the same format. If there is a continual lack of challenge, a continual lack of variety and a continual lack of novelty there will almost certainly be a continual lack of interest from the students. When was the last time you put the television on and sat through a really boring film on your own? You just wouldn’t would you? If it wasn’t to your satisfaction you would just turn it off (even if Nicholas Cage wasn’t in it).

Students don’t have the luxury of being able to ‘change channels’ to a more interesting lesson or teacher. This is why their boredom comes out as disruption, defiance or avoidance. 

It may be because the work is too easy (not enough challenge), too difficult (makes them switch off), has zero activity or interaction built-in, has no relevance (see #1) or because they’ve simply been working too long without a break. Whatever the reason, they're frustrated in some way with the work and tasks being presented. 

So these are four of the main ‘de-motivators’ operating in today's classrooms. 

If you’d like some practical ways to eliminate these issues within your class and are searching for FUN and EXCITING ways to encourage your unmotivated students, make sure you're on my email list by downloading the free book on my homepage here. I send out regular free tips and free downloadable resources for making lessons more active, more engaging and more fun. Alternatively, you'll find some of my very best ideas in the following books available on Amazon... 

Motivate the Unmotivated
The Fun Teacher's Tool Kit
The Cooperative and Active Learning Tool Kit
Attention-Grabbing Starters and Plenaries 

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