5 Ways To Engage Reluctant Learners

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5 Ways To Engage Reluctant Learners

by Kristina J. Doubet, Ph.D and Jessica A. Hockett, Ph.D.

We’ve all been there. 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?

While there are no guarantees or magic bullets, certain principles and strategies can help harness the intrinsic motivation that lies at the heart of each learner.

5 Ways To Engage Reluctant Learners

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?” or taking attendance questions such as, “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 individual students 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 day 1. 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, phone numbers, 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 regard everyone in the class as a colleague.

3. Make interactive learning experiences the norm.

Teachers can combat reluctance by requiring students to be active producers of discussion and knowledge on a regular basis. But 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. Strategies such as Think Dots, Debate Team Carousel, and Face to Face (Doubet & Hockett, 2015) facilitate interdependent group work – as well as individual accountability – in “fun” and nonthreatening ways.

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”).  

They can also utilize techniques such as “Show me the Money” (Doubet & Hockett, 2015) a strategy that asks 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.

There are many more specific strategies teachers can use to “put wheels on” these overarching principles.  At our two-day pre-conference institute, March 31-April 1 at the 2016 ASCD Annual Conference in Atlanta, participants will experience such strategies first-hand to learn how to engage reluctant learners in their own classrooms and leave with an even larger arsenal of tactics catalogued in the our book, Differentiation in Middle and High School: Strategies to Engage All Learners.

Jessica A. Hockett, Ph.D. and Kristina J. Doubet, Ph.D. are the co-authors of Differentiation in Middle and High School: Strategies to Engage All Learners. They’ll be presenting a two-day pre-conference institute on engaging reluctant learners at the 2016 ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show. Doubet and Hockett work with practicing teachers of all grade levels – nationally and abroad – on the topics of curriculum, assessment, and differentiated instruction.  Follow them on Twitter @DIY_Diff and on Instagram @d.i.y_di

5 Ways To Engage Reluctant Learners; adapted image attribution flickr user usdepartmentofeducation

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