How To Engage Disengaged Students

student doing homework

Keeping students engaged with their schoolwork can be hard. Here are a few tips to make it easy.

Make it FUN

This comes first on the list because it is the single most important factor. Each student is unique in that they are all driven by different things and enjoy specific subjects more than others. It is an almost impossible task to make someone do something that they are not interested in. If you really want to see engagement, think about what kind of activity engages you and why this is the case. It cannot be something too difficult as this is the quickest way to see a loss of interest.

Some things to try include:

  • ‘Gamification’: how can you turn a learning activity into a game? From the lens of a parent, you may choose to challenge your child to complete their homework before you can finish cooking dinner or to finish a question before their sibling is done with their shower, for example. Learning does not necessarily mean having to memorise content from a textbook. The same learning can occur much quicker if a friend explains a concept, if the student watches a useful video online, or if they work closely with someone who understands their learning needs like a tutor. Things you remember most vividly are those that stand out as interesting or exciting. Ask any child to recall what they did in class last week and note what they are able to say.
  • Relate the learning back to another subject or interest that the student likes. For example, one of my students has a large affinity to mangoes – I use them in their math problems when I notice they are drifting out of focus. Students who would rather be playing sport, find ways to link the content to their passion. It is useful to show how knowledge in one discipline can help understanding other subjects. For example, you might need to show a student that what they learn in science about human anatomy might be helpful for their artwork.
  • Ask the students why they may find this learning to be a waste of their time and energy. Allow them to come up with their own ideas as to how to they can make it more fun. Or at the very least tolerable. Often it is the idea of studying rather than the studying itself that is off-putting. They are thinking about what they would rather be doing instead. Maybe they need to have someone sit down with them to learn where open discussions can occur, or perhaps they need to have more structured breaks to refocus their attention rather than spend long periods of their study time being distracted.

The carrot and the stick

In my years as a tutor and soccer coach, it is very rare that I have encountered young people who respond positively to criticism, punishment, or negative feedback. If I need the attention of my players, I will start by praising the one who is sitting down the quietest or is the first one to come in when called. It is amazing to see how quickly the disruptive ones will follow suit, desperately eager for similar praise. Do not criticise behaviour that you want to see repeated, and do not criticise poor behaviour. What the latter action achieves is to draw attention to it, distracting from any good behaviour that may be occurring.

It is also vital to praise effort and progress rather than attainment. These things they are in control of and are the attributes that we need to nurture in our students. Unless the student is completing their final VCE exams, what is most important is how they are progressing in their development and falling into the habit of consistently dedicating their time and energy to improving in their studies. While it’s frustrating to have to wait for the results of this process, rest assured results will come with time. Like going to the gym, you cannot expect to see an instant increase in muscle size after one hour of training. Given a month of sticking to the habit and positive reinforcement of dedication, you will start to be impressed.

Set targets

These targets must be SMART:

Dedicating specific time in the day to study in a specific space can lead to the formation of a habit. It may take time to work out the student’s best arrangement, but this can make the process much easier.

A tool I personally highly value is a ‘progress bar’ that you can shade in according to how much progress you have made on a specific bar, a bit like the icon of a charging phone. This provides a visual tool to show you how far you have come. Importantly it acts as a motivation to complete your work so you can see the finished product. You can also use a checklist of targets that progress. I.e. finishing notes on a topic by a specific day so you can move on to the next topic next week.

One example might be to achieve an ATAR so you can get into a university – this will require smaller, more actionable targets that accumulate in their outcomes. This can be combined with other incentives for the work. I.e. a child who wants a new laptop can earn one for submitting all their assignments on time during a full term.

Take steps to improve today

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