What to Do When Students Lack Interest

Helping Students Get Interested and Motivated

Lack of student interest and motivation can be quite a challenge for teachers to combat. 

Many of the following methods are researched based and shown to be effective in getting your students motivated and eager to learn. 

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Be Warm and Inviting in Your Classroom

Teenage girl (16-17) sitting in classroom, looking away
ColorBlind Images/The Image Bank/Getty Images

No one wants to enter a home where they do not feel welcome. The same goes for your students. You and your classroom should be an inviting place where students feel safe and accepted.

This observation is steeped in research for over 50 years. Gary Anderson suggested in his report Effects of Classroom Social Climate on Individual Learning ​ (1970) that classes have a distinctive personality or “climate” which influences the learning efficiency of their members.

"The properties that make up a classroom environment include interpersonal relationships among students, relationships between students and their teachers, relationships between students and both the subject being studied and the method of learning, and the students’ perception of the structure of the class."
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Give Choice

Once students have learned a skill or have become familiar with some content, there is always an opportunity to offer a student a choice. 

The research shows that giving students choice is critical to increasing student engagement.  In a report to the Carnegie Foundation, Reading Next—A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy, researchers Biancarosa and Snow (2006) explain that choice is important for secondary school students:

"As students progress through the grades, they become increasingly “tuned out,” and building student choices into the school day is an important way to reawaken student engagement."

The report notes: "One of the easiest ways to build some choice into the students’ school day is to incorporate independent reading time in which they can read whatever they choose."

In all disciplines, students can be given a choice of questions to answer or a choice between writing prompts. Students can make choices on topics for research. Problem-solving activities give students a chance to try different strategies. Teachers can provide activities that allow students to have more control over learning to a greater sense of ownership and interest. 

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Authentic Learning

Research has shown over the years that students are more engaged when they feel that what they are learning is connected to life outside the classroom. Great Schools Partnership defines authentic learning in the following way:

"The basic idea is that students are more likely to be interested in what they are learning, more motivated to learn new concepts and skills, and better prepared to succeed in college, careers, and adulthood if what they are learning mirrors real-life contexts, equips them with practical and useful skills, and addresses topics that are relevant and applicable to their lives outside of school."

Therefore, we must as educators attempt to show real-world connections to the lesson we are teaching as often as possible.

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Use Project-Based Learning

Solving real-world problems as the beginning of the educational process instead of the end is quite motivating. 

Great Schools Partnership defines project-based learning (PBL) as:

"It can improve student engagement in school, increase their interest in what is being taught, strengthen their motivation to learn, and make learning experiences more relevant and meaningful."

The process of project-based learning takes place when students start with a problem to solve, complete research, and then finally solve the problem using tools and information that you would typically teach in a number of lessons. Instead of learning information away from its application, or out of context, this shows students how what they learn can be used to solve problems.

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Make Learning Objectives Obvious

Many times what appears to be a lack of interest is really just a student afraid to reveal how overwhelmed they fell. Certain topics can be overwhelming because of the amount of information and details involved. Providing students with a road map through accurate learning objectives that shows them exactly what it is you want them to learn can help allay some of these concerns.

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Make Cross-Curricular Connections

Sometimes students do not see how what they learn in one class intersects with what they are learning in other classes. Cross-curricular connections can provide students with a sense of context while increasing interest in all classes involved. For example, having an English teacher assign students to read Huckleberry Finn while students in an American History class are learning about slavery and the pre-Civil War era can lead to a deeper understanding in both classes.

Magnet schools that are based around specific themes like health, engineering, or the arts take advantage of this by having all classes in the curriculum find ways to integrate the students' career interests into their classroom lessons.

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Show How Students Can Use This Information in the Future

Some students are not interested because they see no point in what they are learning. A common theme among students is, "Why do I need to know this?" Instead of waiting for them to ask this question, why not make it part of the lesson plans that you create. Add a line in your lesson plan template that specifically relates to how students might apply this information in the future. Then make this clear to students as you teach the lesson. 

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Provide Incentives for Learning

While some people do not like the idea of giving students incentives to learn, an occasional reward can nudge the unmotivated and uninterested student to get involved. Incentives and rewards can be everything from free time at the end of a class to a 'popcorn and movie' party (provided this is cleared by the school administration). Make it clear to students exactly what they need to do to earn their reward and keep them involved as they work towards it together as a class.

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Give the Students a Goal Larger Than Themselves

Ask students the following questions based on the research by William Glasser:

  • What do you want?
  • What are you doing to achieve what you want?
  • Is it working?
  • What are your plans or options?

Having students answer think about these questions can lead students to work towards a worthy goal. Maybe you can partner with a school in another country or work towards a service project as a group. Any type of activity that provides students with a reason to be involved and interested can reap huge benefits in your class. Scientific studies even prove that charitable activities are related to better health and well-being.

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Use Hands-On Learning and Include Supporting Materials

The research is clear, hands-on learning motivates students. 

A white paper from the Resource Area For Teaching notes,

"Well-designed hands-on activities focus learners on the world around them, spark their curiosity, and guide them through engaging experiences—all while achieving the expected learning outcomes."

By involving more senses than simply sight and/or sound, student learning is taken to a new level. When students are able to feel artifacts or be involved in experiments, the information being taught can acquire more meaning and spark more interest.