Educators can readily identify the student who seems to lack motivation. While he or she is generally not a behavior problem in the classroom, the unmotivated student can cause a teacher many sleepless nights. There are a variety of labels used to describe a student who just doesn’t seem to find any purpose in school—the reluctant learner, the shut-down learner, the academically discouraged student. The unmotivated learner comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, from sullen and miserable to socially pleasant. But there is one shared—and very telling—characteristic: a frustration with school. This student is simply not interested in school, choosing to avoid tasks, and doing just enough to get by but never enough to excel.

Often, this student generally has a high degree of potential, but his or her confidence level is almost nonexistent. This student rarely believes in his potential, doesn’t see his own abilities, and is most fearful of failing. Learning problems, peer pressure, anxiety—these are only some of the causes of a reluctant learner’s unmotivated behaviors.

So what can a teacher do? What instructional strategies can have a positive impact on this type of student? I recommend that you begin with these five “To Do’s”:

  1. Present relevant content that matches student interests and couple that presentation with how this content is valuable. It is important for the reluctant learner to know that value of what he or she is being asked to learn.
  2. Focus on designing a more student-centered environment. Find a way to integrate technology that is meaningful to students. For example, I saw a great lesson where a teacher had their students edit twitter posts.
  3. Design a specific plan for students to achieve and feel positive about their achievements.
  4. Be sure that the student will be successful with all instructional experiences. Consider involving students in evaluation and create an environment that encourages students to resubmit assignments that do not demonstrate mastery. This approach relies on reciprocal feedback between the student and the teacher.
  5. Never say what the student cannot do. Keep the expectation clearly pointed to what he/she can do.

Strong, effective teachers consistently create opportunities for students to engage in the learning environment. They know their students’ interests and readily use those interests to design instruction. A shut-down learner generally responds well when given choice in the learning process. Don’t be surprised when this type of student doesn’t pick writing a book report but instead opts to write an “app for that”! Having a degree of control in tasks, assignments, etc. can reduce boredom and make students feel competent. Cooperative learning activities also serve to be highly engaging as the learner is connected to students’ social needs and the fear of competition can be reduced. Remember that academic competition motivates some students but can be a source of fear for the reluctant learner.

Instruction that is highly student-oriented responds to the ways in which students learn and acknowledges the value of students’ interests. By being relevant to real-life situations, student-centered instruction honors the social nature of learning and is always developmentally appropriate. Feedback is plentiful, timely, and meaningful. Student-centered instruction allows for student choice and collaboration, emphasizing the processes of learning, exploring for deeper meaning, and fostering higher-level thinking skills. When the classroom is a highly engaging environment, the reluctant learner has the best chance of finding himself.

Reasons for students’ reluctance to learn are complex. The educator must look at the individual, his/her relationship with the family, peers, and even said teacher. We must speak openly and honestly about performance while at the same time holding high expectations and continually giving feedback aimed at student growth and improvement. It is a tremendous challenge to keep engaging all students and striving to reach that difficult one who appears to just not care. But as Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote, “. . . The sweetest pat of life leads through the avenues of learning, and whoever can open up the way for another, ought, so far, to be esteemed a benefactor to mankind.”