Tips to Engage and Guide Reluctant Students Toward Learning Goals

How to Motivate Reluctant LearnersAccording to master educator and professional development expert Robyn Jackson, “what we call ‘motivation’ in school is really a decision students make to invest in our classrooms.” In her ASCD book How to Motivate Reluctant Learners, she explains what it takes to engage students who fight or resist engagement and how to guide their early efforts toward motivated behavior.

You’ll find her tips for helping students set goals in the following excerpt. Then follow along as she successfully guides a group of students who she considered unmotivated toward a learning goal.

You can find this book in paperback and e-book formats in the ASCD Online Store and a collection of free ASCD webinars hosted by Robyn Jackson in our webinar archive.


Help Students Set Goals

One of the best ways to help students invest successfully is to involve them in setting their own investment-related goals. When students are involved in setting their own goals for their learning, not only do they learn more, but their motivation to accomplish these goals increases, as does their ability to self-evaluate and self-regulate their participation and performance in the classroom (Saphier & Gower, 1997). Goal setting—and tracking progress toward those goals—makes the idea of successful investment more tangible. Here are some guidelines to follow:

  • Make the goals specific. Specific goals are measurable and contain criteria for effective performance. Goals focused on the speed, quality, or quantity of work tend to work better than more amorphous commitments. Help students commit to doing their work within a particular amount of time, or commit to completing a certain amount of work, or improving in a particular skill or currency. For instance, students can set goals for completing a certain number of problems within a set period of time, reading a certain number of chapters for homework, or reducing the number of spelling and punctuation errors in their next paper.
  • Make the goals challenging but attainable. Goals that are too easy are boring and can actually be demotivating to students. The more difficult the goal, the more effort students will expend to achieve it—but only as long as they see the goal as doable. Work with students to set goals within, but at the outer edge of, their ability.
  • Make the goals short-term rather than long-term. Setting up short-term goals is less likely to overwhelm students, especially those who are initially resistant. It also allows you to go for the “quick win,” which helps build momentum. Students need to see that success is within their reach and that being successful feels good; once they have a taste for it, they’ll want more. As their degree of investment in the classroom increases, you can move them toward more long-term goals, but even these should be broken up into smaller goals so that payoffs are frequent and regular.
  • Try visually tracking students’ progress. Using graphic illustrations, such as line or bar graphs, shows students how their incremental successes are moving them toward a much bigger goal.

Show Students How to Invest Successfully

Most kids, if asked, will tell you that they want to do well in school. Disengaged students’ problem isn’t necessarily that they don’t want to do well but that they don’t know how to do well. Teachers can sometimes exacerbate the problem by sending students mixed messages. We tell them that they should just try, implying that effort is the key to success. But we know ourselves that this isn’t necessarily true, and students who try their best and still don’t see a payoff eventually realize it for themselves and just give up. We can get much better results by giving our students a clearly mapped path to success.

I remember learning this lesson for myself. I used to get so frustrated when the majority of my students would regularly miss the deadlines I’d set for finishing an assigned novel. Why were they so unmotivated? Then one day, it finally occurred to me that all these “unmotivated” readers had started the novel; they just hadn’t finished it. Maybe it wasn’t that they weren’t willing to make this investment but that they didn’t really understand how to invest successfully.

When I assigned the next novel, I asked my students to read the first three pages in class and to time themselves to see how long it took. When everyone had finished and recorded their time, I asked them to divide their time by three (the number of pages they’d read) and then multiply that number by 257 (the number of pages in the novel). Their final answer, I explained, represented approximately how much time it would take for them to finish the novel.

At my direction, the students went on to take out their planners and schedule reading time over the next two weeks. I challenged them to figure out how would they find the 6 or 8 or 10 hours it would take them to finish the novel by the due date. When the due date arrived, all but three students had finished the novel, and these three admitted that they hadn’t stuck to their schedule.

What was the reason for this dramatic change? Was it because more of my students were properly motivated this time around? No. It was because I had asked them for the right investment in the right way. I got them to commit to reading the novel and I showed them how to do it. Instead of giving them vague direction to finish the novel, I helped them understand the investment of time it would take to meet the deadline and then helped them figure out how they would make the investment.

The lesson here is that once you’ve secured students’ initial agreement to invest, you must immediately begin to show them how to invest successfully. It isn’t enough to identify the endpoint—the ultimate investments you want your students to make; you also need to think about what the pathway to high motivation might look like to your students. Here are two important pieces of guidance:

  • Always identify and communicate the investment’s first step. Say that you’ve secured students’ commitment to pay attention during your lectures. What are the critical behaviors students need to implement immediately? Do you want them to take notes on the lecture? Do you want them to stop interrupting others during your lecture? Do you want them to just stay awake? What is the one thing students can do to dramatically alter their investment in your lecture? Once you’ve decided what the first step of the investment is, communicate it clearly. It’s not enough for you to know what you want to see; students need to know this, too—in very explicit terms.
  • Be sure to provide the tools necessary to complete the first step’s critical activities. If you want them to take notes during class, show them how. If you want them to stop interrupting, tell them what they should be doing instead. If you want them to stay awake, give them strategies for doing so. Showing students how to meet the demands of the investment you are asking of them is the way to ensure they can fulfill their commitment.

Katie Test is a public relations and social media professional on the ASCD Communications team. Prior to joining the communications team at ASCD, she worked for D.C. Public Schools, Durham Public Schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Schools as a communications staffer.