A Simple Way to Motivate Unmotivated Students

how to make history relevant

One Simple Way to Get Students to Put in More Effort

The other day I was working with some middle school students for an afterschool program at the school where I used to teach (I’m only teaching online this year) as they worked on their history projects. They were putting the finishing touches on their 13 colonies poster board project - each one focusing on a different colony. Though they were nearly complete and were beautifully decorated and rich with information, when I asked each of the groups to tell me what they learned about their colony, they either drew blanks or could only tell me a few vague things about the colony even after they worked for a week on this project. 

I think all of us teachers experience this at times- students doing work but not really learning.  

One of the biggest impediments to genuine learning and real growth in our classrooms is that so many students are just going through the motions. They are working to get it done, rather than working to learn and improve. And I am not sure many students understand the difference.

how to motivate students

Too many of our students just see their education as chores to suffer through rather than a gift to cherish, or at least, a tool for self-improvement. This is a problem. 

If we want our students to get the most out of every lesson and every assignment, we really need to help them to understand how the work they’re about to do is going to help them in their lives. If we can help students make this shift in perspective, we can make our classrooms true places of learning.

Here is one simple, no-prep way to increase student buy-in for any lesson or learning activity.

Simply take one to two minutes and explain specifically how the skill they are working on or content they are learning will be useful in their lives and why, therefore, it's important they put in real effort. 

Let's take a routine learning activity that few students or teachers get very jazzed about- taking notes. 

Rather than just explaining how you want them to take notes- be it Cornell Style, Doodle Notes, or just outlined, take a minute to explain how being a good note-taker is a life skill. 

Heading to college? Well, get ready to take mountains of notes and if you can take efficient notes, you’ll be able to study and learn more effectively. So if you want to make your life a heck of a lot easier, do your very best to improve this skill today.

Not heading for college? Guess what, police officers, contractors, business owners, mechanics and waitresses all need to be able to take effective notes. Tell personal stories about how the skill or knowledge they are going to learn helped you in life.

how to motivate unmotivated students

I always tell my students how I worked at my dad’s busy pizzeria as a teenager and had to be able to take fast enough notes on all the orders from two phone lines and the customers coming up to the counter in handwriting that the cooks and delivery drivers could easily read and use. And yes, I tell them, I’ve seen other workers get fired because they were too slow or sloppy with their ‘notes’ for the orders. 

And though it's not a silver-bullet to get students to put in their best effort on all their assignments, I have noticed a significant change in how my students approach their work when I put more emphasis on the practical reasons why the lesson we are doing matters.

I know this is not a very sexy or jaw-dropping strategy, but I think it's a simple thing that actually works. And it works even better if you routinely do it. 

Maybe students will start to see your class not just as a place to learn history but a class that is teaching them life skills as well.

In my course, "Make History Engaging, Exciting, and Empowering" I teach many strategies that helped me get my unmotivated, reluctant learners to start meaningfully engaging in class. If you need ways to motivate unmotivated students in history class, this course will definitely help!


Keep making learning magical,
Mr. Lewer

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