How to Motivate Students Who don't Care – Term Paper

How to Motivate Reluctant Learners

How to motivate a reluctant learner is a question asked by most teachers. Several motivational theories address the issue of inspiring students to promote learning. Most of these theories target students that are willing to play the school game by presuming that all students will put forth some effort in class (Jackson, 2011). However, they neglect to address how to motivate those that are uninterested in learning. Robyn R Jackson provides a practical guide on how to motivate such reluctant students in his book ‘How to Motivate Reluctant Learners.’ Rather than suggesting elaborate reward systems and never-ending schemes of creative tricks that never seem to work, the book explains several practical principles and steps for teachers to follow when motivating such reluctant students. These principles include identifying the right investments, creating a classroom worth investing in, understanding and addressing student’s resistance, asking for and shaping the investment and finally creating a motivation plan (Jackson, 2011). This paper reviews Robyn Jackson’s book on ‘How to Motivate Reluctant Students’ and explains the articulated principles.

Robyn Jackson is a retired high school teacher and an administrator in a middle school. She believes that every teacher has the potential to master his/her work with the right kind of practice and support. However, it is tough to motivate reluctant students. It takes extra time and effort on the part of the teacher. Her book is one in a series of books addressing the subject of effective teaching. It provides guidelines designed to help teachers to handle classroom challenges and build a mastery mindset. She looks at motivation from different perspectives and proposes an effective way to inspire reluctant students. She advocates for understanding the students to unearth the reasons why they are not investing in class. These helps the teacher to start where they are and engage them to build better values through the creation of mutualistic relationships. Jackson (2011), also proposes investing in classroom relationships as a way of understanding student weaknesses and realizing the opportunities to strengthen transactions with reluctant ones.

The book provides five guiding principles to motivate reluctant students. The first guideline entails identifying the right investments a teacher wants them to make and determining the desired behavior that the teacher wants in the classroom. Motivation can mean different things for a teacher. For example, to some, it may be getting students engaged in class while other may involve getting students to love a subject. To avoid ambiguity, the teacher must first determine the desired behavior that defines a motivated student. Questions for the teacher to ask include: “how do unmotivated students currently behave? Imagine a miracle and all your students’ motivation problems were solved. What did this look like?” (Jackson, 2011, p.24). Such probing questions help a teacher to translate an ambiguous goal to motivate students into concrete behaviors that are easy to encourage and monitor. The teacher should then refine these desired investments to be precise, meaningful, observable, realistic, worth the effort and small (Jackson, 2011). The book uses the acronym SMORES to mark these characteristics of desired investment.

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How to Motivate Students to Learn

Identification of specific actions eliminates ambiguity in a classroom. Therefore, the teacher should shape the investment goals and create specific steps on how to meet them rather than put forward vague requests. Specificity of desired investment also promotes easy evaluation. The investment a teacher wants should also be meaningful to the student to create a connection between the classroom and basic needs. The desired actions should be observable to help the teacher know when the reluctant students are motivated. The desired investment should also be realistic for both the teacher and student. Additionally, the teacher should consider the capabilities of the student and make sure that he/she can achieve the desired investment. The investment should be worth the effort put forward by the student. According to Jackson (2011), “the immediate and short-term benefits realized by the student as a result of their investment in a classroom make him/her feel that the actions are worth the effort,” (p. 30). Small investments make the unmotivated student feel that the task is doable.

The second step is the establishment of a conducive classroom environment for investment through the removal of practice and procedure-related barriers that are a hindrance to student motivation. The book advocates for the creation of a 21st-century class as opposed to that of the 20th century by eliminating three main barriers that prevent student investment. These barriers are: asking students for ‘currencies’ they do not have, providing unclear directions on the required ‘currencies’ and insisting on certain preferred ‘currencies.’ To counter these barriers, Jackson (2011) explains that a teacher should build a classroom worth investing in by promoting student autonomy, a sense of purpose and belonging. The teacher should also make the class mastery focused. This step is a creative way to tackle resistance which is a huge problem in class. Therefore, expecting and planning to eliminate it from the start will allow the teacher to manage the class effectively. Also, understanding the common reasons for student resistance will give the teacher competency in addressing these factors thus create an environment that promotes classroom investment.

The third step entail understanding and dealing with the causes of student resistance. This phase exposes the reasons for demotivation among students and provides ways to deal with them. According to Jackson (2011), “teachers should dig deep and examine the many layers of resistance” (p. 80). One of the reasons for opposition among students is the fear of failure. The teacher should eliminate fear by giving students an opportunity to practice their knowledge. He/she should ask for choral responses as this reduces the threat of a reluctant student appearing foolish (Jackson, 2011). The teacher can also eliminate fear by providing growth-oriented feedback to help the student and allow assignment resubmission/retake since second chances motivate action. Another resistance factor is the lack of trust. The teacher should counter this by deliberately building relationships with the students and showing them their currencies (Jackson, 2011). Providing positive feedback also helps build trust. The last resistance is the lack of relevance where students refuse to invest in a classroom as they don’t see the value in delaying gratification. Teachers should generate curiosity, provide emotional reward and build capacity to delay indulgence.

Motivation for Learners

The fourth step entails asking students to commit to classroom investment and guiding them by offering ideas for the right investments. According to Jackson (2011), “a teacher improves the odds of his/her student’s committing to new, motivated behavior by shaping the request according to five the Be’s: be succinct, specific, positive, private and quiet” (p. 95). Exercising privacy helps a teacher to avoid embarrassing unmotivated students. Being succinct ensures that a teacher uses few words for easy understanding while being positive eliminates student’s negativity. Being quiet gives a student time to respond and being specific prevents ambiguity. The teacher should make specific, challenging but achievable goals. Additionally, the teacher should show the students how to invest and give them the needed resources. The last step focuses on creating a motivation plan to help students shift from unmotivated to motivated behaviors in the classroom. It provides strategies to sustain the motivation over time. Such schemes include giving appropriate rewards after task completion. The book encourages teachers to create a routine for the motivated students to follow.

In conclusion, the book provides straightforward tips on how to motivate reluctant students for teachers to try in the classroom setting. It is unique to reluctant learners unlike most motivational theories and proposes creative ways to motivate them by identifying the root problem of their unwillingness to learn to find timely solutions. The idea of students’ currencies is enlightening to teachers as it shows how a student decides to invest in a classroom. Therefore, the book helps teachers to ask the students the ‘currencies’ they possess through assignments, activities and broader academic and behavioral expectations. These prevent over-expectations. The book also helps teachers to evaluate their current practice in dealing with reluctant students. Such evaluation helps them to know their strengths and weaknesses in handling reluctant learners. The book also advocates for practical solutions. It has ‘Your Turn’ sections that stimulate the reader with real-world examples. Therefore, teachers compare their current methods with the book’s and apply the guidelines offered at the practitioner level by adopting the proposed methods.

 On the other hand, the book dispels the use of reward systems and creative tricks in the classroom to motivate reluctant learners. In chapter 5, the book contradicts its earlier stand by advocating for a reward system as a way of maintaining motivation over time. It also talks about motivation in general by failing to deal with intrinsic and extrinsic motivation separately when teaching reluctant students. Additionally, the book fails to look at a reluctant student holistically by not involving the parents and family. It only concentrates on the teacher activities neglecting the significant others who play a crucial role in student education. Also, Jackson fails to provide supporting evidence on the effectiveness of the proposed methods. The book does not quote results from other studies and surveys to support the strategies it recommends. Therefore, further research should be done in institutions that adopt these methods to find out if they work. Such evaluation can help discover gaps in the guidelines rectify them for the maximum academic benefit of reluctant learners.


Jackson, R. (2011). How to motivate reluctant learners. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.