Reluctant learners have been a staple of school life since the earliest teachers and their students huddled around fires in smoky caves long ago. Popular culture abounds with images such as students staring dreamily out a classroom window, feeding their homework to the dog, and playing truant.
All of us have been reluctant learners at one time or another. Even the most serious students don’t always feel like doing homework or paying attention in class or completing school projects. The difference in being an occasionally reluctant learner and one who never wants to work, however, is serious. When students don’t do their school work, they lose their ability to stay apace with their classmates. Over even a brief period, they fall behind and then find other, even less acceptable ways to amuse themselves in our classes.
There are two easy mistakes to avoid when trying to help reluctant learners achieve academic and behavioral success. The first is to ignore the causes of the child’s reluctance. Too often teachers just view a student as lazy or react in anger instead of taking a problem-solving approach. Just a few minutes of friendly and supportive conversation with the student can often yield valuable information about why the student is not engaged in the work.
The second mistake to avoid is to assume that the student is deliberately choosing not to work. While that could sometimes be the reason for temporary reluctance, it is rarely going to be a long-term choice by a student. Teachers who can look beyond the off-task behavior to determine the areas where a student may be frustrated or lack confidence have a greater chance to build a solid relationship with a reluctant learner and provide the support necessary to help that student be successful.
In addition to avoiding these two mistakes, there are lots of smaller actions you can take to successfully turn around students who are reluctant learners. Here are ten to consider:
1. Try not to overwhelm the reluctant student with a large amount of practice work.
2. Teach students efficient short cuts that can take the tedium out of assignments.
3. If you notice that students are not working, ask them to tell you what they already know. Often this will encourage them to continue.
4. Offer help to those students who feel that their work must be perfect before they turn it in.
5. Stress the practical value of what they are learning. Every student should know the purpose of every lesson.
6. Stress the relationship between effort and outcome. Too often reluctant learners are not able to estimate how long school tasks should take or how much effort they have really put into an assignment. Keeping work logs is often a good way to help students make this valuable connection.
7. Appeal to their interests, sense of fun, and competitive natures whenever you can.
8. Involve reluctant learners in classroom service projects. Often these students make capable groups leaders when tasked with activities that involve helping those less fortunate.
9. Involve these students in differentiated work that requires cooperative learning, technology, inquiry, critical thinking, or open-ended questions.
10. Make sure every student has the materials and resources to complete the work that you assign. Don’t assume, for example, that every student has crayons at home or access to the internet or even family members who can offer assistance when needed.