As the end of the semester nears, I am hearing more and more from my teacher friends that they are discouraged because their students are not engaged and are not learning. I teach in Japan so my classes are on break right now but only one short moth ago, that was me too. My students started out the semester with strong goals and a desire to do their best every day but somehow that desire dwindled so I thought about what I have done in the past to keep students engaged and motivated.
It is so frustrating to pour so much of ourselves into creating lessons, connecting with students, giving meaningful feedback and all of the million other things we do, only to feel like the students just do not care and are not trying. Why?!? It is not that we are delivering bad lessons or that we don’t care, WE DO! It just seems like the more we try, the less engaged the students become. At a certain point, this can make us questions our career choices and our joy of teaching evaporates like rain in a desert, leaving us feeling dried up and maybe even a bit angry. So, how can we combat this? How can we make our students learn and take our classes seriously?
The solution lies not in working harder but rather in getting students to stop blaming everything and everyone except themselves for not learning and achieving their goals. I have been reading a book entitled Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith, an executive coach who works with business leaders to help them become better leaders and change destructive behaviors. As I was reading, it struck me that teaching is similar to this kind of coaching. He describes his clients as people who are highly functioning in their lives but something is threatening to hold them back in some way so they hire him to help them change their ways. He offers some very practical advice on how you can “become the person you want to be” and change our behaviors. I think that this is directly applicable to helping students to take more responsibility for their own learning and become more engaged in class. Much of the book focuses on becoming aware of how much our environment triggers our behaviors. He claims that "we are superior planners and inferior doers." By this he means that we start out with plans to do well and accomplish many things but as the day/week/semester wears on, we fail to actually do what we set out to do. I see this happening with my students all the time.
He suggested asking employees “active questions”. An active question is one in which the person has to think about how much effort they put into something. Instead of asking something like “Did you learn at least one new thing today?” or “What did you learn today?” you should ask “Did you do your best to learn today?” This changes the focus from blaming other factors in our environment for stopping our learning, to recognizing our own effort in the process.
Keeping students motivated until the end of the semester starts at the beginning of the semester. It is something your class works on together.
1. "Active Questions" that Get Students to Take Responsibility
At the beginning of each class put 4 questions on the board:
Tell them that at the end of the class they will have a quiz on these four questions and at the end of class make sure that classmates ask each other these questions before they leave.
When everyone is comfortable with those questions, let your students pick things that are important to them and then frame them as questions that ask if they did their best to do that today. This makes people think about their own role and responsibility in learning instead of blaming other things for not learning. It is easy to say “no, I didn’t learn anything today because the teacher didn’t teach me or the room was too hot or I was mad at my mother or whatever”. It is more difficult to look inside and say, “no, I didn’t do my best.” It is much more motivational to realize that in fact, it is you who didn’t try to learn, not your environment that didn’t let you learn. The next day when the opportunity to learn presents itself again, the student will remember the feeling of guilt at not having tried the day before and will want to avoid that feeling by trying harder.
This week my program held their annual English camp, 4 days of non-stop activities, games, and meals that usually has me exhausted and dreading the next year. This year however I tried asking myself those 4 questions at the end of each day. It did in fact trigger me to have a better attitude about everything. Instead of trying to figure out how to get more break time or conserve my energy, I poured myself into every activity. I celebrated my students achievements, did my best to inspire them to do their best. At the end of camp, my group had won the camp cup and rather than being exhausted, I was happy. By not trying to conserve energy and focusing on having a good time, I actually did have a great time!
2. Goal Cards and Goal Partners
I can't tell you how many goals I have set in my life, so many. The ones I am the most successful with are the ones in which I have a partner/cheerleader who checks in with me every day. This blog is a result of one such partnership. At the beginning of this year my cousin wrote to me that she wanted to write every day for two years and asked if I would join her. I said "sure" so we set up some guidelines for our writing (I am writing 500 words everyday). I check in with her after I write and see how she is doing. this keeps me on track on those days when I just don't feel like writing. One day of not feeling like it can quickly grow into everyday not feeling like it so it is important to push through those days. We celebrate each other's accomplishments and it helps us to keep going no matter what.
Set up partnerships in your classroom so students are responsible for checking in with each other every day and helping each other out. Make sure you have weekly or monthly check-ins with each partnership to see how they are doing together.
3. Make Class Challenges
Set a class challenges and have them all work together to achieve it.
Ideas for challenges:
Make sure to celebrate when the class meets the challenge! You can find some great ideas for ways to celebrate at the Classroom Sparrow or for younger students the Brown Bag Teacher.
4. Connect the Class On-Line
Create a class facebook page (or other social media page) in which they can exchange pictures, encouraging messages, resources that they liked and make it a part of class to comment on each other’s posts. I did this as a getting to know you activity for one of my classes.
I asked them to make short videos of themselves telling me about their names.
After posting their videos, they had to watch videos from the other students and comment on them. It was a great getting to know you activity that took place outside of class. It also had the added bonus of helping me remember everyone’s name, a challenge for me in the first weeks of class.
Other things they could post about are:
Just make sure you set guidelines and monitor so that no one gets their feelings hurt.
5. Eat Together from the Beginning
Bring food to class and ask your students to do the same on special occasions. You don’t have to devote the whole class to a party but maybe set aside 30 minutes to just sit down and enjoy each other with food and drink. For some reason, eating together builds trust, that is why things like family dinners are so important.
I used to ask students to bring food on the last day of class and I was always amazed at how much it helps bring the class together but the last day of class is to late. Why not start off class with food? That way students are brought together from the very first day.
6. Praise Every Student Individually and Privately
Make sure that every student in your class knows that you notice them and value them. I had a colleague a few years back who used to make a point of calling one student to stay after class everyday to talk to him. The student would at first be confused and not know why he/she was being singled out but then he would tell the student something positive that he had noticed. The student always left a minute later beaming.
This could be something like how he helped his classmate with something. How he aced his vocabulary test for the first time or how he had stayed focused for the entire day. My colleague and I shared many students and I could see how his few simple words after class could change how students saw themselves as learners. Even years later, students have stayed motivated just because he saw something in them that either no one else had noticed or no one else had ever told them.
7. "Knit" your Class Together
Create a connection web. Ask students to find one thing they have in common with each other person in the class and write it on a worksheet (it can be hard to remember if you have a large class). Then have students stand in circle and throw a ball of yarn to a student while holding the end. Say Tomoko and I both sleep late on Sunday mornings.” Then Tomoko has to hold on to the yarn and throw it to another student and say something they have in common. This could be a great icebreaker activity on the first day of class or maybe several weeks later once everyone has had a chance to learn everyone’s name. At the end you can discuss how much you all have in common.
It is easier for students to talk to each other when they feel connected to each other and those connections can quickly turn into friendships.
8. Call or Message your Missing Students
One other thing that I have found helps those hard to reach students who start to miss a lot of class is to make sure that I have a way to contact them. First I make sure that the class knows that I am aware that that person has not been to class for a few days and I am worried. I ask if anyone knows where they are. Often they know what the problem is and will tell you.
Then I contact that student directly either by email or phone or if someone is going to see them later I will hand write a note for them to deliver saying how concerned I am and offering to help. I am always amazed at how often I think a student hates my class when in reality they are suffering from depression, experiencing profound feelings of isolation or battling some illness (either themselves or a close family member). Just showing that I care often gives them the motivation to continue.
This helps not only the student that is missing class, but everyone else too. Every student can see that they are all important to me and that if they have a problem, I won't forget them. This builds trust and security.
9. Shake things Up
I am a big believer in structure and routine. It helps me plan my classes, it helps students to feel like they know what is going on and I don't have to explain everything every single day. Students learn how to do things so they can get right down to business without my having to give them a long list of instructions. Too much routine can get boring though, so shake things up every once in a while and surprise them!
10. Hook your Students and then Hook them Again!
Create hooks for your students at the beginning of each unit. Just like a good introduction starts with a powerful hook, a good unit should start with something that produces some kind of emotion. Make your student laugh, confuse them, shock them, make them ask questions.
I must admit that I have not been doing this lately as I have felt a bit hemmed in and restricted in my ability to deviate from curriculum but I am going to start doing it again. A few years ago I always started out my units with hooks and students loved them.
Before a unit on exercise, I asked my students to all leave their books and everything on their desks and come outside with me. I had them walk really fast around the paths and then had them run up and down the stairs in the building. The interesting thing was that the boys were running and jogging and leaping up the stairs while the girls were struggling. We then went back to the classroom and I asked them to write down how their bodies and minds felt. We then started the unit on how important exercise is for the brain and how the boys and girls were or were not encouraged to exercise the same way. This was in Eastern Turkey where heavy exercise was not considered feminine while the boys were outside playing football all the time.
Hooks should be active and take the students by surprise.
11. Plan Something Together
Nothing brings my classes together faster than planning a party. One year I asked if my students would like to have a Halloween party. The answer was a resounding yes! We then broke into committees for venue, refreshments, music, games etc. I did almost nothing but show up at the appointed place and time. The students had organized everything. They had even looked up costumes and recipes on-line and showed up with severed finger cookies and makeup worthy of Hollywood!
It was such a success they then planned regular picnics at a nearby park and always invited me. It was fun and gave me a chance to play volleyball with them, sit and chat, get to know them informally and generally just enjoy their company they also got to know my daughter and she got to know them..
12. Play Games
I just got back from English camp where 60 students had voluntarily signed up and paid to spend 4 days learning the English language right smack in the middle of their vacation. Why would they do such a thing? Because it is fun!
We designed egg protection devices and threw them off the 5th floor, we ran relay races, we had a scavenger hunt, we had teams who competed with each other throughout the camp and we had a talent show. Students were speaking English from 8 in the morning until midnight when they fell exhausted into bed and they were loving it.
I am not saying that your class should turn into English camp but why not bring a little of that fun and competition to your everyday classes. I remember the first time I did the egg drop activity, it was not for camp but because my students were getting tired. It was almost the end of the semester, the weather was getting warm and other places were seeming more appealing than my classroom. To combat this, I surprised my students by bringing in a box of egg drop supplies like newspaper, tape and straws. I challenged them to make a plan, present it, build it and test it. Afterwards we assessed their successes and failures.
The students who had not come to class that day soon heard about it from the other students and when they came in the next week they were upset that they had missed it. One student even sent me a video of himself doing it on his own. Then he came to class and told me all about it and the mistakes he had made. He loved it even though he was not there! You can bet that he came every day after that.
It can be hard to stay motivated until the last day of class both for the students and for the teacher. As the teacher there is a lot you can do to inspire students to love your class and feel sad that it is ending though. Making sure that students feel a connection with each other, with you and with the subjects they are studying goes a long way to making sure they love being there and they love doing the work you assign them (even if it is challenging).
Build a community your students want to be a part of and make sure they know they are valuable to that community!
For more ideas, resources and stories, check out some of these posts!
Hi, I'm Kia.
I help ESL / EFL teachers create fun, effective courses that students love.