How to deal with student apathy

Nothing deflates a teacher’s morale like a student with an I-don’t-care attitude. You know the type...the drowsy, sometimes smirking, do-nothing daydreamer. Losing sleep over such students would be imprudent, but so is giving up on them. How can we help unmotivated students without nagging and shaming them into working harder?

Apathy, as defined by the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, is the lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern for something. Students may experience this in the classroom due to the nature of content being learnt, a teacher’s methodology or internal factors arising from family issues, mental or physical health, undiagnosed learning disability, a recent trauma, or impacts of a past trauma.

Often, the lack of motivation is a way to hide the underlying story; it is just easier to say “I don’t care” than “I need help.” While little can be done to directly mitigate the core causes, a lot can be done to enrich the student’s experience in the classroom.

One of the ways to do this is through connection. This is double pronged: connecting to the students and connecting the course content to real life. Teachers know, if not quantitatively, at least intuitively, that academic performance and rapport go hand-in-hand.

According to long-time educator, Dr Trenton Hanson, in his article for Leadership, “Evidence suggests that the empathy and caring of even one adult in the life of a child can prevent future negative consequence for that child.”

There is, in fact, an innate desire in every human to be known and to feel that someone ‘gets us’. Similarly, helping students to contextualise daily work may also come in handy. It’s difficult to stay motivated when we can’t see the connection between what’s in front of us and what we want out of life. Challenge yourself to build bridges between a student’s interests and the skills or content you wish to teach using problem-based learning, inquiry-driven methods, and real-world context to help them create links, rather than feeling like they’re jumping off a cliff every time you ask them to do an impossible task in class.

Creativity in the classroom may also reduce student apathy. Inserting humour into lessons, adding suspense and interactivity, scaffolding concepts to make them easy for students to wrap their brains around consequently stem from creativity.

Alongside these, creativity in the classroom gives learners opportunities to make choices, explore the content in a variety of ways and to actively engage in the classroom. This allows you to connect with students, helping them to avoid sinking into an apathetic frame of mind.

I must warn you, though, that approaching student apathy with threats is counterproductive. You cannot embarrass or nag kids into being motivated. Constantly threatening apathetic, unmotivated learners with the possibility of failing and making them feel bad about their lack of effort doesn’t create intrinsic motivation. Besides, nobody wants to spend their whole day screaming at students, “If you don’t do your homework, you’re not going to pass!” It’s very hard to unwind after spending a full day berating children.

All in all, establish rapport with the students, showing the relevance of what you are teaching and be creative in your delivery to help apathetic students. Giving up on apathetic students or using threats is fruitless.