For the most part professional development has been focused on teachers, as they are most often..
Teachers may often be dealing with unmotivated students, simply too willing to accept information as given, rather than be interested in thoughtful inquiry and engagement. Even classrooms that encourage creativity and self-direction in students may see its share of the passive learner.
Honestly, students themselves may not always be to blame. Some may have come from environments that expected one correct answer or were not fostering student-centered learning.
This can lead to disengagement and student acceptance that they cannot exert control over their learning process. However, it is possible to make inroads and change this established behavior and belief.
When students are at the helm of their own learning, they feel a greater sense of accomplishment over small milestones and are more willing to exert time and energy toward more challenging goals. Teachers and parents can come together to light that fire that makes learning exciting and meaningful for the student.
Give Students a Voice
Students will be more likely become agents of their own learning when provided a learning environment that encourages a variety of responses, takes into account different learning styles, provides opportunities for modeling, and gives scaffolding toward the mastery of new skills or subject matter. Educators serve as guide and witness.
Passive students may not know how to actively listen or to reflect. This can be the case with students who are less verbal. Teachers can provide journaling activities, as well as talk with them in a group to provide practice in these soft skills.
Being able to express one’s experiences and thoughts in an appropriate way can help students work independently and in collaboration with others. This is one issue that can hinder students from being more engaged in the classroom that has little to do with the subject matter and more to do with their experiences of how to interact and express themselves with others.
It can be hard to know how to motivate passive students without insight into their experiences. Educators who can enable students to open up and talk about various issues and challenges can then identify social-emotional or learning needs. This can help inform educators about the best approach as challenges in areas outside of the classroom can often interfere with the learning process. Low-performing schools can use additional techniques to create an environment of acceptance while nurturing the multifaceted needs of their student population.
Offer Meaningful Learning Opportunities
Intrinsic engagement is often seen in students up until fourth grade. Eager preschool students can too easily become dull-eyed and disinterested as they get older. That natural spark of creativity and individuality can be snuffed out in a conventional classroom where educators are expected to cover a set curriculum in a specific manner within a designated timeframe. Without time for experimentation, research and manipulation of concepts, interest dwindles. However, the situation can be salvaged.
Create opportunities for authentic learning. Individuals are naturally more involved in subjects and projects when they have an inherent interest in the topic. Knowing the audience and their respective backgrounds can help educators create a framework and hook those passive learners. Students need to be able to choose from appropriate options that will align to their curiosity. How can teachers connect the material to real-world scenarios and applications? How can the material and skills be made to be relevant? Students learn best when they see the value.
Parent-involvement and a caring classroom community are tools that can allow such students to bloom and begin to get invested in their own learning. Learning should not end when students leave the class at the end of the day. Parents who understand what teachers are looking to accomplish and the importance of engagement can continue suggested approaches at home. At the end of the day, the engaged student becomes the life-long learner.
Instill More Peak Moments
Memorable moments when students are expected to clarify, explain and demonstrate their knowledge to an audience can foster critical-thinking, problem-solving and a sense of accountability. Additional peak moments within the classroom and in other selected environments, such as in a courtroom or outside gallery space, can add drama and interest to the attainment of academic goals. Situations when students have to argue and debate, such as in mock trials, can elicit much more interest than a simple report about a significant historical event.
Project-based learning, student exhibitions, portfolios, and theater performances elicit “deeper learning.” They require more than rote memorization or the execution of a single formula. Students must prepare to present, deliver material and get feedback. Students often must work collaboratively, distribute the workload and take on unforeseen issues to complete projects successfully. This type of student investment makes the feedback received much more valuable. In addition, the type of skillset necessary is more like that required in the real-world. Research indicates that schools encouraging deeper learning appear to have better outcomes in levels of motivation, self-efficacy, student-collaboration, and on-time graduation.
Thrive in the Classroom and the Workforce
A change in the fundamental attitude of learning and how information is received, interpreted and used can have a profound impact on student outcomes. Such students become more self-aware of their personal needs, are able to identify resources and track progress. They are better able to handle negative emotions and negotiate through challenges that may arise. The engaged student is one who will benefit from a skillset that will spill over to other areas of the life and remain with them throughout adulthood.
This does not mean that educators and administrators will not be challenged to make this ideal into a reality. It can be difficult to alter ingrained behaviors in passive learners, but with understanding, patience and support from administration and parents, it is possible. Administration and school districts that provide teachers the resources and time to allow for this change to occur can benefit greatly for years to come.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Mar 07, 2019, updated September 23, 2021