How to Overcome Student Apathy
This week’s #langchat was a charged discussion on student apathy in world language education. Specifically, how do educators overcome student apathy?
Participants shared lots of ideas on what causes apathy in the classroom and how to motivate and engage your students to beat it. We had a fantastic discussion, and we’ve included the summary below for your convenience.
Thanks to everyone for such wonderful participation and ideas. Thanks especially to Diego Ojeda (@DiegoOjeda66), Don Doehla (@dr_dmd) and Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell (@SECottrell) for volunteering their time as moderators for the chat.
Participants had many different ways to describe apathy in world language classes, all related. Do any of the below sound familiar?
- Not following due dates.
- Quitting after required language classes.
- Don’t understand importance of learning the language.
- Just don’t care.
- Overwhelmed with the subject.
- Overwhelmed with home life.
- Overwhelmed with other commitments in and out of school.
- Parents chose the language for the student.
- Parents not being involved enough.
Where to Start?
Apathy in the classroom is a tough opponent. It’s not easy to turn a class of half-asleep students into active and energetic language users. But your colleagues get together every week on #langchat to share their ideas to help you get there.
@tbcaudill thinks some students’ apathy results from not feeling connected to the class or the teacher. One way to increase engagement is to make a personal connection with the students outside of class. Support them at their concerts, games and other activities and get excited about their passions.
- When students share information, ask them about it. Whether their passion is sports, pets or video games, show an interest — students like to be asked about what they care about (@Sra_Hildinger).
- When possible, try to interact with younger students before they graduate to your level and class (@louvre2012).
- Several teachers mentioned never coming to class with a preconceived notion of a student. Don’t review their past history (@DiegoOjeda66) or listen to negative colleagues (@RonieWebster).
As teachers, it’s difficult to have an impact on students suffering from out-of-school issues, but we can have empathy and show them support (@dr_dmd). Inside the classroom is our realm, and we need to provide students with a nurturing and safe learning environment. Caring relationships , trust and mutual respect go a long way toward conquering apathy (@adsamples).
Setting the Example
Teacher enthusiasm is contagious (@ZJonesSpanish). While focus should always be on the learner, don’t forget to check that you’re demonstrating your own excitement for the language at all times.
While we shouldn’t expect that simply being motivated and passionate about the language is enough to rouse students from apathy, it goes a long way.
Finding the cause
If your students are apathetic in class, don’t blame them. Instead, seek to engage them with some of the activities in the next section (@dr_dmd). It’s easy to blame students for not being interested in learning a language or for being preoccupied with other subjects or activities, but it won’t solve the problem.
Also, bear in mind that the best motivation is intrinsic, not extrinsic. Focus your efforts on engaging students by making the language meaningful, personal or useful. Show students what others have done with their language skills. Don’t rely on extrinsic rewards such as grades or bonus systems. As @DiegoOjeda66 says, students tend to start losing their natural motivation when they enter the school system as cookies and stickers replace passion.
Apathy often manifests itself in students who just go through the motions and who are satisfied with the minimum amount of work necessary (@mmebrady). Beating that apathy requires different approaches depending on the root cause.
Demonstrating the importance of language
It’s important to show students (and sometimes parents) that learning a foreign language is valuable. For ideas on this, check out the summary from our previous chat on motivating students to start and stay in world languages. It’s a constant battle to illustrate this to students, but participants shared some of their tips for getting the message across.
- @cadamsf1 built a Facebook page of her student alumni discussing how language changed them and what they are doing with the language now.
- @ITeachHola uses Skype and other mediums such as FaceTime to allow her students to connect with students from other countries and cultures and to see one reason they need language.
Often, showing students the importance of the language starts with showing them how it’s applicable to their lives. Don’t ask questions or give exams to test random knowledge — keep it focused on students’ lives. If the answer to any of your questions to students is “Who cares?”, you’re asking for apathy (@SECottrell).
Sometimes, despite your best efforts at demonstrating the use of the language, students still just don’t care. Maybe they don’t expect to ever go overseas or speak with a foreigner. Maybe they expect that English is so widely spoken that it’s all they need. When students answer with “Who cares?”, try turning the question around (@ZJonesSpanish). “Ok, so you might not be interested in this — why do you think that is? What communities might be interested?”
Personalizing the language and instruction for students is a fantastic way to beat student apathy. When students feel ownership of their instruction, they’re excited and engaged. We discussed this on #langchat recently; check out this summary on personalization.
- Pick topics that appeal to students. @karacjacobs finds that thematic units with pop culture engages her students. Video games or sports might engage yours.
- Give students options in everything (@SECottrell). When students can choose their own topics for discussion or approach of the class, they feel a stronger ownership in the language. It’s also hard for a student to justify being apathetic when he’s chosen the topic himself.
- @SraCasey finds that technology projects incorporating choices does a great job of combining the two above points — a medium that is interesting to students, with choices to make it their own.
- Flexibility is important in a personalized classroom. If students seize on a topic that you’ve brought up, it’s great to be able to go with the flow and allow them to continue the discussion (@sonrisadelcampo).
- Ask kids for their input after an activity so you can further personalize future lessons (@cadamsf1). @tmsaue1 often asks students for the most challenging part of the day’s class to judge what students are taking away.
Personalization is also about getting to know the students and incorporating them in your stories and projects. If you want to see a student actually smile when taking a test, @spanishplans recommends using their name on the sheet!
Related to the above, making connections between the language and students’ lives, and the language and the outside world, is essential to engaging students. Make it relevant so that students can see the point. Students need to know why the language is important to their lives.
- Where in the real world will students write worksheets, endless verb conjugations or notes for 45 minutes straight? (@SenoritaClark)
- Connecting with other subjects helps students learn to see the relevance of the language (@karacjacobs).
- @mmebrady’s school hosts an interdisciplinary Festival of Nations to engage students and cross the subject morders.
Keeping it novel
Keeping instruction novel and creative goes a long way toward engaging students. Repeated topics, assignments or expectations can quickly get stale for students who have a hundred conflicting commitments.
- Teacher collaboration and professional development is an excellent way to keep your instruction novel. @cadamsf1 reminds us that discussing ideas with your colleagues is a strong benefit for new and old teachers alike. (What better way to do so than through #langchat!)
- When @SECottrell asked her AP students what motivates them the most, she heard that anything out of the ordinary — novel — gets their attention and motivates them to participate.
- @Sra_Hildinger was always instructed to change activities every 10 minutes or so. Pick a time that works for you and your classes, and go with it. A variety of activities covers a variety of interests, and keeps students focused on what they’re doing.
- Try adding interesting cultural notes into your instruction to engage students (@Sra_Hildinger). Kids are often interested to learn about how people live in other countries and cultures.
Apathy can also stem from a sense of hopelessness (@nnaditz). When you don’t feel that you can handle the material, or the level is too high for your ability, an easy escape mechanism is to lower your engagement.
- Build in support systems for your students (@nnaditz).
- Take away the fear of making mistakes (@Sra_Hildinger). It’s important to have patience and provide students with time to produce. Especially in the beginning, but always important: stress communication and output over correctness (@tbcaudill).
- A true comfort zone free of ridicule or sarcasm will go a long way to motivating students (@Sra_Hildinger).
Lessons need to be geared so that students experience success and achievement (@louvre2012), while also including enough challenge to keep them interested. It’s a delicate balance. Too challenging of material with no visible achievements, and students will seek apathy as an escape. Too easy of material, and students will succumb to apathy out of boredom.
- Build series of successes to increase students’ confidence. Prove to the students that they can use the language, and they often will, rather than hide behind the protection of apathy (@mweelin).
- Provide opportunities for students to do real-life activities using the language so they can see what they can do. This does more than just build confidence; it also excites students and engages them when they see that they can now interact with such a new, wide world.
These points relate very closely to past #langchat topics on providing the best environment for language production. For some more ideas, check out this SUMMARY.
Participants shared a wealth of ideas above, but they also recommended some further reading for your bookmarks tab!
- Check out @cybraryman1’s page on motivating students.
- @tmsaue1 shared this graphic displaying student engagement.
- Several participants recommended Daniel Pink’s “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us” for information on how to motivate kids in class.
- @dr_dmd provided this list of resources on engagement, an article on engaging learning strategies, an article on ensuring engagement and an article on connecting school to the real world — also, check out the Edutopia groups page.
- @SECottrell recommends Alfie Kohn’s “Punished by Rewards” for a discussion on the value of intrinsic motivation over extrinsic.
- Check out these videos by Sir Ken Robinson on whether schools are killing creativity.
You’ll run into many obstacles in your quest to defeat student apathy, but don’t fret — your colleagues are here on #langchat for support!
If you missed the #langchat discussion on Thursday and want to make your voice heard, please feel free to do so in the comments — we’d love to continue our topic! Otherwise, we’ll see you next week on #langchat!
#LangChat is an independent group of world-language education professionals who come together every week via Twitter to share ideas and discuss pressing issues in the world of education. Check out the #LangChat wiki for more information about our goals and the team behind it all here. These weekly discussion summaries are sponsored by Calico Spanish as a service to the world-language community.