We help kids learn to speak real Spanish. For life.™

by Erica Fischer on Mar 2, 2012

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.

Apathy Defined

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.

Building relationships

@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.

Beating Indifference

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 instruction

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!

Making connections

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.

Providing support

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.

Further Reading

Participants shared a wealth of ideas above, but they also recommended some further reading for your bookmarks tab!


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.

Elementary in Spanish
Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.


  • I was part of the most recent Language Chat. However, and, as usual, the usual suspects dominated the conversation, so, was difficult for esser-knowns like me – LOL! to get in on the conversation.

    In any event, my thoughts re: student apathy: A student’s attitude re: school, learning, and education are bred in the home via the parent’s attitudes with respect to the aforementioned. This is not to say that teachers aren’t able to to plant the positive proverbial seeds which can and sometimes do counter negative home training. In fact, many stories told by teachers attest to this. That said, teachers can do only so much. In fact, many of us often do a lot, and end the day thoroughly exhausted, with nothing left for our friends and loved ones. I cannot make a student care, I cannot make a student learn, and, I cannot change what is occurring in a student’s life. As someone told me as a young teacher years ago: “You can’t save them all, and you aren’t going to save them all.”

    I think we need to keep the impact of student apathy in its proper perspective, and, as one participant in Thursday’s chat tweeted, and I am paraphrasing here, “We need to focus on our sphere of influence.” A very good point.

    • Don Doehla

      Dear teachermrw,

      I am so sorry you felt left out. No one intentionally seeks to dominate the conversation, and everyone is free to tweet his/her perspectives – no one can or will censure your comments at #langchat. Nevertheless, the fact you feel that way is of concern to us. How can we help you?

      Your comment is appreciated. You are right that we have little to no control over what happens beyond the classroom, especially what happens at home. You are right, we cannot make a student learn. We can hope to influence the student to want to learn by offering our best, our enthusiasm for learning, our support to learn, and engaging lessons focused on things which are relevant to our students’ lives. I think this is indeed our sphere of influence.

      Like you, I go home exhausted and concerned. With classes of 36, more and more diverse needs, the challenges are great. We are living in challenging times! All the more reason we need to rely on each other. This is our hope and intent at #langchat. We hope to see you again soon. Do let us know how we can help you feel more connected! You are very welcome at #langchat!

      Don (dr_dmd)

  • Diego Ojeda

    I agree, we can’t change the students’ out of school reality, but we are responsible for whatever happens in ourclassroom. If you see apathy sorounding your classromm, in your hands is the power to get rid of it.

  • Student apathy has been a struggle this year for me. I agree with the comment on giving them small successes and building them up. Actually all of the suggestions are valid and work for different students.

    One thing that helps me is to give them “experiences” in the language rather than lessons or assignments with penalties for mistakes. For example, as an introduction to a medical unit, I told my students they are in an emergency room in Cuzco, Peru because they were horsing around and climbing on the ruins at Macchu Pichu and fell and are now injured. Since they are with their family, I am not there to help them with their Spanish and they are now the sole Spanish expert in their family. I handed out a Spanish language hospital admission form and had them attempt to fill it out. They weren’t allowed to ask me questions because I wasn’t in Peru with them. THEY WHINED AND SQUIRMED like babies for about 5 minutes, but eventually started seeing they could make English connections to the language they saw as well as use their common sense for the information that would be on any medical form.

    I really do feel like giving them real world scenarios is the key to making the language they are learning relevant and encourage their motivation. The key, though, is that the fight against student apathy is not a battle that is ever over. We have to find ways to fight it in every class period, every lesson, every unit of every school year. Sad, but true. At least as long as our educational system works they way it does and continues to created these jaded, disinterested students it creates.

    Keep fighting the good fight!

  • @Don Thank you for responding to my critique. I don’t exactly know what can be done to foster greater inclusiveness. Perhaps that is a question to put before the other moderators. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who feels as I do, just more brave to openly express it.

    I also find that the #langchat group isn’t very cohesive, unless it’s tweeting between 8 and 9 pm EST on Thursday evenings. What can be done to make this group more cohesive at other times? Perhaps a question to put before the #langchat group at-large. It would be nice to organize a #langchat list, in the way that the UK folks have a list. That way, we know who each other is.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

This site uses cookies to improve your experience. Click I accept to consent. More info: Privacy Policy