Students That Just Don’t Care

This was a message shared with me by a classmate of mine who is currently doing her internship.  I know she is not the only one to encounter this, as I have myself.  I’d like this post to serve as a place for you to share any advice/widsom with us if you have any.


I am part way through marking a grade 10 assignment (began with measuring a pop can, ended with finding the cost of producing a certain amount of aluminum) that my class had to do that incorporated everything from the last unit they learned, and the lack of effort put into this is blowing my mind.

Almost every student in my class should have been able to complete this assignment 85-100% correctly, had they even used the class time I had given them. The language was simple, it was divided into small steps, and was EXTREMELY straightforward (almost ridiculously so, for a grade 10 class).

I am finding that one of the things I am most frustrated with is many of my students just DON’T CARE.

Are any of you facing this challenge? If yes, how are you dealing with this? (I’m not looking for a discussion on grading and grades as a non-motivator, because frankly, the fact that this assignment was one of the few graded this unit still wasn’t motivation for my students.) So, how are you motivating your students? Please share.

How do you deal with students who seem to just not care?  Any words of wisdom?

Image from FlickrAttribution Some rights reserved by Orange42

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Comments 16
  1. In middle years you can “motivate them” by taking away the hands on classes. I hate taking away things like art, PAA, or PE, but on an infrequent basis it has impact. I’m not sure how this would translate to high school. It’s also a different matter if it’s the entire class instead of a couple students. I’m having the same issue so if anyone has any advice I’m all ears as well!

  2. Have you tried having a conversation with the students? Explain what you need and why? They have to demonstrate a certain level of competency to pass, earn credits etc.
    Then ask them what their issues are and have them explain.
    Finally you and students have to find a way to have both your needs met.

    Whether it seems to work on not, give the

    1. Back to redo and take new mark. Hopefully process will get through to a few. Could see having to do this whole thing again with a few more assignments.
      Those that don’t buy in will see low marks on report cards. Good luck.

  3. You have posed a question that all teachers have asked themselves over the years.  Having taught for 23 years does not qualify me for having the answers.  In the past three years I have been flabbergasted about the number of students who lack self-motivation.  Perhaps it’s the result of an over-indulged generation?  That’s talking from the viewpoint of a teacher and a parent.  I have no answers for this.  I’m afraid that some students will carry on with that innate ability to challenge themselves.  I’ve taken to having students draw up contracts based on unit reflections and goals.  I find myself relying more and more on support teachers and contacting parents on a consistent basis.  Making sure that my students have self-created timelines has helped as has allowing them say into how they will present their learning and how they will be assessed.

    There are no finite answers here.  I’ve found that it’s different per group and per child.  Good luck and let me know if you find the magic answer 🙂

  4. Sorry to hear your students are not putting in their best effort. You mentioned that it was a relatively easy assignment and perhaps that has something to do with it? We all enjoy a good challenge. It needs to be just beyond their reach but still attainable in order to engage. If they are feeling like you have lowered they bar they may respond in kind. Don’t give up. Have an honest conversation with them about your feelings. Co construct a rubric that outlines the expectations and see if that engages them. Whatever you do, don’t give up!

  5. Evening! Saw your post via Twitter and a few things came to mind. First, I’m wondering what evidence does she (you) have they don’t care? In other words, why “don’t care” versus “already know the content”? What lead you that conclusion rather than another? Second, I’m wondering if appearance of not caring stems from adults telling them why it’s important, rather than them uncovering the significance of what they’re learning. Finally, I think a challenge is often we apply adult thinking to teenage brains. We see things they can’t. They feel things we don’t. You CLEARLY see why it’s important, what they may see is “Why do I need to know this and what possible difference does it make on my life?” To that end, I’m wondering about engaging your students in the design of your culminating project. If you go back to your learning targets or objectives, what did you want students to demonstrate their understanding of? So rather than working with a pop can, could they select a product from an area of interest (i.e. CDs, video games, a specific car part) and research the cost of that and submit their findings as evidence of their learning? You could provide grading criteria to ensure they all include the same features so you’d be grading common tasks, just with different objects and values.

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      First, thanks for your insight – it’s amazing that within moments I can have so much input toward something I’ve been struggling with as a new teacher. 

      I suppose I came to the conclusion that my students “didn’t care” because of previous patterns I’d seen with them, and because the work done appeared like they had rushed through it. At this point I feel like I’ve tried everything, but I know that’s not the case – I’ve only been doing this for 2 1/2 months. I know I’ve got a lot to learn, and appreciate all of the feedback I’ve been getting. 

      I have also wrestled with the thought that maybe this was TOO easy, TOO direct, and in turn, not engaging enough. I had intended it to be completed progressively, as we made our way through new skills and concepts, which I probably could have enforced more. I also have no doubt that with some work this could be redesigned, taking into consideration your last suggestion.

      “Finally, I think a challenge is often we apply adult thinking to teenage brains. We see things they can’t. They feel things we don’t.”

      Will I, as a teacher, ever be able to make students see the things I do? Will this come with more experience? I feel like the more experience I gain as a teacher, the farther I will actually be from the teenaged mind. 

  6. It is always disappointing when you have thought through an assignment and the responses from students are less than what you had hoped to be reading.  In some ways it feels like a betrayal: you held up your side of the bargain and they did not.  But there may be more ways to read this than simply students not caring. A couple of things that might help:

    1. You indicated “The language was simple, it was divided into small steps, and was
    EXTREMELY straightforward (almost ridiculously so, for a grade 10
    class)”. Perhaps one of the problems from the learners’ POV is that there isn’t a lot of room to problem solve–to sink their proverbial teeth into the assignment as you have done a lot of the thinking ahead of time. Having done this as well, I found that when I scale back and build in enough ambiguity, that results are often better.

    2. Might there be a range of reasons for students’ lackluster responses?  Can you begin to sort the responses and categorize them so that you have a clearer picture as to why students’ work failed to show effort?  After sorting, you may then be able to better assist students.

    3.  Just this evening, my husband had said how disappointed he was with several of his middle school student’ essays as these students had not revised their texts based on earlier comments he had made but elected to hand in the same paper again.  Why I mention this now is he said this: “I am extending their time and will revisit one-to-one with each as they are not allowed to fail this. They need to learn how to revise. I need to figure out with each what went wrong.”  Talking one-to-one can often yield important insights.  Also, if the learning was important, have you considered what next you will do in order for the students to learn?

    4. Choice matters.  Had you considered offering choice to students as to how they demonstrated the ‘content’ of this assignment? Perhas through alternatives that they design (you certainly will learn what they know) they may be a bit more motivated.

    I wish you much luck as you navigate this.  I have been teacher/admin for the last 25+ years.  Working with teenagers is thrilling and it is often frustrating.  I think it is fabulous that you are reaching out to others.  We are a sharing profession.

    The best to you.


  7. This is a huge issue. You simply can’t blame all the apathy on your lesson design. You can’t get blood from a stone. I’ve been trying to solve this for decades frankly.
    I am now convinced that much of the lack of motivation is a culture full of many depressed children. Our kids also have much more anxiety than they once did and I think lethargy is a symptom.
    Solutions are complex. I try to deal w one student at a time because it gets just too overwhelming otherwise.
    I believe that we spoil kids too much and prevent them the opportunity to take risks and find solutions independently. Out of concern for safety our kids don’t learn to be empowered and get lulled into idleness. Motivation comes from sense of empowerment and value not a parent or schools protectionism. I think too many kids have been moved on without deserving effort and never learn self worth. Tasks ( like community projects) that kids can conquer on their own or with friends build experience. We need less tests and more meaningful experiences unfortunately seldom does this match curricula mandates. Sigh…

  8. Knowing how to motivate and engage students is one of the great mysteries of teaching; what works with one group may be completely unworkable with another. Therein lies the art!
    From the phrasing above, it seems to me that too much work had been done for the students – there was no thinking left for them to do. An open-ended problem-solving approach where students have to develop their own methods for measuring and determining cost may have been more effective. I would suggest that the teacher in question ask the students directly – deconstruct the lesson with them. Find out from them where the break down occurred and then ask them to design a new task for meeting the learning objectives. 

  9. For me, assignments are only one part of class.  Continue to build relationships with students and help them find a way to share their learning but in different ways.  The more you get to know them, the better you will also know their strengths and interests.  It is hard in a practicum because you are so limited in time but there is no magical solution or else someone would have shared it with the world.  Continue to build relationships with them and you will see them come around.  It does take time.

    1. You are absolutely right about it being tough in practicum. I feel like I am still getting to know my students (even the ones I’ve been teaching since the beginning of September, never mind the ones I began teaching last week!). It is something I will definitely continue to work at, as I can see how it is so important. Thank you for the words of encouragement!

  10. Have you learned about your students’ interests? One of the first things we did at school this year was to hold an Identity Day (thank you, George Couros) to learn what our students loved doing. What I love the most about this is that I can talk with my students about the things that interest them and then use those areas to help them learn almost everything. One of my students loves making stop-motion animation videos. We can learn more about writing, math, other cultures, music, art- and he can learn through his love of making videos.

    I’m curious as to the goal of the exercise you wanted them to do. Could you have asked them how they might demonstrate their understanding of the topic and allow them the option of making the choice? For those who were unsure, you could have shown them your example with the aluminum, but then asked them to devise their own example. My students have a lot of choice when it comes to demonstrating their learning, and that has made all the difference to me.

    Please do not withhold hands-on activities from them as “motivation,” because that really amounts to punishment. It also makes both students and parents view the more hands-on learning as fluff and fun… which translates to “less academic and less learning.” That couldn’t be further from the truth! Kids enjoy art, music, and P.E. because they are learning in ways that are more natural. They have more autonomy and opportunities for creativity. Why should ANY learning opportunity be less than that?


  11. There are many great comments here and they all should be carefully read. The only thing I would add is make sure you care about what you’re teaching. I mean really care. If you’re teaching something just because it’s in the curriculum they non-compliant student will sniff that out in a heartbeat. Even if you’re doing a good job, teaching by the book, your students need to no he and why it matters. That doesn’t mean you have to engage them every day in that question but you have to show them with your actions and heart that Math matters.

    That might be a tough question to answer. I can’t imagine teaching in 2011 when you only barely care about what you’re doing. I’m not saying that’s the case here but your students need to see it matters to you. Modeling is a powerful teaching method. Maybe the most powerful.

  12. I’m assuming you’re talking about maths teaching in high school in particular. If you follow #mathchat on Twitter you’ll find that even experienced teachers grapple with motivating students to learn maths.  Know that there are ‘wins’ and quite often, as a result of a combination of things including some of the things previously suggested: passion for your subject, knowing your students, etc.

    Somewhere between primary and high school, students start to disengage – even dislike – maths.  Know this first. Then, do something about it.  And you won’t always win but the wins you do have will be enough to keep you going.

    My approach? “How can I make this interesting for me?” Yes, me. If I can keep myself interested, then the passion and enthusiasm comes through. Granted, I do have a playful mindset.  It also means that I have a varied approach to my teaching.  I have students tell me, “we like you miss, we just don’t like maths. sorry”. Imagine that, apologizing for something they’re not interested in!  

    There are topics in high school maths that are just not interesting for many people and that  should be fine because everyone has at least one thing they’re not interested in (e.g. I’m not interested in learning about options-trading even though many say it’s lucrative).  What’s not fine is to indulge such disinterest if we can help it…..SO, we try to motivate our students….and this is not a one-off thing.

    I’ve got a few ideas for motivating high school maths students in my blog under the motivation tag (funnily enough).  Check out the learning strategies and reflection tags as well.  

    Final advice: be kind to yourself.


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