Dealing with Unmotivated Students

Recently I have run into that classic paradox in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where Brian shouts to the crowd to “Think for yourselves” and the crowd responds in unison “Think for ourselves”. There is a much more subtle and difficult to handle side of this paradox with student motivation in college. How much responsibility is the teacher's for “motivating” students to do the various learning activities?
Here is the problem, no matter what class I have ever taught, there are always a few students who will do the absolute minimum, and that only when I go to great lengths to make them do it. These students only work and study under direct or indirect coercion. The knee jerk way we deal with this problem is to over assess and cook up novel ways to require attendance and outside preparation. Classic examples of this approach are over assessment with too many assignments, too many exams, passing mandatory quizzes before lab sessions, and mandatory attendance. 

There are reasons to question this approach of using assessment or other forms of coercion to make the students do what we want them to do. Besides the obvious dilution of assessment as a teaching tool, it denies the student the opportunity to learn self discipline. That second point really hit home recently when I had one of these errant students show up in my office at the end of the semester concerned about his grade. He stated that it was my fault that he was not attending lectures because I had not imposed a penalty on attendance to make sure he showed up. He was basically saying that I had to force my will on him in place of his own will to make him attend class.  As a teacher, we can make students do almost anything with the whip and threat of grades and peer pressure, but are we doing them any favors if we teach them that all they have to do to succeed in life is to respond to threats made by others? The difference between trained unthinking employees and independent educated leaders and entrepreneurs is the ability to self-regulate behavior and to act on one’s own free will.

I think there are two ways to approach this problem. The first are the classic methods I mentioned above to force students to do exercises and attend class with threats and grades in the hope that they will eventually see the benefit and begin to modify their behavior. Clever and directed graded exercises are the standard tool of education. Even this tool however, must be moderated to avoid removing the need for student self-discipline and self-motivation. I really believe that the best teachers will leave room for students who are not disciplined and unmotivated to fail. This is hard, because a failing student can be seen as failure as a teacher.  It can feel like passively watching a drowning person flail in the water, but there are many times it is of more long term benefit to the student to let them go under. Unfortunately there are some students who will only benefit from failing because only by honestly asking themselves why they failed will they be able to move forward. I do feel for their personal pain, but this pain and crisis is sometimes the only way a student can grow up and find themselves. For some in your class this may be the first in a long of failures before the student grows up.  If they decide to stay in the subject area, then only by facing the pain of failing can they learn that they have to put in the effort even for those aspects of the class that are not directly graded. I will go so far as to say, any teacher who is not failing some students is not doing the job well. This is one of the aspects of teaching that makes assessing teachers so difficult; student performance will always be a bell curve with some super stars and some super failures. Part of the job of a university teacher is to produce both ends of the curve because that is what does students at both ends the most good. The only possible way to assess teaching is to look at the level and depth of the material being effectively covered, and paradoxically, not the overall satisfaction of the students. Hence, one of the absurdities of applying a business model to higher education is that some student customers are paying to be failed even though that is the last thing they think they are paying for.

The second and the highest approach that I use to motivate students is to make the subject interesting and appealing. This side of teaching is sometimes overlooked and only shows up in the comments from the top students at the end of year course evaluations. No one can teach a topic well if they find it boring. If it is a chore and uninteresting to the teacher then only the best students will have any chance of discovering the beauty of the subject. Teaching is part seduction where the beauty and elegance of the subject must be presented in its best light to spark the interest of the students. This is the highest motivation that we see with the top students in the class, and what made us go into academia in the first place. It is also the reason why over emphasis on teaching over academic scholarly activity and  research is not good for undergraduate education.  Do not under estimate this force of love of being engaged in the subject, as it is what we all are aiming to inspire in the class room. So remember to “look on the bright side of life!” and not just the bludgeon of assessment to motivate your students.


  1. I totally agree. Assessments should be carrots to help motivated students reach their full potential, not sticks to force unmotivated students to do anything.


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