Published Works for Teachers

Classroom Strategies That Motivate the Reluctant Learner


In a society where no child is left untested, it may not be surprising that many states have dropped their passing grades during the past decade (NYC Board of Education, 2007; Banchero, 2007; Kolkey, 2007). If we examine the amount of material that is covered in Social Studies, Science, and Math exams, then the drive to memorize facts would leave even the more ambitious student disinterested and disengaged. Then why should it be so surprising that the struggling reader or child who has little educational support fails at this national numbers game?

When students have no voice in their own learning and have little ownership of what they can investigate, then it stands to reason that the percentage of reluctant learners has grown substantially over the past 2 decades (Lumsden, 1994). As noted in many studies, engagement and motivation are key elements for a reduction in dropout rates and increase student success. (Woods, 1995; Blank, 1997; Dev, 1997). So how are we to link content to what motivates and engages youngsters?

At Life Sciences Secondary School in Manhattan, Principal Genevieve Stanislaus is confronting these issues head-on. By designing a program where every teacher is included in a team meeting each week during the school day, teams are self-selecting their own areas of study and are being trained to:

  • increase student ownership in the classroom so that they are intrinsically motivated.
  • provide and design strategies that inspire higher-level thinking skills that excite and motivate the youngsters to read, write, speak, listen attentively, and perform.
  • utilize classroom strategies to increase the quality of study work.

Intrinsic Motivation and Ownership

Intrinsic motivation can be defined as being “motivated from within….[where] students actively engage themselves in learning out of curiosity, interest, or enjoyment… in order to achieve their own intellectual and personal goals.” (Brewster & Fager, 2000, p. 4). These students “will not need any type of reward or incentive to initiate or complete a task…. And they are more likely to complete the chosen task and be excited by the challenging nature of the activity.” (Dev, 1997, pg. 13).

For students to feel a sense of ownership in their own learning (Brooks, Freiburger, & Grotheer, 1998) they need to be a part of the process at its inception. At first, teachers may be leery of allowing students to have a voice in determining the project, or even the criteria for which they would be assessed. However, when students are respected as lifelong learners and can suggest the criteria for assessment, they become thoughtful and responsible (Stix, 2002). This is a step that increases their motivation and challenges their interest and makes them responsible for the work they produce (Policy Studies Associates, 1995; Anderman & Midgley, 1998; Dev, 1997).

Negotiable Contracting

The teacher first describes the assignment to the student. This type of assignment is characterized by having flexibility in how students can utilize a workstation that has various reading levels and how the students can present the assignment to the class. Once described, the teacher-coach asks the students to list the assignment’s most salient points. Discuss with students what type of behavior they think is necessary in order to make this assignment successful and how it will affect the results.

First privately, then cooperatively, and finally in a whole group format, the students generate a list of the criteria that they feel would be most authentic to the task. Of course, the teacher may add additional criteria, if necessary. The class negotiates and pares down the list to 4 or 5 substantive items. Teachers will find that the students are perceptive and intelligent in determining the criteria, with the teacher having the final say, but giving them 80% of the ownership. Finally, the teacher and students collectively decide which criterion would be weighted the most to the least and establish a system of assessing. This is called negotiable contracting (Stix, 2000). By helping students understand the criteria of assessment and making sure that the performance and behavior are clear and consistent increases intrinsic motivation (Skinner & Belmont, 1991 and Strong, Silver, & Robinson, 1995).

Strategies that Motivate

Quite often teachers find themselves in a rut, repeating the same type of active learning strategy. Students may enjoy a new strategy in the beginning of the school year, a diversion from the previous year’s work, but they soon lose their motivation when “the same old stuff” is done repetitively.

The reluctant students may be enticed by lessons and strategies that provoke higher-level thinking, and where students take ownership of their own work. Stale and boring work is quickly dissipated by engaging discussions, debates, deductive reasoning, dramatizations, and art integration.

To be competitive, our young people must be instilled with an enthusiasm for the work they do in their classrooms (Lumsden, 1994), an eagerness to learn that is characterized by ardor and passion, the same traits and qualities they will take with them as adults to face the challenges of the workaday world and marketplace. The reluctant learner must undergo a metamorphosis, be motivated to show enterprise and initiative, and that can be done by teachers today who engage their students with activities that are intellectually challenging and educationally worthy (Anderman & Midgley, 1998; Lumsden, 1994). So, what exactly do they look like?

The following are strategies that actively involve students, promoting self-interest and allowing them to select topics, where they perform or present before their classmates (Stix, 2002). When students realize their presentations will be assessed by the teacher and their fellow students, based on negotiable contracting, the quality of their work increases substantially.

Debate and Discussion Strategies

Lobbyist HearingStudents sign up for 1 of 4 positions to be lobbyists. After conducting research, each group states its perspective when introduced at a public forum, followed by having each student offer a new idea emphasizing its position. Students can offer graphs, photos, charts, paintings, and documents to amplify their position, bringing in differentiation. After the concluding statement from each group, a panel holds a Q&A session. When all 4 groups have made their presentation, the panel votes and renders its decision.

Stix Discussion.  Students are offered a choice of 4 perspectives to hold an inner and outer ring discussion. All groups do the necessary research to speak effectively. The 4 groups hold a discussion, with 1/3 of the members from each perspective sitting in the inner circle at a given time speaking to each other for 5 minutes. Everyone has the opportunity to make their position known, utilizing photographs, charts, graphs, and assorted visuals. In the meantime, the outer circle serves as clerks to their inner ring counterparts. They think of ways to support the discussion, passing informative notes to their spokespersons to supplement their arguments. After the allotted time, 1/3 of the group’s members switch places, moving from being clerks to active speakers, offering new voices and ideas. The process is repeated a third time, giving all students an opportunity to speak on the issues.

Magnetic DebateWhen there are 2 sides to an issue, with a slew of engaging topics, this forum is exciting. The class is divided into 4 groups: Pro, Con, Undecideds, and a Q&A panel. Students research their positions in preparation. For the debate, the classroom is divided with a strip of masking tape running the length of the classroom floor. The opposing teams stand on opposite sides of the room, with the Undecideds sitting on chairs sited along the masking tape. The Q&A panel sits at the front of the room. One member from each team speaks on a specific topic central to the issue, with the first team making a rebuttal after the second team made its presentation. After each topic, the Q&A panel may ask 1 question of each side. Now the Undecideds make their choice; they shift their chairs 2 floor tiles in the direction of the team that had the most influence. At the conclusion, the side that persuaded the most chairs to shift their way is the winner.

Deductive Reasoning Strategies

Making Decisions. Using real-life stories, students acting as judges are asked to make a decision. Students read the case and analyze it according to each perspective described in the story. The class holds a discussion on what should be done, rendering a decision.

Vote on It. Each group receives resumes of several people. Students must decide to elect, fill a job, or offer an award to 1 of these individuals. The groups discuss the qualifications necessary for the selection they will make. They discuss how each person measures against the accepted standard; then they vote.

Taking a Survey. The students conduct a public survey, formulating an open-ended question where the response is numbered and can range from -5 to +5. A -5 response represents the highest level of disagreement, a 0 represents neutrality, and a +5 the highest level of agreement. In pairs or groups, students survey other students outside of class or community members, collecting 25 to 50 responses.  After analyzing the results, students give a class presentation showing the drafted question, letting the class vote to see if they correctly predicted the survey’s outcome. The group provides the response analysis and compares the difference.

Drama and Art Integration

Slide Show Alive. This activity can be done individually, in pairs, or by groups. Students select a topic, collecting various photographs, and place them in order, designing a PowerPoint presentation. Each slide is accompanied by a descriptive statement. Three slides are selected for special dramatization. Students take the roles of the people in the slides, a performance that resonates with reality through their voices, personalities, the richness of content, and the dramatics of interaction. Students may choose a debate, a comedy, a dramatization, a paneled discussion, or any other format to bring the slide to life. A Q&A session is the finale, if clarification is necessary.

Mystery Box.  Each individual or pair of students conducts research on an assigned personality and writes a four-paragraph essay. They describe the person without stating the actual identity. Each paragraph is printed in a similar font and size for the entire class, cut out, and placed on standard-sized index cards, which are then inserted in a slot cut into the lid of a shoebox.  The box is decorated, offering facts and clues about the individual. The name of the person is written on the bottom of the box. On the day of the mystery exercise, 4 boxes are placed at each station from various students in the class, with their cards shuffled. Each group of students reads the cards at their table; determine which box identifies the mystery personality, inserting the cards through the slot. When all the cards have been processed, each box is opened and the paragraphs are placed in the proper order to complete the essay. Students identify the person and check the bottom of the box to determine if they are correct, and move on to the next table.

Fan Fold. After having researched to compare and contrast 2 events or people, a Venn diagram is made to facilitate the writing of a brief report. Two diametrically opposing illustrations are then created, based on the researched material.  Each picture is divided and cut into 1” vertical strips. On a cardboard fan, the strips from 1 picture are glued to the left side of each fold; the opposing view is cut and glued to the right side. Done properly, 1 stands on the right side of the fan and views that picture in its entirety; standing on the left side, the opposing view is seen. The students display their artwork with the accompanying written report, and verbal presentations are made. The viewers become engaged while they move from side to side to view what the speaker is describing.


Applying life coaching skills in class can increase the self-esteem and self-worth of students (Costa and Garmston, 2002). Allowing students a say in their own learning and giving them ownership is the foundation of coaching. When at-risk students feel supported and have tasks scaffolded (Lumsden, 1994), when they find that the teacher expresses enjoyment in their interactions (Skinner & Belmont, 1991), and when they feel that the teacher builds quality relationships, (McCombs & Pope, 1994) these items increase motivation and engagement. Coaching offers teachers skills that ensure students to work harmoniously with one another.  Coaching offers teachers skills that ensure students to work harmoniously with one another. The skills foster dialogue, helping the young people with their work, research, note-taking, and organization. The listening skills employed by the teacher-coach can overcome the emotional and academic issues that impede the work and effort of students, and effectively resolve conflicts and overcome the hazards and growing pains so commonplace in the academic environment.

GOPER Model (Stix, 2006) is a coaching strategy teachers can use to train students to be better organized, solve their problems, and improve working collaboratively. It is an acronym that stands for Goal, Options, Plan of Action, Eliminate the Roadblocks, and Reflection.

Determining the Goal of the group allows the students to discuss and select their objectives. Once agreed upon, the group can brainstorm the various Options that are available. Examining the Options, they can design a Plan of Action. At the same time, they discuss roadblocks,  trying to eliminate potential trouble. Once the Plan of Action is completed, students reflect on how well they worked together.


Change is never easy. It takes time, patience, and a constant focus of attention on the new strategies (Rock and Schwartz, 2002) so that the teacher’s repertoire of engaging students becomes a cognitive roadmap constantly traveled. For teachers at Life Sciences, assistance is available to learn new strategies. The teachers discuss new and engaging teaching activities, are being trained in life coaching skills, and are receiving continual support in professional development. These steps help to improve student attendance and make the reluctant learner a vanishing breed.

A more in-depth examination of the strategies listed and other strategies can be found in Active Strategies for the Social Studies, published by Teacher Created Materials.

Please share your experiences with us as to why behavior issues plummet when students are more actively involved in an interactive classroom. If you have tried any of the strategies listed above, please share your insights with us.

Andi Stix is an educational consultant & coach who specializes in differentiation, interactive learning, writing across the curriculum, classroom coaching and gifted education. For further information on her specialties or social media, please email her on the contact page



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