Teaching strategies: Teaching disaffected students

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in March 2017.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here

One of the most common complaints that teachers have – and one of the reasons so many teachers leave the profession – is that they have to teach students who just don’t want to be taught.

How, they ask, can you force students to learn something that they have no desire to learn?

The honest answer is that you can’t. However, you can do much to help disaffected and demotivated students to see the benefits of learning what you need to teach them and you can organise your classroom in such a way as to encourage greater engagement and involvement.

For example, disaffected students tend to perform better when they are in small group settings.

However, as it is not always possible to cut class sizes – and, with the budgetary constraints placed on schools these days, it is becoming increasingly less likely to happen – you need to create opportunities for students to engage in group work while in a whole-class setting.

Group work

Group work could take the form of competitive or cooperative learning. Allow me to explain.

Broadly speaking, classroom learning activities can be either individualistic, competitive or co-operative. Individualistic learning is where students work more independently of each other and, perhaps, of the teacher. Competitive learning is where students or groups of students compete with each other for marks to see who is the best. And cooperative learning is where students are required to work together as they learn and have a vested interest in each other’s learning.

Cooperative learning is, according to the research, the most effective of the three types of learning in terms of academic performance and classroom climate. What’s more, co-operative learning can improve students’ achievement by at least a grade according to Professor John Hattie’s well-known meta-analysis of the research evidence.

In order to make cooperative learning work, you need to ensure that:

  • Groups succeed or fail together – in other words, individual students are held accountable by their peers and peer pressure is used constructively to motivate students to learn.
  • Students work interactively – in other words, activities involve peer-teaching and intensive student-led group discussions.
  • One of the lesson objectives is for students to learn as part of a team and to help others learn – in other words, groups become motivated to help the weakest members so that the group as a whole performs better. Students have a vested interest in each other’s success: they only succeed if they all succeed; if one fails, they all fail.
  • An integral element of this cooperative learning model is that students are held accountable by their teacher for learning and working effectively as a group and for supporting each other to learn.

Therefore, as a consequence, students come to learn how to work together and to cooperate with each other.

When employing in-class group work, you should ensure there is a variety of grouping arrangements used over the course of the year in order to promote active student engagement and to encourage focused verbal feedback.

Having said this, students’ natural reticence to speak aloud should always be taken into account and students should not be made to feel uncomfortable. Indeed, it is often the disaffected students who display the most reticence, so how can teachers combat this?

One way is to construct a positive learning environment in which students take more responsibility for their own learning and where they feel safe to make mistakes without ridicule or disruption by their peers. The classroom ethos needs to promote mutual respect and value the contribution of all students, irrespective of their attainment.

Disaffected students respond to a more relaxed disciplinary regime and this can often lead to increased motivation. Where possible, therefore, the classroom culture should be built on the premise of participation and teamwork, praise and positive affirmation, rather than compliance and sanctions.

Finally, students’ views should be solicited and used in productive ways in order to inform teachers and provide a more conducive and comfortable environment.

Learning materials

Disaffected students also work best when they are engaged by the learning resources presented to them. Materials are most effective in engaging disaffected students when they are drawn from a range of different sources and tailored to meet individual learning needs.

Materials are also most effective when they incorporate a range of different cognitive demands which allow students to select the appropriate level of challenge for them.

The best materials make use of dual coding. In other words, text-based explanations are paired with and complemented by visuals such as diagrams, charts, graphics and moving images.

In order to be effective, graphics must support one or more of the following learning processes:

  • They must directly relate to the lesson content.
  • They must bring prior knowledge – as relevant to the new skills being taught – out of students’ long-term memories and into their working memories.
  • They must reduce the cognitive load placed on students’ working memories in order to utilise the working memory’s limited capacity for learning.
  • They must help students to build new mental models (or schema) which can be stored in their long-term memories.
  • They must transfer new skills which are stored in students’ long-term memories back into their working memories when they’re needed.
  • They must motivate students to begin and complete their learning goals.

Graphics also work best when

  • They use signals to focus students’ attention: In other words, they make important aspects of the learning resources stand out without adding to or changing the content of the resources. Signals might take the form of: topic headings and sub-headings; typographic cues such as font type and size, the use of italics, bold, colour, underlining, etc; white space, indents, numbered lists, bullets, etc; grouping of information by their proximity or colour; and the use of attention-directing symbols such as arrows, icons, shading, and animation.
  • They are positioned close to the text they illustrate: In other words, they obey the “continuity principle” which recommends that related content is placed on pages or screens in an integrated fashion. They avoid separating visuals and words because this has been shown to depress learning as compared to integrated pictures and words (see Clark & Mayer 2008: Sweller, van Merrienboer & Paas 1990).
  • They avoid unnecessary distractions: In other words, while some decorative graphics might be appropriate if they add to the aesthetic quality of a document, they should be used sparingly because they can divert students’ attentions and create undesirable psychological associations. Graphics become integral rather than distracting when they are used in place of text for efficient communication of content.

Tailored teaching

The most effective teaching strategy for engaging disaffected students is that which addresses both the cognitive demands placed on students and the affective outcomes. For example, it may be wise to adopt a slower pace of delivery, to increase the amount of scaffolding, to adjust the levels of challenge (while maintaining high expectations at all times), to introduce some peer-support, and to include more opportunities to give feedback and praise.

Whatever teaching approach is taken, it is important to avoid placing limits on students’ attainment through differentiation – be that explicitly or implicitly, intended or accidental. This can be done by giving students opportunities to select and vary the level of challenge in their learning. This self-selection of the learning task reduces the stigma associated with students being given easier work to do and places the ownership in students’ hands.

Disaffected students often respond best to practical, hands-on interactive approaches such as ICT and the interactive whiteboard. Although this can motivate students and act as a reward, it is important that technology is used only when it adds value to students’ learning and that it doesn’t detract from students’ learning.

At the heart of every good classroom is the human interaction between the teacher and her students, and between one student and other students.

Teacher-student relationships are particularly important when teaching disaffected students. To improve relations, you could adopt an explicit disciplinary context which helps students to avoid distraction and disruption.

Disaffected students also respond best to positive learning environments which encourage their participation. This can be accomplished through the use of praise, by treating mistakes as part of learning, by using careful questioning techniques, and by paying close attention to cultural sensitivities.

More top tips

To conclude, here are some other suggestions for motivating and engaging disaffected students:

  1. Use diagnostic assessments before and/or at the beginning of a course in order to ensure learning is pitched at the appropriate level (challenging yet achievable with time, effort and support) and repeat diagnostic tests during the course in order to ensure students are progressing well.
  2. Maintain a flexible approach to pedagogy, utilising whole-class instruction, group and pair work, and one-to-one support as appropriate.
  3. Give students ownership of the learning process and ensure there is a good rapport between you, the teacher, and students, as well as between all the students in the class.
  4. Explicitly explain the relevance of learning activities and contextualise them where possible. Tell students about the cognitive science behind your approaches, such as spaced practice, desirable difficulties, dual coding, and so on.
  5. Explain the way in which students are going to be assessed and involve students in setting success criteria.
  6. Be strict and expect the best from everyone, making clear your expectations and the consequences for falling short, then be consistent in how you apply the rules. But don’t be overly intimidating or dogmatic – a supportive and approachable attitude towards the class tends to get better results in terms of behaviour and attitude, as well as outcomes.
  7. Take time to give feedback – regular assessments enable students to see the progress they are making and help to instil a sense of pride in a job well


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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