Try these four strategies to remotivate disengaged students

An illustration showing a student riding an elephant across a tightrope

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Four steps to help you avoid spooking the elephant in your classrooms

For several years, I’ve been thinking about how to help locked-out learners, those students who put in no effort to avoid failure. Then this year those locked-out learners were also in lockdown.

During remote teaching, the number of locked-out learners is bound to have increased. Students weren’t engaging in their schoolwork for a multitude of reasons: access to IT, parental attitudes, socioeconomic factors and their own attitude to studying. Some students will have returned to school knowing they didn’t do as much work as their peers and feeling apprehensive about the consequences.

To help understand what is happening to locked-out learners, I like social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s analogy of human behaviour. He says that human behaviour is controlled by two parts of the mind. The elephant, which is emotional and instinctive and the rider, which is rational. To a locked-out learner, the elephant is the part that gets scared they might fail, triggering negative emotions about the work. The rider is the part that provides a reason to justify their behaviour, such as finding excuses or pointing fingers.

What we can do for locked-out learners

Don’t rush. It’s tempting to up the pace to make up for time lost during lockdown and remote teaching. This won’t help locked-out learners. They will feel lost and give up. The pandemic is already the perfect excuse to quit so we need to avoid spooking the elephant.

Here are four approaches you can take with locked-out learners:

1. Provide a scaffold to help reduce gaps in knowledge. The scaffold could be a textbook, revision guide, knowledge organiser or curriculum booklet. This gets the students familiar with resources they might rely on in the event of a school closure.

2. Start slow and assume no prior knowledge. When planning your explanations start at the most basic concept and build up. It will ensure all students are with you and those that already know it get some free revision. Although you might usually assess for prior knowledge, it’s risky with locked-out learners. It can demotivate them and cause them to put up barriers.

3. Use regular retrieval practice. If the stakes are kept low and the teacher’s attitude is supportive, retrieval practice can reinforce the gradual improvement students show over the first few weeks.

4. Motivate through improvement, not engagement. Motivation breeds success better than engagement. The best chance for locked-out learners to improve their motivation is to support them to learn as much as possible by choosing tasks that aide learning.

How to apply these ideas to chemistry teaching

During lockdown, my year 10 class studied the chemical changes unit from the AQA combined science curriculum. So they should have learned all about acids, bases and electrolysis.

When they returned, I gave them a knowledge organiser and a booklet for the unit. This gives them all the support and activities they need as I reteach the topic. If they are sent home again, they will have these resources and will already know how to use them to learn, because we will have used them in every lesson.

I focused my first lessons on recapping the basics of atomic structure, ions and ionic bonding. This ensured they have the prior knowledge required to understand electrolysis, and crucially reminds them that they do know some chemistry.

In those first few lessons, retrieval practice gives them the opportunity to revisit the basic ideas frequently. It also demonstrates to students their progression, which will help their motivation. I’m always looking to remind them that they are improving, that they haven’t unlearned chemistry over lockdown, they simply need to refresh their memories.

While our students are in school, the best way to get them back to learning is a large dose of carefully curated normality. We must remember not to assume we know exactly what they went through during lockdown, and then we can guide them to an unlocked future.