How Do I Get My Students to Care?

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Building engagement and motivation is a crucial responsibility for teachers.
"Letting student interests and passions into the classroom fosters a culture of engagement because it invites learners to explore in a safe, structured environment where support is available as needed - which is really the best way to learn."

Building student buy-in and creating motivation to learn are two of a teacher’s most complex tasks. From day one, teachers must work to establish their classrooms as places where learning is exciting and valuable. On the other hand, any amount of time in the classroom proves that no single approach works effectively for all learners. As if making people want to challenge and improve themselves through hard work wasn’t difficult enough to begin with, the age of information on demand has made getting tech-savvy students to see the value in day-to-day classroom lessons increasingly challenging.

While there’s no single, unified system that’s guaranteed to engage and motivate all learners, certain mindsets and practices in the classroom foster a positive learning environment with an eye toward active student engagement and buy-in. Here are a few specific techniques that teachers can use to help their students see the value in school and guide them toward deeper learning:

Tie Learning to Personal Goals
For students to invest time and energy in the learning process, the purpose of each activity or assignment must be transparent and authentic. This can be a major adjustment, as, “You need to do this because it is the assignment and you must do well on it,” worked effectively for decades. However, twenty-first century learners struggle to embrace concepts or experiences that don’t feel relevant to them.

When students create academic and personal goals, it provides teachers, parents and other stakeholders the tools they need to help explain the relevance and importance of particular concepts or skills to each individual student’s future. Students and teachers can even work together to create a career plan that lists out what kinds of information and skills from each class or discipline that student will need in order to pursue their dream job. By tying learning directly to students’ own personal goals, teachers can remove the question, “Why do I need to learn this?”

Leverage Student Interests and Passions
Once teachers and students begin to think of learning as a series of purposeful knowledge and skill targets and not just “classes” that need to be passively taken, it provides opportunities to open up the curriculum using new and exciting access points. One of the best ways to get students to care about their education is to invite them to access content through texts and materials that connect to areas of intrinsic interest or curiosity.

Letting student interests and passions into the classroom fosters a culture of engagement because it invites learners to explore in a safe, structured environment where support is available as needed - which is really the best way to learn. Depending on the class, grade level, or subject matter, this could take all sorts of different forms. In an ELA classroom, for example, students might be encouraged to read texts that are connected to their interests as long as they access the right reading comprehension, critical thinking and writing skills. In a physics classroom, on the other hand, students could create and problems that answer questions they have about the world around them. Whatever the content, students are always most excited to learn when they get to engage with material they’re naturally excited about.

Create an Improvement-Based Narrative
One of the reasons so many students disengage is because the traditional school model fails to provide learners with feedback that encourages them to see things through to mastery, especially in areas of struggle. Sure, you did badly on the test and that’s bad for your grade, but why should you push yourself to learn that material while the rest of the class moves on? When students are feeling low because of poor performance or critical feedback, it can lead to a spiral that only hurts their chances for current and future success worse.

To keep learners in a positive headspace that supports engagement and buy-in, it’s important for teachers, students, parents and administrators to emphasize academic improvement and skill refinement over time. Milestones should be anticipated and celebrated for all learners to help them see that they are supported and recognized by their home and learning communities, and progress toward goals and skill targets should be documented to create a log of achievements that students can review to reflect upon their work or gather strength and perseverance in time of need.

Regardless of how you do it, making students care about and invest in their learning is one of the most important jobs for any teacher or administrator. When you gain a sense of learners’ personal goals and individual passions and couple that understanding with an emphasis on growth and improvement, you’re creating an environment that primes your students for success.