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Engaging Reluctant Learners: Relationships, Relevance, and Communication

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March 16th, 2018

Learning is a posture.

Yes, it’s a mindset. Yes, it’s an attitude. Yes it’s a process with mental, physical, and emotional variables working together.

But it’s also the way a student sits.

Allow me to explain.

Teachers can identify the kid with his arms folded and his chin down on his chest. The kid hunched over so far that his shoulders create a shadow. The kid who mumbles one-word answers to any question posed in class.

The buzzword to apply to this kid is “reluctant learner.” But before we label a student as “reluctant,” it’s useful to imagine this posture outside of the classroom.

What would you think if you saw someone hunched over, withdrawn, and shut down from a social situation? They are likely:

  • Scared
  • Threatened
  • Sad
  • Self-Conscious

More than likely, it’s all of the above and more. With this in mind, we can craft creative ways to engage reluctant learners.

A caveat: The ideas in this article are a place to start a conversation. They are not a place to find the one hack or tactic to help every reluctant learner. That said, there are broad strategies to remember when engaging with reluctant learners. Used together with care, these strategies can help teachers open students up to learning. More importantly, teachers can help students see themselves as learners.

First, engaged learners

Before addressing strategies for reluctant learners, it helps to consider the opposite. My friend Dave Stuart Jr. describes four key academic mindsets that students need to learn. The mindsets stated as personal beliefs are:

I belong in this academic community. (Belonging)
My ability and competence can grow with my effort. (Growth Mindset)
I can succeed at this. (Self-efficacy)
This work has value for me. (Relevance)

So, we have four end goals for engaged learners. Working backwards from these objectives, here are a few strategies and approaches for engaging reluctant learners.

Build systems for building relationships

Addressing this issue at a district level is not easy. A foundational piece of this challenge is changing identities and building relationships. That is hard to scale. But districts can help educators interact with students outside of the fast-paced curriculum. Teacher-student conferences are a simple place to start. In these conversations, teachers can learn about students’ identities outside of the class. After establishing a relationship, it’s time for ongoing support.

Open up lines of communication

One strategy for all adult stakeholders is to open lines of communication. This is a time-consuming, messy process. But it is one that we can systemize with some planning. Teachers can pick up the phone or write an email to parents early in the year to make first contact with parents. Positive notes of encouragement go a long way to establishing a positive rapport.

Administrators can choose students with specific needs and meet for casual discussions. For example, an administrator might meet with students whose grades have declined. Or students who are repeating a class from last year. Or students with particularly challenging home situations.

These meetings help students see that people in the school care. Which leads me to…

Balance essential skills with student interests

Something you may hear from a “reluctant learner” is, What is the point of this? Why am I going to need this? This information is stupid/irrelevant/boring. And you know what? Sometimes, those students are right. Students will not need to know about every novel, historical figure, or every formula. The engaged students, though, have some other motivations working for them. They see the larger picture. They have people telling them about the importance of learning and working hard. They have cultivated an identity as someone who cares.

So, how do we respond when students don’t see the relevance of what we are doing? After building a relationship, we find an entry point through student interests.

In my book, Hacking Literacy, I write about an experience with a student who would not read. I tried every genre, every approach that I could think of. I realized that what I wanted this student to do was to engage in intellectual conversations. Because he never read, he never wrote about his reading or discussed it. He was missing out on the rest of his literacy experience because I could not engage him in reading. So, instead, I engaged him in a documentary. I knew that he liked weight lifting. I suggested he watch a documentary about the dangers of performance enhancing drugs. He did, and we were able to have ongoing conversation about the movie and the topic itself.

When educators encounter reluctant learners, helping these students to improve their mindsets is not a quick fix. The approach should be holistic – both because the whole child must be consider in the plans, and the whole system of school stakeholders need to be invested in the process. It involves the student, parent, teacher, and administrator. With cooperation, a clear plan, and a commitment to meeting the needs of individual students, schools can help reluctant learners change their identities, and see themselves as learners, no modifier needed.


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

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