The Disengaged Student Problem

Image from understood.org

Hey everyone! This blog is a little bit different from the other ones as it is mostly a plain-spoken, somewhat opinionated monologue illustrating my take on a striking issue. If you do not feel like you would enjoy that at the moment, I urge you to at least spend twenty seconds reading the first paragraph as it contains a compelling finding.

I recently read an article from Forbes titled “Motivation Matters”. It brought up a study conducted in the mid-2000s by the National Research Council that found that 40% of high school students reported being chronically disengaged from school. I don’t know about you, but this is particularly unsettling to me.

Schools boards and teachers try to push students to achieve more by improving standards, curriculums, and overall instruction. This is all well and good but somewhat useless when it comes to trying to get that one unmotivated student (more accurately 40 out of 100 students) to achieve their potential.

So what does work? To speak truthfully, I was a part of the 60% who felt mostly engaged in school; however, I can say I was a part of friend groups who did not exactly share an equal passion for learning. The research on this problem stops short of discussing how this problematic perception students have relates to what students express to one another. For example, one thing that research may find difficult to show is what middle/high school students disclose to each other as peers and friends: things they like about school, things that they are excited about, things that they absolutely dread and hope to never have to do again. I was exposed to these insider comments and reactions about what gets through to students and I am arguably not too far off from those years to forget. So without further delay, here’s my take on what motivates young students:

Things that made students excited to learn:

1.  Mental and physical engagement

  • Any kind of hands-on lab experiment (bonus points for student creativity aspect)
  • Virtual labs done on the computer
  • Bill Nye videos (obviously

2. The ability of freedom of expression

  • Activities that involved playing with models and allowing room for creativity

3. The deconstruction of routine

  • Teacher-led demonstrations that reinforce a topic
  • Presentations and talks that showed what could be achieved in a STEM career (ex. real life scientists, doctors, mathematicians, etc.)

4. Collaboration

  • Group projects
  • Activities that allowed you to present your findings to your peers

Things that made students unmotivated to learn:

  • Reading from textbooks
  • Days and days of standardized testing
  • Taking notes and regurgitating them for tests
  • Handouts that were wordy and overall bland
  • Activities that constricted student creativity and choice

I have to say that some of the aspects of school that my peers and I disliked are important and honestly just difficult to get around. Textbook readings and standardized tests all have their place in academics; however, what if a curriculum incorporated aspects of learning daily that involved one of the four themes that engage students in the classroom. Imagine if every student felt engaged in their studies and excited for what tomorrow’s lesson would bring.

I’m not guaranteeing my experiences are the key to solving this problem; in fact I don’t even know if they’d work at all. But what I do think is important is that not only teachers, but school boards, administrations, parents, TAs, and other organizations that promote student success continue to seek the most effective way to allow students to reach their fullest potential. What I have just described in this article is a large-scale issue that will most likely require a large-scale revolution in education. Until then, it is crucial that we open up a dialogue about what kinds of teaching styles and classroom environments are effective for the most amount of students.