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Reduce Student Apathy and Increase Motivation

March 15, 2017

By Tori Reany (Instructional Design & Learning Technologies)

We've all been there. You are in the front of the class teaching the day's lesson when you look out and see a student sleeping in the back row, someone working on assignments from another course, or a student pretending to pay attention while holding their phone under the desk to text. At this point, you have two options: continue with your lesson as planned or stop to evaluate how you can regain the students' attention. But let's back up a step. How did we get in this situation in the first place? Isn't it the students' job to be paying attention in class?

One of the inherent issues that can contribute to student apathy is the natural interest gap that exists between you and the students (especially in freshman-level introductory courses). You are naturally interested in your topic. That is why you studied it for years. Your students, however, are not. And since the subject matter is not, by itself, interesting to them, you must be interesting or make the topic interesting in order to keep them engaged. Share the disengagement problem with the students. Yes, the students need to do the work and put in the effort. But it should be a give-and-take, and you should also be designing the course with the students in mind.

So how can course design help increase student motivation?

Answer the "so what" question

If students see your course as just another barrier between them and their degree, they are less likely to be engaged with the material and less likely to care if they remember anything after the course is over.

  • Design an activity, paper, or project that will link the materials learned in class to something relevant in the students' lives. Do not wait until the end of the semester to give this assignment. By then, students will have already spent most of your class not understanding why they should care about the material. Give the assignment early so students can develop a connection to the material from the start. You can also use this opportunity to learn more about your students so you can adapt future lectures and activities to their interests. For example, have them write a short 1-2 page paper investigating their future career choice and how a particular topic or concept is used in that career.
  • When designing course lectures, include examples from current events. By keeping your course materials up-to-date, students can see the relevance to today's world and not just events from the past. Use examples from your personal life. Teaching about making sound financial decisions? Tell a quick story about a time you had to decide on the best loan option, or better yet, tell them about a time you made a not-so-good financial decision and what you wish you would have known before needing to make that decision.

Review important elements throughout the course

It is far too easy to design a segmented course. We've all seen a syllabus with the following type of information: Exam 1: Chapters 1-3, Exam 2: Chapters 4-6, etc. where after Exam 1, students can push the Chapters 1-3 materials out of their mind and not think about it until the topics reappear on the Final Exam. This leads to end of the semester cramming for the final exam, and is not really motivating the students to commit the materials to long-term memory. Instead of segmenting your course, review important elements throughout the semester. Tie new concepts back to previous chapters or units, and assign big picture projects or activities that students will continue to build on throughout the semester. This does not mean that you need to grade huge assignments at the end of the course. Establish checkpoints where certain aspects of the assignment are due. You can allow necessary modifications as students learn more about the concepts, but you will not be grading the entire project at the end of the semester.

Divide your classroom activities into chunks

Students can be easily bored, and quite frankly, we're not always going to be the most exciting lecturers. Help alleviate this boredom and grab the students' attention by continuously switching up the modes of instruction. This is not to say you should throw out all your lecture notes. Lecture is a necessary and integral part of the classroom. However, don't make your students just sit and listen for 50+ minutes. Build in short activities (even just 1-2 minutes) to mix things up and involve the students in the learning. Be adaptable and respond to student cues (such as blank stares, sleeping in the back, texting under the desk, etc.). These cues tell you the students are either lost or simply don't care to follow along. Either way, this disengagement is not the way to keep your students motivated. Here are some simple ideas you can use in class:

  • Ask for an example of where the students have used/seen a concept outside of class. You can ask for volunteered verbal responses or have students write down examples to pass up to the front (where you can then share with the class). You could also pair students together to share their responses.
  • Make a statement and ask students to what degree they agree with the statement - have them hold up 1-5 fingers. Ask a yes or no question and have students give a quick thumbs up or thumbs down.
  • Use an in-class polling technology such as Kahoot or Socrative to create interactive question and answer sessions.
  • Split the students into small groups for discussion and/or problem solving. Make the students get up and switch seats to form the groups. It forces them to interact with students other than those who sit directly next to them. Collect responses verbally, have them turn in written answers, or have the groups write the solutions on the board.
  • Give each student a piece of paper with a tiny slip of information and make the class arrange themselves in order (steps to a mathematical proof or scientific process, plot of a story, chronological events in history, etc.)

Let the students assess you

Consider a midcourse or 1-month evaluation to get feedback from the students on what we can do better. We often receive our evaluations after the semester has concluded, and while this can provide useful feedback for the next semester, it does not help us improve our teaching with the particular group of students providing the feedback. Each class of students can be vastly different, and it is important to take their learning preferences into consideration when teaching the course. This can be done informally and should be done anonymously so students feel more open to providing comments.

If you would like more ideas or need help designing activities for your specific courses, contact the Instructional Design & Learning Technologies Center at or fill out the consultation form:

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