Unmotivated students: build your capacity as a teacher

June 12, 2019

As mid-year approaches and reports are prepared, the issue of how to better assist disengaged and unmotivated students often comes to the forefront.

Unmotivated children tend to opt out, do the bare minimum required and can be difficult to teach. They may be unwilling to participate in discussions, frequently look bored, tune out, distract others, give up easily on tasks, talk out of turn, arrive late, disrupt the flow of classes and have poor attendance.

Disengaged and unmotivated students

Up to 20 per cent of students in any year are described as disengaged.[1] Many fall behind academically and do not catch up in later years.[2] There are many reasons why students may be disengaged or lack motivation, for example to mask learning difficulties or giftedness in an attempt to fit in with peers, changes in family structure, friendship difficulties, bullying or lack of connection with a teacher.

Teachers frequently attribute unproductive classroom behaviour to the student and non-school related factors (home life, socio-economic, cultural, religious, health, trauma or personal relationships). Issues around such factors can be difficult to alleviate. While they undoubtedly influence levels of motivation, they are only one of many impacts upon student engagement.

Disengaged students are not necessarily unmotivated in all subjects. They may be disengaged in one particular class or across several subjects. In other subjects they may be alert and engaged, particularly if topics interest them, have a practical focus, are well resourced or taught by teachers they like. In these cases, they may persist with tasks, engage in class discussions and be active class members.

School-related factors can be overlooked; however, and often contribute to disengaged behaviours.[3]  Considering whether school-related factors[4] are impacting on motivation can empower teachers to make evidence-based changes to their practice and resources.

Teacher effectiveness is one key determinant of student success

The Western Australian Department of Education document on Effective Teaching[5] is concise and helpful. It highlights eight fundamentals to strive for to help ensure every student is well taught. In summary these are:

  • Building positive relationships
  • Proving a safe environment
  • Having high expectations
  • Acknowledging individual difference
  • Using a range of pedagogies
  • Encouraging student responsibility
  • Having mastery of their teaching content
  • Monitoring progress and providing feedback.

Build your capacity as a teacher

In the Psych4Schools ebooklet, ‘Working with children who are disengaged and unmotivated in the classroom’  we suggest ways that teachers can build their capacity as a teacher, for example:

  • Seek feedback from colleagues, students and parents to discover your strengths. Consider how you can use these strengths to further enhance your teaching. Continue to improve your professional capacity by incorporating classroom activities that build on your strengths.
  • Be mindful that most teachers talk in class more than they realise, and often don’t listen to students.[6] That is, they talk at students and don’t truly engage with them. To evaluate how much you talk, the effectiveness of your teacher talk, and to gain evidence-based feedback, use the free Visible Classroom app.
  • Give each child a voice. Everyone likes to feel they are listened to.
  • Think critically about the way you teach. Diversify if necessary. Is your classroom dynamic? Are students actively and authentically engaged in learning? If your teaching style predominantly involves passive learning, students completing workbook activities, and memorisation of facts, consider implementing a Flipped classroom  (now including Blended learning and active learning), that incorporate hands-on learning with interactive online tasks, self-directed and peer-led learning tasks or collaborative learning to help increase engagement.
  • Be enthusiastic. Love what you do. Genuine enthusiasm is contagious. Incorporate things you love into your teaching (e.g. movies, music, technology, painting, football). Read Musical motivation to see how one teacher incorporated his love of music into secondary science classes.

For further information about understanding disengaged and unmotivated students and practical strategies to assist read our ebooklet, ‘Working with children who are disengaged and unmotivated in the classroom’. This resource is available free to download for all Psych4Schools members or for individual sale in our shop.

Not a member? Click here to join now.

Murray Evely

Psych4Schools Psychologist and Guidance Officer



[1]Angus, M., McDonald, T., Ormond, C., Rybarcyk, R., Taylor, A., & Winterton, A. (2009). Trajectories of classroom behaviour and academic progress: A study of student engagement with learning.Mount Lawley. Western Australia: Edith Cowan University. Australian Education Union. (2008). New Educators Survey 2008. Results and Report.


[3]Maguire, M., Ball, S., & Braun, A. (2010). ‘Behaviour, classroom management and student control: enacting policy in the English secondary school’. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 20(2), 153 – 170.

[4]Sullivan, A., Johnson, B., Conway, R., Owens, L., and Taddeo, C. (2014). ‘Punish Them or Engage Them? Teachers’ views of unproductive student behaviours in the classroom’. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(6). doi: 10.14221/ajte.2014v39n6.6

[5]Department of Education and Training, The Government of Western Australia, Effective Teaching (n.d) Sourced June 2019

[6]Hattie, J. (2014). ‘Teachers must see their impact to believe it’. TES Opinion