20 Strategies for Motivating Reluctant Learners

All teachers know what a struggle it is to reach students who are disengaged or reluctant to learn. I certainly find it frustrating to have students who I know could be successful if I could just get them to really connect with their schoolwork.

Fortunately, an article on the site Mind/Shift speaks to this issue: 20 Strategies for Motivating Reluctant Learners. These strategies, tested in real-world classes by special education teacher Kathy Perez, are practical and general enough to be useful in all subjects. Here are some of my favorite strategies:

  • Don’t Be Boring
    “In our engaging classrooms, we have to have a set of procedures and routines,” Perez said. But they don’t have to be boring. She often has students come in and look at a list of adjectives on the board, many of which stretch her students’ vocabularies. She asks them to greet two other students and use one of the adjectives to describe how they are feeling today. The activity gets them up, moving and ready to learn, plus they’ve used a new vocabulary word in relation to themselves, checking in with their community along the way.

We try to follow this piece of advice in all of our SMARTS  lessons. Exciting and hands-on activities motivate students to internalize executive function strategies.


  • Props
    Perez keeps a box of props for when she’s teaching. She often throws something to a child when it’s his turn to talk so he has something to focus on. She says this works particularly well for kids with attention problems as well as for the tactile learners.


  • Set Goals
    Perez is also a proponent of both teacher and students setting personal learning goals every day that are achievable, believable and measurable. “Part of reaching that goal is publicizing that goal,” Perez said. Making goal-setting a regular and visible part of one’s teaching practice models it for students. But it’s very important to leave time for students to revisit the goal they set at the end of the day, Perez said. That opportunity to reflect will help them see and value what they did during the day, as well as where they may have fallen short of the goal.

SMARTS has lessons to help students create personalized and achievable goals. You can read more about them in the SMARTS Unit 2 Overview.


  • Continually Change the “State” of the Classroom
    Perez likes to say for every 10 minutes of content, teachers need to give students two minutes of “chew time.” Changing who is providing the information or who is doing the talking keeps students engaged and thinking.


  • Chunk Information
    Too often teachers deliver an entire lesson without letting students move or discuss once. Kids will give up if they are overloaded with facts, and chunking provides a way to pause and let students think over what they’ve learned. Also, breaks to assimilate information are crucial for mastery. “We need to be more purposeful in our delivery of information,” Perez said.


  •  Vote
    Activate students’ brains with a quick round of voting. Perez often puts three learning goals for the day up on the board and asks students to vote for the one they think is most important. All three goals are good ones and there’s no wrong answer. “The reluctant learners get to look around the room and see who else thinks just like them,” Perez said. This quick activity helps create curiosity among students about what each of them is thinking.

In SMARTS, we recommend making time for a strategy share. Each week, ask your students if they used any executive function strategies on their work. The class can vote on their favorite, and you can put winners on a strategy wall.

  • Breaks
    Short video clips can be a great brain break. A great clip can be interpreted in multiple ways. “You’re fostering divergent thinking,” Perez said.


  • Post-Its
    Post-It note discussions are a good way to get all students involved without making anyone uncomfortable by putting them on the spot. Ask an open-ended question. Students jot down their answers to the prompt on Post-Its. English Language learners or special needs students could write just one word or draw something. Then students share in pairs. Post all the responses on a graffiti board and pull out some trends.


What are some strategies that you use to engage reluctant students? Let us know in the comments!

—Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager