There appears to be a consensus that today’s students are lazier than students in the past. Certainly, it may seem that there are more students who are unmotivated and less committed to learning than in the past. It’s also true that almost every generation in history has claimed that the generation coming after them is lazier than they were. Regardless, many students aren’t making the effort or showing the persistence we’d like to see from them. The question is, what can we do about it?
Let’s start with what we mean when we say “lazy.” Generally, researchers and experts describe lazy students as learners capable of learning what’s asked, but for one or more reasons don’t consistently give the effort necessary for success. However, there are many reasons why a student may demonstrate this type of behavior.
Laziness in most cases is about motivation. When a student isn’t motivated, laziness is a predictable choice. However, motivation can be complicated, and lack of motivation can be the result of many factors:
Fear of failure: “I want to avoid the pain and embarrassment of failing.”
Lack of confidence: “I don’t believe that I can do it.”
Discouragement: “My past attempts haven’t been successful.”
Overwhelmed: “I don’t know where to start. The number and scope of what must be done is too great.”
Absence of relevance: “I don’t see a connection between the task or learning and what’s important to me.”
Self-concept: “I don’t deserve to be successful.”
Hopelessness: “Why bother?”
Each of these factors and others suggest differing approaches to motivating students who appear lazy. However, we can’t know what to do unless we get to know them. Before we can intervene, we need to know what interests them, what excites them, what troubles them, and how they think about the tasks and challenges they face. One thing is certain, punishing a student for laziness almost never works. Similarly, attempting to shame a student into not being lazy more likely backfires than succeeds. The best choice is to focus on what’ll motivate the student.
Our first step in motivating this type of student is taking time to know them. Engaging them in conversation, listening carefully, and watching them are good places to start. The better we know the student and what matters to them, the better we’re able to design an approach to help them change their behavior and become more engaged and successful. In many ways, laziness involves making choices. Our goal is to create conditions that’ll lead the student to make a different, more productive set of choices they can sustain over time.
When we have information about and understand a student engaged in “lazy” behavior, we have several actions to take. However, we need to be careful and choose steps that respond to the student, not what would motivate us or other students. Here are a dozen strategies to consider:
Reassure the student of our belief in and commitment to them.
Convey appreciation and valuing of the student.
Give students responsibility and allow them to feel needed and important.
Notice and positively reinforce effort and progress.
Help students set reasonable goals, set progress markers, and take ownership of their learning.
Connect what students are asked to learn with things that are important, interesting, and meaningful to them.
Celebrate small wins.
Make frequent check-ins to understand their current mindset and to encourage their effort.
Be persistent with reminders, steps to take, and strategies to try.
Maintain high, but realistic expectations.
Encourage friendships with students who are motivated or who have struggled with and overcome motivational challenges.
Find ways to make learning enjoyable through games, activities, and challenges the student finds motivating.
Of course, some strategies will work with some students and not others. And some things we think will work won’t, so we need to adjust. Some students can tell us what’s blocking their motivation; others may be confused or oblivious to the reasons.
We need to remain curious, flexible, and creative. Above all, we must resolve never to give up on the student. Helping a student to uncover and leverage what motivates them can be their key to lifelong success.