Motivating Disengaged Learners

by Jeff of A Platform For Good

My first experience of teaching came when working as a foreign language teacher in South Korea. Very quickly, I became aware that Koreans are shy people who do not like to feel embarrassed, and many of my students would not speak in my lessons. This was a problem for me as I was teaching conversational English.

Edible Rewards

In this school, one of the most popular approaches to increase student engagement was the use of reward systems. When I first arrived I noticed that the teachers would give chocolate or sweets to children that got answers correct. It seemed to work as a way of getting the kids to answer questions and get involved with the lesson, so I tried it out.

Unfortunately, I found that this technique did not work for me. It worked okay to a point in that a lot of the students would be eager to speak if they knew they would get a sweet, but for some students they didn't really care about getting a sweet as it wasn't that valuable to them (I suppose they had received many rewards in the lessons before mine that day), so they would just talk to their friends or play on their phones. I felt like I was bribing the children to speak rather than them naturally wanting to involve themselves in the lesson, which I didn't believe was a great way to learn a language.

A Token System

Having decided that edible rewards was not a particularly effective strategy I started to think about other things I could do. Sticking with the idea of positive reinforcement through rewards I decided to implement the scheme of offering tokens in the form of dollars, which could then be traded in for items from the 'English Market' at the end of term.

The major advantage of token programs is that tokens can be exchanged for a variety of reinforcers, which avoids students tiring of a single reinforcer. On the flip side, a disadvantage of tokens is that they are vulnerable to sabotage by theft, swapping or can be lost. Another negative with them is that the actual reinforcer is delayed. The delay may render reinforcement ineffective, particularly for children with poor impulse control.

On reflection, I can see why there is a negative undertone to the studies done on this kind of reinforcement. I found that it was difficult to be consistent in deciding when to give out the tokens and how many to give. I also found that towards the end of the term some students had become disillusioned with the system because they had not collected as many dollars as their friends. This led to them “giving up” and not trying so hard in class.

Ending With A Game

Activity reinforcement was the next method that I tried. It continued to be difficult to engage a lot of students in the activities I had planned, so to encourage them to participate I would plan a 'fun' activity for the last 10 or 15 minutes of the lesson. I found this principle very effective at first as the students would work hard in the lesson because they wanted to do something they considered more fun at the end.

However, as time went on this strategy became problematic as all the students wanted to do was play a game. I started to notice that the students would just wait for the game and not interact much before that. This became a major cause of frustration for me as I felt that the lessons I was planning were only valued on how enjoyable the game at the end was.

Role-play Activities

At my school in South Korea, students were 'taught to be tested' and all that seemed to matter was the percentage score they achieved and what ranking they were in their class. As my lessons were not tested, I had to try and find other ways to motivate the students to learn.

After reading this excellent article on self-expression, I realized that one way to possibly engage my students was to allow them room to be themselves rather than just robots reciting grammar. But how could they express themselves and learn at the same time?

After giving it some thought, I concluded that if the children were motivated to do well in tests then, surely, the same would apply for learning skills that would be useful to them in life.

So, I started to develop lessons that would give the students 'real-life' practical skills, such as asking for directions, buying a bus ticket, or ordering food in a restaurant. I created scenes to depict whatever role-play we were doing and allowed the students to come up with their own dialogue using the words and phrases they had learned in previous lessons. There would always be a box of fancy dress clothes in the room for students to dress up in.

Outdoor Learning

I noticed that there was a distinct lack of outdoor learning opportunities being put forward by the school, so I suggested that I develop an outdoor learning program based around role-play activities done in English. Luckily, the school Principal was really keen on the idea and it got the green light.

The program started off just with me teaching some extra activity-based classes after school in the playground and green spaces, but grew and grew, and eventually developed into an extracurricular activity. The science department did field work on weekends at the local wetland park area and the school decided to combine the two programs, so those students that wanted to participate could learn English through science and vice-versa.

The students found value in the activities and worked together to solve problems. I found that students who did not communicate much inside the classroom were much more comfortable and engaged in this more relaxed, outdoor setting. The rewards were intrinsic as they felt pride if they could show me that they could actually speak English pretty well.

I firmly believe that outdoor learning can provide motivators that have a hugely positive impact on learning in all types of students, but especially those that could be considered disengaged within the classroom setting. In my experiences both here in the US and in South Korea, where students are spending the majority of their time indoors, I have found that just spending some time outside in nature can be hugely valuable.

Empowering The Students

Another approach to try and motivate disengaged students that I tried was that of providing choice about their activities during lesson time. In theory I can see how this would work well and, on the whole, I would say that in practice it was effective.

However, there were instances when students could not agree on who should play which role. And I wonder whether, in some cases, it was not just the 'popular' and dominant students in a group that decided on the roles rather than it being wholly autonomous.

Helping Students With Behavioural Problems

On the whole I found that disengaged students would either sit quietly and try not to be seen by me or try their hardest to disrupt the class. One thing that I tried in South Korea is the use of picture card faces (happy, sad, angry, worried etc.).

This technique proved to work really well for disengaged students with particular behavioral and emotional issues, and I have continued to use it now I am back and teaching in the US. At the start of school, I encourage these students to choose a card that best reflects their mood. They then chose a card again at lunch time, and again at home time.

I did this as a way of trying to initiate the student into thinking more closely about their mood and help make them more aware of how their mood affects them and their peers.

Though this practice has worked well for me, I can see the potential for negative responses to this strategy as some children may feel that they are being categorized as being different from the rest.


By having no tests based on my lesson and working in a rural area of South Korea where English was not commonly used, I realized quite early on that a lot of the students did not consider my class to be valuable and were disengaged in the classroom.

After trying out a number of teaching techniques to try and integrate more with the students and engage them in my lessons, I worked out that my students wanted to learn if they thought what they were learning was either useful to them or fun.

So, I developed my lessons to be almost entirely based around role-play scenarios, which the students loved and, along with the outdoor learning program, found them to be by far my biggest success in motivating those students that had previously been decidedly disengaged


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