Picture this: you’ve planned out the perfect unit, and today is when students really need to buckle down and get down to work. You disseminate the assignment, give the students directions, and send them off to learning land.
While 30 sets of heads hover over their worksheet, you notice one looking out the window. Another slouched in their seat with their head cocked to the side, just inviting you to notice. Still another simply stares blankly at the page.
After reasoning, reprimanding, and maybe even removing the student, you throw your hands in the air wondering why some of your students won’t do their assignment.
I’d wager a guess that just about EVERY TEACHER has experienced this at some point in their career – and most likely multiple times. Whether you’re just starting your school year or months deep into it, here are seven cold hard truths that you need to know about why this is happening, and how you can address them.
1. Your students don’t understand the material
Perhaps your student is below grade level, or they never mastered the prerequisite material. Either way, they don’t have the background knowledge or schema to complete your assignment.
In order to protect themselves and their self-esteem, they choose to avoidance rather than admit that they can’t do it.
Hopefully by now you’ve collected enough data to know the skill levels of your students. Pull your struggling students aside and give a review of the skills required to complete the assignment. Have them “teach” each other what they’re supposed to do to complete the assignment. Remind them of which previous activities they completed to prepare for this work.
2. Your assignment seems too hard or requires too much work
This is an issue with some of my students with IEPs. When presented with a larger task such as an essay, they become overwhelmed and can’t see themselves getting through it. Even after practicing it in class, they don’t even know where to start and freeze up!
If students perceive that they’ll never finish it or won’t pass, many won’t even attempt it.
First, break down the assignment into finite sections, and put it in writing. Anticipate problems that may arise, and incorporate helpful tips or reminders into the assignment sheet.
Next, offer graphic organizers for students that struggle with larger assignments. If students can achieve small wins early on, they’ll be able to envision themselves completing the assignment.
Finally, allow students to start the assignment in class. This will allow you to answer any questions or clear up misconceptions that may stymie their progress further on.
3. The work is boring or rote
Filling out a worksheet where they complete a Cloze activity with a textbook (where a passage from a text contains blanks where words are deliberately omitted) will not engage a student. If it’s perceived as busy work, they won’t want to do it.
If the assignment involves rote memorization with flashcards or drills, they might resist.
While there are times when memorizing definitions is important, there are other activites such as Frayer Models that involve more rigor and engagement. You can also increase the relevance of the assignment by incorporating relatable or high-interest topics. Finally, transforming it into a cooperative learning assignment will help keep your students engaged.
4. Your student doesn’t see the point of the work
I will be the first to admit that I’ve given assignments that, at first glance, seemed like perfectly good worksheets. However, after adminstering the assignment and seeing the results, I realized that it had no educational value at all. Guess what? Your students know when that’s happening too!
If you assign the ten questions at the end of a chapter for homework, but never bother to correct or check it, students will deem your assignments as irrelevant.
While you see the bigger picture of your assignments, if you don’t communicate their relevance during the unit, your students most likely will not. They don’t understand how the skill they’re learning now builds towards future skills. Therefore, it is key to show them the big picture in order for them to understand the progression of the lesson. Additionally, creating a real-world application of the skills will help them to see “the point” of what you’re teaching.
5. They would only do it to save their grade, but they’re failing anyway.
The fear of a bad grade and the ensuing consequences, such as mandatory tutoring and credit recovery, will only motivate someone who cares about grades. For failing students, Fear Of Being Hassled may be their only motivator to do any work – but only up to a point.
If a student knows they’re going to fail no matter what, they see no reason to do any work at all (see Reason #4).
While this may be an unpopular solution, you may have to put in extra work to catch this student up. They’ve obviously dug themselves into a ditch that they can’t climb out of. Imagine them sitting at the bottom, with their arms crossed and pouting. As you stand at the edge of the opening, do you shake your finger at them and say, That’s what you get!, or do you reach down, pull them out, and help them dust off?
6. Your student believes they’re incapable of doing the assignment
It breaks my heart when a student truly believes they’re stupid, be it from past failures in school, being bullied, or emotionally abused. They may show defiance due to embarrassment, showboat to deflect attention away, or just shut down completely. Their negative self-talk and resistance to do the work may be an issue larger than you and the walls of your classroom.
If a student has spent a their entire school career failing, it will take more to get them to take risks and try again.
Integrate small wins along the way so that the student can feel as if he or she is making progress. Similar to the solution in #2, break the assignment down into manageable pieces. Additonally, you can mark the examples or parts of the assignment that are easiest and have them start there first. Either way, constant praise and encouragement is necessary to bring this student up.
7. The student doesn’t like you and won’t do anything for you
Students don’t HAVE to like you, but if they loathe you, good luck getting any work out of them. For whatever reason, if they didn’t hit it off with you, they’ll become a disturbance throughout class. These students may answer sarcastically, cough, sneeze, or yawn louder than normal, or are just defiant in general.
If you’re not aware of it, this could become a vicious cycle, because you, in turn, are negative toward those students, which blocks any possible relationship with them.
In Robert Marzano’s and Debra Pickering’s book, The Highly Engaged Classroom*, the authors delineate how “teacher support was consistently the strongest predictor of motivation among students in sixth through eighth grades” (p. 6).
We can’t ignore the fact that it’s more difficult to be motivated to work for someone we dislike, and even moreso if we perceive that they feel the same about us.
I admit that it’s IMMENSELY difficult to be nice to someone who is actively trying to make today the worst day of your life. Someone who wants every day to be your Monday.
However, regardless of their age, students have less agency and may not feel that they are capable of repairing the damage. It’s up to teachers to be the adults – literally and figuratively – and take the first, second, and as many steps as possible to bridge the gap.
I think you’re awesome.
The nature of this post leans towards the negative, so it may feel like I’m attacking you. I’m not.
Rather, I wanted to illuminate the underlying issues that may cause your students to not do their assignments. This post isn’t meant to offer excuses for them – it’s meant to help you understand realities that they may be facing.
Whether or not you’ve gathered the data on your students, I encourage you to take the time to at least research these difficult students. Find out their stories and what may be motivating them to act out. Be their first line of defense when others may have given up on them. Who knows – you may save a life in the process.
* I get a teeny tiny commission for purchases made through this link.