TPS6: How do I engage passive learners?

#6 in the Teaching Problem –> Solution Series.

The Problem:

This problem was expressed as: How do I engage students who seem passive, repeatedly say ‘I don’t know’ or are persistently reluctant to participate?

There are numerous interlinked issues here so part of the solution lies in diagnosing the specific combination of problems:

  • The student genuinely lacks the knowledge that others have and avoids this being exposed or when they say ‘I don’t know’, they literally don’t know.
  • The student has relatively low self-esteem in relation to this area of the curriculum; they are anxious about being wrong or looking foolish so even though they might know things, they project passivity as a defence
  • The student doesn’t volunteer to contribute or engage on tasks spontaneously whilst others do; lesson tasks and questioning allow them to hang back whilst others do the thinking and talking, so they take full advantage.
  • The student has formed bad habits around procrastination, and needs help getting started, breaking out of the inertia.
  • There are underlying emotional issues at play that are beyond curriculum-specific knowledge and confidence that lead to a general lack of motivation.


There are several lines of attack; for any individual it’s a case of trying lots of things. Throughout, it’s vital not to fall prey to any game-playing or drama-seeking. Keep it bright and breezy and, at all times, make it clear that every individual student is as valid as any other and also has responsibilities to themselves and the class. You’re just not going to let them opt out; you’re going to support them to participate in the learning process – because that’s the deal. Unless you fully expect and require engagement, it won’t just happen. Probably the key driver is to make it the absolute norm – harder to opt out than opt in.

Inclusive Questioning: There’s no point complaining about passive students if you are allowing them to opt out – i.e they are unwilling to volunteer or compete with others to raise a hand. Make cold calling, think pair share and show-me boards absolutely default, routine, normal, everyday – every single day. This way, every student knows they are expected to formulate and share answers one way or another. If cold calling feels hard at first, start with pair share and show-me boards and then ask students to explain their answers. If, in a pair, one student, Jenny, seems less engaged than their partner Sophie, in the discussion, make it normal to ask – ‘so, Jenny, what was Sophie saying?’

Remove the choice to opt in or out: Design routines for tasks, questions and any practice activities so that they explicitly involve everyone. Avoid question phrases like ‘who would like to…’, ‘can anyone…..’, ‘who thinks they can explain…’ because this invites a volunteer and – by default – invites opting out. Make ‘everyone’ the constant target for questions and expectations and reinforce that. For example, a good show-me board technique communicates the firm expectation ‘everyone show me your board‘. You must insist. If you don’t this degenerates into ‘if you can be bothered, show me your board if you feel like it’. By insisting, students have to actively resist not to participate; most passivity is not active resistance; it’s more often a kind of casual lethargy. Work on those routines and be insistent.

Scaffold choices and responses: Students often opt out if they’re unsure how to engage or if they feel overwhelmed by the options – the openness; the blank page. For example, children often don’t respond well to ‘what would you like for tea?’ They’re paralysed by needing to generate a response. However if you ask ‘would you like fish fingers or beans on toast?’ they have a simple scaffolded choice to make. It’s much more straightforward. This applies to all kinds of responses in class. If a student is giving you the ‘I don’t know’ fob-off, give them a simple choice: Answer A or B. True or false. Increase or decrease. Then ask them to explain why they made that choice. You can also scaffold responses – eg give three reasons, or to place three given reasons in order of importance – anything that avoids a totally open ‘what do you think?’

Make sure they have access to the knowledge needed to respond: Make sure you’re asking questions fully rooted in the work you’ve been doing so students have every chance to answer well, building confidence. Avoid the silly ‘guess what’s in my head’ blood-out-of-a-stone vaccuum…. If in doubt, just tell them! Then ask them to repeat and maybe explain. Passivity can be a habit born out of a continual lack of understanding or a feeling that it’s all beyond you… like watching University Challenge, where you don’t really expect to know the answers. Turn that around – give seemingly passive students a way back in by making your questions highly consolidatory with a degree of repetitive reinforcement.

Give value to simple rehearsal as a form of response: Often passive students simply need ultra scaffolding to engage. A good example might be around using a knowledge organiser. Before you start quizzing, asking students for facts, definitions and quotes from memory – make sure they can simply read where the information sits in the resources

eg ‘Jason, what does Macbeth say in Act 3:2 showing his state of mind …?’. Jason can simply read it off the table. It’s right there. This just helps him get into the material; a step on the path to learning it.

Or, imagine a diagram of how the ear works, all fully labelled; ‘Daisy, talk us through it then,. follow the path.. which parts does the signal pass through on the way from the air to our brain..?’. Daisy isn’t asked to guess or remember – just to practise running through the information. Again, it breaks her into the whole business of participating, thinking, being involved.

Mix up short and long tasks: Sometimes passivity emerges where tasks seem long.. some students drift or they perceive that they have ages left so don’t commit to getting started. Conversely, if tasks are always short, it can feel that, given that the teacher will explain it soon anyway, there’s not much point making the effort. So, mix this up. Shake people out of habits. Set some punchier short tasks – quick repetitions that require energy. Always deploy some kind of accountability like ‘show call’ or show-me boards, so students know their responses matter and could be selected. No opt-out option. Then, move into some longer tasks, discussing how the time might be used. Again, make it explicit that all responses will be or might be checked or shared; circulate actively. This is about making it impossible to hide.. and this means students have to be active in their resistance. If you make it easier and less awkward to engage than to opt out, more students will go with the flow and just get on with it.

Mix up pair work and individual participation: One more source of passivity lies in students piggy-backing on the work of others. To break habits here, make sure you structure tasks so that everyone always has to contribute – especially for anything they do in groups or pairs. It’s important to make everyone think and be ready to participate. However if you only every do things one on one, individually, this can be quite stressful. It’s helpful – for adult learners as well as children – to have some time in the safe space of a pair or small group to air thoughts without scrutiny. Blending these approaches is the key: time to rehearse in a pair and then expectations to respond as an individual, each student expected to explain their your own thinking.


When I’m invited to support schools and colleges with CPD around teaching and learning – or I’m simply asked to nominate my favourite high-impact strategies – these three strategies are what usually come to…

Five Ways. A series of short posts summarising some everyday classroom practices. The essence of scaffolding is that students are elevated to a level of performance and thinking that they couldn’t achieve unaided. It…

In my Learning Rainforest and Evidence-informed practice CPD sessions, a core element is a focus on the power of questioning.  In my view, good in-house CPD and feedback from lesson observation should put teachers’…

Source link