Student Disinterest: Who’s Responsible?

Sara Briggs wrote a piece (2/7/15) for InformED titled: 12 Myths About Student Engagement. [Find it here: ] The article does a nice job of providing background on engagement and identifying common myths about student interest:

If no one responds to your questions, no one is interested.

If their performance suffers, they aren’t interested.

Disengagement signifies disinterest.

The way the myths are written suggests students make a choice to be interested or not. The language also implies teachers have little power or influence. Let’s examine why these are myths. defines “interest” as:

  1. the feeling of a person whose attention, concern, or curiosity is particularly engaged by something
  2. something that concerns, involves, draws the attention of, or arouses the curiosity of a person
  3. power of exciting such concern, involvement, etc.; quality of being interesting

In order to be interested, something or someone must “draw attention,” “arouse curiosity,” and employ the “power of exciting such concern.” If students aren’t interested in a topic, the problem may be the topic, not the students. It may be how the topic was introduced or how questions are asked (punitive questioning, insufficient wait time). A culture of fear or lack of personal connection may inhibit responses. In a study of over 80,000 students at 110 high schools, researchers found that when asked why they were bored in class, 75% of students said because the material was not interesting and 39% said the material was not relevant to them (Yazzie-Mintz, E. 2006).

Attending to student interest isn’t about “entertaining” students as much as it’s about engaging students through teacher immediacy and employing strategies that promote connections. Schussler (2009) puts it this way: “Engagement in learning involves formulating a deeper connection between the student and the material whereby a student develops an interest in the topic or retains the learning beyond the short term” (pp.115-116).

Faculty put a lot of care and effort into lecture prepping, activity planning, assignment creation and assessment. It’s a shame when students aren’t engaged because immediacy and/or interest have been overlooked. Regardless of discipline, class size, or instructional format, immediacy behaviors can be practiced and incorporated.

Verbal immediacy behaviors:

  • Calling students by name
  • Varying tone / vocal expressiveness
  • Asking students for feedback
  • Using collective pronouns like “we” and “our”
  • Engaging in conversations with students before and after class

Non-verbal immediacy behaviors:

  • Movement around the classroom
  • Gesturing
  • Employing sufficient wait time after asking a question
  • Eye contact
  • Facial expression

In the online setting, teachers can get to know students through introductory videos and other strategies to establish connections between teacher and student, among students, and with content.  These behaviors can make a big difference in climate, how the teacher is perceived, and ultimately on learning.

Teven, J.J. & Hanson, T.L. 2004. — “Given the movement toward more accountability in higher education and a focus on improving instructional quality, college faculty would do well by developing the skills and behaviors that communicate caring and immediacy both verbally and nonverbally to increase their effectiveness in the classroom.” (p.51)

Bain, K. 2004.  — “Create an environment where students: (a) learn by confronting intriguing and important problems, engage in authentic tasks, and examine their own mental models of reality—try to force students into a significant emotional event where they disprove their own “theories-in-use” and (b) feel a sense of control over their education, work collaboratively with others, and receive feedback in advance of any summative judgment of their learning.” (p. 18)

Young, M.R. 2005. — “The results suggest that active, application-oriented experience, delivered by enthusiastic faculty members who provide high personal interaction, along with supportive feedback, clear goals and expectations emphasizing learning over grades will increase intrinsic motivation and the use of self-regulated learning strategies.” (p.36)

The literature on immediacy overwhelmingly refutes the myths identified by Briggs. Student interest isn’t just a choice. Teachers can and should do more. Immediacy is one way. What are some other ways to get and hold students’ attention?


Bain, K. 2004. What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schussler, D.L. 2009. Beyond Content: How Teachers Manage Classroom to Facilitate Intellectual Engagement for Disengaged Students, Theory into Practice, 48: 114-121.

Teven, J.J. & Hanson, T.L. 2004. The Impact of Teacher Immediacy and Perceived Caring on Teaching Competence and Trustworthiness. Communication Quarterly, 52(1): 39-53.

Yazzie-Mintz, E. 2006. Voices of students on engagement: A report on the 2006 high school survey of student engagement. Bloomington, IN: Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Young, M.R. 2005. The Motivational Effects of the Classroom Environment in Facilitating Self-Regulated Learning. Journal of Marketing Education, 27(1): 25-40.

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