Got Lazy Students? Get Them Writing With One Simple Trick.

10 Apr
US Navy 021114-N-5862D-007 Students playing fl...

US Navy 021114-N-5862D-007 Students playing flag football (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago, I had a student who kept goofing off during writing time. He had written barely a sentence, and he kept distracting the students around him. I knew that he was clever and fully capable of doing the assignment; he was just being lazy.

My solution? I turned my back to the student and focused, instead, on a friend of his who was doing a great job. I praised her (loud enough for the disruptive student to hear) and joked with her for a minute about a funny line she had written. I smiled at her and told her to keep doing exactly what she was doing.

Then I turned back to the disruptive student. I asked to read his work and picked up the (nearly blank) sheet of paper. I smiled and raised an eyebrow: “Really? That’s all you got? You got some real catching up to do if you want to keep up with these other guys. Check out the great metaphor that Shondra just wrote.” I said. I put his paper back down on his desk and turned away to praise another successful student.

You might think that this was mean (and if you do, you probably this that this is mean, too)–but my student didn’t think so. He actually smiled, laughed, and got to work.

Thirty seconds later, he was scribbling furiously. He even asked his friend to look at her paper so that he could see what she had done and (I quote him directly here) “Do it better.” His final piece was fantastic, and he felt happy and proud at the end of class.

Competition–ranging from formal contests to informal rivalries–is an instant cure for laziness. Some teachers are hesitant to use it because they are afraid that it creates a tense or adversarial atmosphere. While I understand that concern, I believe that competition can actually create a jovial and supportive atmosphere, when used well. Kids love playing sports, even though they lose games all the time.  In the same way, students enjoy academic competitions, even if they don’t win them every time–in fact, losing just may inspire them to work harder next time.

Fair warning: this isn’t the right tactic for every student. Here are a few things to keep in mind when introducing competition into your classroom:

  • This works best for students who are confident, resilient, and have a good sense of humor (and with whom you have a good relationship). If you don’t don’t get along well with a student, or if they take offense easily, then they might feel attacked rather than encouraged.
  • The younger a student is, the more likely it is that competition will light a fire under them. It’s a surefire technique up until around 8th grade. Unfortunately, high school students are more likely to try to “logic” themselves out of working by saying things like, “I don’t care if Stacy’s poem is better than mine. I’m not going to be a writer anyway.” Making high school students compete in teams is often more effective because energetic students are likely to inspire their lazier teammates to work harder.
  • Make sure that you only challenge students who have the capacity to do much better than they are currently doing. If a student is obviously trying their hardest but still failing, it is cruel to compare them to their classmates. The best way to help a student like that is to praise them for their hard work and offer them assistance. If, however, students are not trying at all–or doing only the bare minimum when you know that they can do much more–they are fair game for a little friendly competition.
  • Don’t use this tactic on students who suffer from anxiety, social problems, or a serious lack of confidence. This kind of direct confrontation can be harmful to students who already suffer from social anxiety.

Do you use competition in your classroom? What works best for you? Let me know in the comments section!


8 Responses to “Got Lazy Students? Get Them Writing With One Simple Trick.”

  1. alundeberg April 10, 2012 at 7:29 pm #

    Positive comments and attention are always the way to go! Sometimes I just thank the ones who are on task, and the one who aren’t get the picture pretty quickly.

    • thatwritinglady April 10, 2012 at 7:42 pm #

      I totally agree–praise is such an important tool! Sometimes, praise alone is enough. Even when you’re offering criticism or pushing students to work harder, it’s important to do so with respect and affection. (The student that I’m talking about here had a good rapport with me, and he grinned and laughed when I pointed out that he hadn’t written anything; it was clear to him that my skepticism came from high expectations and respect for his talent, not from a dismissive attitude.)

  2. IntownWriter April 10, 2012 at 9:17 pm #

    Clearly, you also realize that disruption/non-cooperation is a way to get attention, and you are very wise to give positive – and gently teasing – attention, rather than negative. Often people/students looking for acknowledgement will settle for either, as long as the focus is on them. Your approach is so much healthier for the student, and more productive for him, the class as a whole, and you as a teacher. Excellent insight; brilliant work; terrific piece.

  3. Dan April 11, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    Sounds like you read that student well, but your comments on the limitations of competition are equally important. Students who might be motivated in other ways can shut down when the assignment is reduced to a race.

    • thatwritinglady April 11, 2012 at 10:28 am #

      Thanks for reading! You’re definitely right (and not only does the effectiveness of competition vary from student to student, but also from subject to subject, and from day to day. I remember that I used to love writing competitions, for example, but any math competition made me anxious.)

  4. Flem Snopes April 12, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

    I’ve seen this work in a college context, such as a Daily Themes course where students compete to have their themes read aloud to the class — only a few of the best get selected so there is never any implication of failure or of poor work if yours isn’t picked. In other words, people compete to be a winner but nobody is perceived as a loser.


  1. Want Your Students to Write More? Let Them Write Less. | That Writing Lady - April 13, 2012

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