Student Disinterest: Who is Responsible?

Sara Briggs wrote a piece (2/7/15) for informED titled: 12 Myths About Student Engagement. The article does a nice job of providing background on engagement and identifying common myths about it. Last week I discussed #1: Engagement in Schooling v. Engagement in Learning. This post considers #’s 7, 9 & 10 dealing with student interest.  [Find the article here: ]

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

9. If their performance suffers, they aren’t interested.

10. Disengagement signifies disinterest.

The way the myths are written, and I believe Briggs was intentional about this, suggests students make a choice to be interested or not. The language also implies teachers have little power or responsibility regarding student interest. The statements are myths because student interest isn’t necessarily a choice. 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

Thus in order to be interested, something or someone must “draw attention,” “arouse curiosity,” and employ the “power of exciting such concern, involvement” in order to create interest. The myths are myths because blaming students for disinterest lays the responsibility solely at the feet of students.

If students aren’t interested in a question, the problem may be the question, not the students. It may be how the question was asked (punitive questioning, insufficient wait time). Students may not know the answer but want to find out. A culture of fear may inhibit student responses. If #9 is reordered and slightly reworded it becomes a statement supported by the literature: If students aren’t interested, their performance suffers. And #10 should be similarly edited: Disinterest and disengagement are positively correlated.

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).  Faculty often shrug off statistics like this by laying the responsibility (blame?) on students. This may be an unpopular position, but I believe teacher behaviors often squelch interest under the guise of “rigor.”



Jokes and impersonations aside, attending to student interest isn’t about “entertaining” students as much as it’s about engaging students through teacher immediacy and employing instructional strategies that promote interest. Schussler 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” (Schussler, 2009, pp.115-116).

Faculty put a lot of care and effort into lecture prepping, activity planning, creating and assessing assignments. It’s a shame when students aren’t interested in the fruits of those efforts because immediacy and strategies to promote interest have been overlooked. Immediacy behaviors are skills which can be developed,  practiced and incorporated in teaching across disciplines.

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

These behaviors can make a big difference in classroom climate, how the teacher is perceived and ultimately on learning. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here are three excerpts, from the vast literature on immediacy, highlighting its role in engagement, interest and 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 immediacy literature overwhelmingly supports Briggs’ characterizations of #7, 9 & 10 as myths. Student interest isn’t a choice.  Students don’t arrive to our classrooms thinking, “I’m going to be disinterested today.” Teachers can do more to promote student interest, and teacher immediacy is one way to foster it.


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.


About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on June 29, 2015, in Learning, Students, Teaching and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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