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Why do Pupils Become Disengaged, and How Can You Stop It?

Adam Riches outlines four key factors why students switch off in lessons, and ways in which you can keep them engaged and enthused about learning

Adam Riches
by Adam Riches
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I suppose that the biggest challenge for any teacher is truly engaging their students.

Time after time, I’ve observed incredibly talented teachers, who know their subjects inside out, fail to help pupils progress in lessons.

Most of the time, it’s down to one key factor: engagement.

So why do pupils become disengaged? Which barriers are causing this breakdown in learning? What can we do to ensure we keep our pupils engaged?


The first and most important (in my opinion) thing to consider when we are reflecting on engagement is the pitch of the tasks in a lesson.

Too hard and you’ll lose the class because they can’t access the work; too easy and you’ll lose them to distraction.

Pitching a lesson perfectly means that you can avoid off topic behaviour that stems from disengagement.

A surefire way to create accessible tasks is to layer in levels of challenge. Extensions, knowledge boosts and challenges are all ways you can build on the main task that is set.

By offering varying degrees of differentiation, pupils are able to focus on their learning with less threat becoming disengaged.


Being able to read the class is a skill all teachers benefit from.

Being too rigid in your planning and teaching leads to a lack of responsiveness – this can be hugely demotivating for pupils, especially if the proposed course isn’t as effective as first anticipated.

Having some flexibility as a teacher allows you to respond to the pupils needs.

If the class haven’t processed a concept, it makes no sense to move onto the next step in their learning.

Taking the time to address misconceptions and having the confidence to divert form the plan if required means that you can maintain control over those who may have been lost if you’d moved on.


Frequent and useful feedback is one of the corner stones to any learner progressing. No feedback means no lessons are learnt.

If a pupil or a class does not get feedback from their teacher, they may begin to feel neglected and become complacent in their learning.

By being active with feedback in class and outside of the classroom, you are showing that you value the pupils’ effort. That can be a huge motivator for them.

I conducted some research on disengagement and the pupil perception survey showed that receiving no feedback for work completed was one of the most detrimental factors for student engagement.


Seeing the finish line in a race gives you that burst to make the final push. Education isn’t hugely different…it’s just a much longer race.

Having clear reasoning for why learning is taking place allows students to see what the reason for their time and effort being invested.

Having a good idea of the validity and context of learning allows a more focused drive.

We all know that importance of outcomes over shorter periods of time, but its also hugely important to consider the long game and how important is to make students aware of why they are learning.

Having no goal can lead to complacency and this in turn can be a factor that leads to disengagement.

Keeping a class engaged is a juggling act. Taking into account the things that disengage students, means that you are able to consider the ways in which you deliver content.

This time of year is tiring for both students and teachers, so make sure you’re not inadvertently contributing to the disengagement.

Adam Riches is a lead teacher in English, an SLE, GCSE examiner and PGCE/SCITT/GTP coach. You can find him at and follow him on Twitter at @TeachMrRiches.

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