It is beyond frustrating when students don’t pass in their work – or don’t do their work in class. First of all, they aren’t building the skills they need, and they put themselves in danger of not passing the course. And because you aren’t assessing their work, you don’t know if they are really “getting it.” But, the biggest frustration of all comes from the difficulties of chasing them and then taking in a pile of late assignments at the end of the year. So how can we circumvent this? Let me help you with 5 strategies for getting students to complete their work.
And before you begin reading, these strategies did not come from a text book or a search of the Internet; they are classroom-tested from my many years of tweaking things in my own classroom. I don’t suggest them because they are the latest idea – I’m sharing them because they really do work.
The other thing you need to know before you read on, is that I’m not going to give you strategies that “bribe” or coerce students to complete work or that penalize them when they don’t. Instead, the strategies that follow focus on setting the stage so students will want to complete their work. Read on to find out why/how – and then grab the download at the end that will have a summary and checklist for you.
1. Make the work meaningful and relevant
Have you ever been to a staff meeting or a PD session where you were super frustrated because you felt the presenter was wasting your time? This could be because the information did not relate to or help you in anyway, because it was stuff you already knew, or because they were just giving you busy work or information that could’ve been sent in an email.
In these situations, we might end up disengaging, doodling, or planning something for the next day instead of paying attention. And then we leave feeling resentful because there are so many things we could have done that would have helped us in our classroom.
It’s no different for our students. If the work we present them isn’t something they see as meaningful or relevant, we will lose some of them. And I know exactly what you are thinking – we have a curriculum we have to follow, so how can we make everything palatable to all of the diverse students in our classrooms?
One way to do this is by showing students why what you want them to do matters – beyond writing a test or completing an assignment. So, whenever we start something new, I explain to students why learning it is important. I’ll show how it links back to what we’ve already done and explain how they will use it in our classroom. More importantly, I try to make links to real life, so they see the skill as useful beyond school.
For example, when we start persuasion, I ask if they ever get in arguments or try to convince people of their point of view. Then, I ask them if they’d like to get better at getting people to really listen to them – most teens will answer yes to this, of course, and so are ready to really listen to me when I start teaching them strategies for being persuasive.
I also approach our study of literature with an inquiry approach by focusing on the things we can learn from the characters in the books. When we connect the ideas and lessons in the texts to the students’ lives, they will engage more in the work that we ask them to do. For example, instead of giving the traditional character or theme analysis essays, I combine the two by asking students to write about how a character in the text is used to teach an important lesson, one they have to apply to their own lives.
When we do research, I ask students to choose something they feel strongly about, something they’d like to change. They write from their own perspective first, then they have to find research to support their own ideas. This way, the research process has meaning and relevance.
2. Make Learning Visible
Everyone wants to feel successful. Think of the times that you may have chosen not to participate in something because you didn’t think you could do it well – karaoke, leading a presentation, doing an art project. Whatever it was, it was that old fear of failure that may have held you back.
Let’s imagine that you were taken to a golf course, handed a club, and told, “go play golf.” Some of you would know exactly what to do and excitedly get right at it. Some would have a rough idea of the game and would pick up the club and try your best. Others, would be completely lost – either because you don’t know the rules of the game, or you feel like you just don’t have the ability to do well.
For those in the second and third group I mentioned above, things would seem less mysterious if we were told that the object of the game is to get the ball in the hole – and that there’s even a little flag waving off in the distance that shows you where it goes. Those of you with a sense of adventure and willingness to try would start swinging and hope for the best. The game would get played, but it may be messy.
Now, imagine the difference if you were told not only the rules of the game, but you were given an instructor who walked you through the process. She explained the difference between an iron and a wood, a chipper and a putter. Not only that, she demonstrated how to use each one, then asked you to try. While you were swinging awkwardly with the putter, she told you to grab the wood instead, and then gave you feedback on your swing. She let you try it a few times until you got the hang of it.
This final scenario may not create the next Tiger Woods, but it will allow the novice golfer to play the game. Instead of being totally lost, he will have the confidence to make his way through the course. The instruction and feedback he received allowed him to feel like he had the power within to do it.
Conversely, if he was just handed a bag of clubs and told to play – even if he could see that tiny flag fluttering in the distance – he may feel powerless, unsure of what to do and how to do it. He may get frustrated and try to take some power back by slamming an iron on the ground and stomping away.
It’s no different in school. When we give kids a target, show them how to get there, give them time to practice, and provide feedback to help them improve, we empower them, and so they are more likely to engage and do the work we give them.
Let me step off the golf course, where I have no business being, and draw this analogy to a close. I used it to make a point. I find golf an incredibly frustrating experience, and only my good manners keep me from pounding clubs, swearing and storming away.
However, I’ve only ever played during end of the year staff parties. I know which club is which because I grew up with a golf fanatic; I also know all of the terminology and the rules of the game. But no one has ever shown me how to actually play. Therefore, I feel powerless and frustrated with a club in my hand.
You all know where I’m going with this, right? When our students come to us, some of them have mastered the game, some are cruising along, trying their best, and some are completely lost. And yet, so many times, we just tell them to ”go play” (close read this article, analyze this poem, write this essay); often, we’ll “show them the flag” with a mentor text. But we don’t always let them watch us swing. We don’t guide them all the way through the course.
When the path to learning is visible and obvious, students are much more willing to engage in the work because they can see the path to success. They know what to do and how to do it. And, when our students’ thinking and learning is visible to us, we can give them more effective feedback, the kind that helps students feel like they can be successful.
More information on visible learning:
Motivate students by making learning visible
A visible learning activity for analyzing text
3. Scaffold the skills students need for success
The best way to make learning visible is to focus on the process and to break the work into management chunks. One of the biggest reasons why students don’t complete their assignments is because they aren’t sure what to do or they get overwhelmed with all of the steps involved in completing them.
If you focus on the process of whatever you are teaching, you can try to alleviate that. Always plan your lessons so you model and scaffold the steps that lead to success. Let’s look at close reading as an example: kids don’t find literary analysis easy. So, when you start, don’t jump right into the essay. Build students up to the point where they are ready to handle it.
Start by teaching them how to close read by modelling your own process and then use gradual release of responsibility to guide them on their way to learning how to do it effectively. Let them work on a challenging passage together in partners or groups and build their confidence before you ask them to do it alone. (Get more ideas about how to do this here and here.
When you do assign an essay or a project, break it into steps and make those steps a part of your classroom activities, so you can be there to facilitate your students’ learning. In my experience, when students can clearly see their target and the path they need to take to get there, they are far more likely to come along for the ride. A perfect way to do this is with learning stations – they slow kids down and focus them on the process every time.
While scaffolding the steps students need to complete an assignment, be sure to break the steps into manageable chunks, so students can focus on a few skills at a time. Then, give them short assignments where they can demonstrate – and get feedback on – these skills.
This might seem like a grading nightmare if you are giving students more assignments to do (and didn’t you come here because your students aren’t completing work?). But here’s the thing: when your students feel like they can be successful they are more likely to do the work. When they get overwhelmed, some will shut down.
Wait a minute: shouldn’t high school students be able to focus on complex tasks? Yes, and there are many who are good at that and can dive right in without your guidance. And there are others who will successfully complete a complex task if it’s broken down into smaller ones along the way (remember my golf example?
So, in my classroom, I aways start with short assignments that allow the students to focus on a few skills at a time. They are also quick and easy for me to grade or give feedback on. Then, we build toward more complex tasks once the students are more confident in their skills. Check out how I do this with something I call Quotable Quickies
4. Turn your feedback into feed > foward
Sometimes, students don’t pass in an assignment because they fear failure. Hmmmm…. But won’t they get a failing grade if they don’t pass it in? (maybe…depends on your district). As crazy as it might seem, some students would rather take the zero than be told their work isn’t good.
So one of the best ways to get more students to pass in their work is to provide feedback that empowers them, that makes them feel like they can be successful. And a paper with a grade and lots of comments doesn’t always do that – especially if we’ve pointed out so many things that they don’t know where to start.
First of all, effective feedback doesn’t overwhelm a student with too many things. Instead, pick one or two things that they did well, and one or two things they can do to improve. And, you should always include next steps – what do they need to do to get better? Where can they go to find help? For example, I might make a comment like this: your thesis is strong but you need to lead logically into it. Check the handout on how to write an introduction.
Also, the whole point of feedback is for students to use it to do better the next time. Therefore, it only makes sense to allow them to use it. In reality, we can’t keep re-grading every assignment, but you can give students a task where they use your feedback to improve one or two things. You can read how I manage that here.
I’ve got several blog posts that can help you with giving meaningful feedback, the kind that will motivate students to complete their work:
✔️ Making feedback descriptive and meaningful
✔️ Redos: an essential part of the learning process
✔️ Encouraging reluctant writers
5. Don’t put a grade on everything
I know this will make some of you click away or scream at your screen. You came here to find out how to get students to complete their work, and I’m telling you that one way to do this is to not grade it? As IF your students will do any work that is not going to “count”
Please, just stick with me for a minute, because this could change everything.
I used to be one of those eye-rollers when people suggested this. And then I decided to give it a try. I started giving more formative feedback, the kind that doesn’t get counted in the average. This evolved into me giving just written feedback and no grade.
And my students did the work.
Why? Because, first of all. the assignments were often short, skill-building assignments (see above). Secondly, I gave them focused, clear feedback that told them how to improve, so they felt like they were getting something to help them – without the bad feelings that can come from a grade.
However, there’s a big secret to this. You have to sell it. You have to believe in it. If you go at this with the attitude that they won’t do the work, your students will see that. But, if you make it clear that it’s an expectation AND you show them how it will help them be successful when you do assignments that factor into their averages, you will get most of them on board.
My secret sauce is that I spend a lot of time in the first weeks of a semester establishing a climate and modelling my expectations. I spend more time on this than I do with curriculum – and I don’t worry about running out of time at the end. Why? Because if I can get them set up for success early on, students will get more of their work completed (Click here and here to get some of my favorite first days of school activities).
This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky, Pollyanna theory. It worked for me and I know it can work for you too. It may not work right away, but if you commit to this process, more of your students will complete their work in class and for assignments.
Let me know if you have any questions and be sure to download this PDF!
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