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How to deal with reluctant learners

Hi, after a bit of advice. I have a couple of students who are really reluctant to learn. I’ve always been a very laid back tutor and I always try to make my lessons fun (I’m a bit quirky) but the one thing I always insist: I don’t care if you get it wrong, as long as you try. Many of my students like this approach, as some of them feel it’s very different to the pressurised environment of school. They have all made progress.

I’ve got this one student: he is rather lazy. He has the ability, I’m sure of it, but when he writes me a piece of work, it’s Year 2 standard. He’s Year 9. He constantly forgets full stops and makes basic errors. The frustrating thing is when he DOES put the effort in, he can produce beautiful writing so it makes me so mad when he produces a sub-standard piece of work that he’s rushed out in five minutes.
I’ve spoken to his mum, and we’ve talked about a reward system, but it doesn’t seem to have made any difference. I’ve tried so much to try and inspire him, but he often makes up silly excuses as to why he won’t work (‘my full stop button is broken’).

Any advice on how to really engage this kid?! I know I’m a good tutor but I’m at my wit’s end here.



The short answer is that you probably can’t. Some kids are just like that.

However, look at the pieces he produced when he did make the effort. Do they have anything in common, such as the topic or if they line up with his interests? Was there anything different about the way they were set? There will be some pattern to it, you just have to identify what it is, and then try to introduce that to other pieces that you set.

Another tactic, and one that I’ve found works sometimes, is that being a nice tutor, that doesn’t shout or get angry can be very useful and far more impactful, when you do occasionally say less than pleasant things. Next time you get a really poor piece of work from him, take one look at it and say something like, “Well, if you’re not going to make any effort to write it, I’m not going to make any effort to read it!”

It can be a risky strategy, but if you have an otherwise good relationship with him it could spur him to try harder.


I tell him I’m frustrated when he produces shoddy work.

Thanks, @RichardP!

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Yes @katywilson6 , but that’s a nice way of putting it. He needs to be shocked by how you react.

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Two things I’m sure you’ve probably tried:

Really focus on topics that interest him, talk about them, show enthusiasm before slowly moving away from them.

Maybe the reward system can involve time spent in the lesson on something he likes (for example, good effort = 10 mins)

I agree with someone else’s response, we can’t enthuse all our students (and remember a) it’s harder to get rapport online and b) all of my students are online-d out)

Good luck :hugs:


Hi @katywilson6
I’ve definitely had this experience and it can be incredibly frustrating.
I wonder how he is verbally? I have found that some of my students that put low effort into longer written answers will be quite happy and capable of answering me verbally but something is lost when I ask them to write it down.
While the lack of effort can feel disrespectful I think it usually comes from low confidence and while I’m sure that you are creating an environment where wrong answers are OK the student may not be having the same experience in school, where he is getting most of his feedback.
I’ve found some success recently, with these type of students, with breaking down writing tasks into smaller chunks as well as asking them to edit and improve other people’s writing to give them different ways to show what they’ve learned.


Do you know why/when he produces substandard work? Maybe there’s a certain time or circumstance when it’s most likely to happen.

  • Is it when he has too much other things going on, for example school work?
  • Is it when he hasn’t fully understood the question or doesn’t really know what to do with it?
  • Is it when he doesn’t enjoy the topic? (Some children I have taught literally have one interest, and anything outside of this is treated as boring - very difficult to work with.)
  • Or is he simply lazy and not motivated to learn?

I have students whose parents have very high expectations, so they are often scared to tell me when they don’t know something or don’t have the time, for fear of me telling their parents. Sometimes, there’s something going on ‘behind the scenes’ that’s impacting the child, for example a parent or school teacher who creates a negative learning environment.
That said, some children are just lazy and if he genuinely doesn’t want to learn, I’m not sure there’s much you can do about it.
Can you re-set the homework? I recently did this when a boy produced work that was clearly not his best, and when he redid the same piece for the next lesson, it was very well done.


He sounds like a student I have. I have also spoken to the parents and notice it hasn’t help.

Sadly I had to be strict it’s my last resort and honestly I explain “your parents want me to help you” and “you have to take this serious!” I had to say we can’t talk about other things if you can’t be serious in lesson time. Class time is class time no rambling.

It works and he realises enough is enough. But this does happen a lot so I end up being strict most lessons.


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Seems very typical of Y9 boys!!!
I have tried putting a competitive edge to it with friends or make analogies to his own interests.
I assume you have a good working relationship with the student so you would be aware of what he does outside his studies.
Examples that I use is perhaps make links to interests in computer gaming or their interests in sport.
I have a Year 10 student who had a reputation for being quite disruptive and when I first met him I wanted to establish a clear grounding from the beginning. He is also a bit of a social media whizz so my lessons would use him as the specialist in social media and he has responded excellently in all lessons so far. His attendance in virtual lessons is 100% as well.


I tend to lay the law down from the start as many teenage students may have disagreed with parents about having a tutor in the first place. Explain why you are working with them and make sure they know you are just as important as their regular teachers and research the same respect.

I have worked with some of the reluctant students you can and even I have not managed to engage some.

Don’t be afraid to call them out over shoddy work, I told one of mine off in front of his parents once and saw a massive improvement in quality of work.

I find the ones that don’t want a tutor leave after about 6 lessons.


I’ve taught a few like this (usually boys) and it can be for a few reasons. Sometimes it is low confidence, sometimes it due to unknown SEN needs (often linked to confidence, as they think they are bad at things but actually had ADHD or dyslexia etc) and sometimes it can be because they feel a lot of pressure they they feel they can’t live up to, so not trying is easier sometimes. I’ve only ever had 1 student that is actually just lazy (even then, maybe I missed something).
I tend to try a few different approaches. Sometimes strict works, but I have found the most effective to be focusing heavily on what they do right. Have a few lessons with only praise. They may have missed a full stop, but I ignore that and rave about the wonderful vocabulary they’ve used. After a few lessons they feel a bit more confident to try more. It can be a bit cheesy, but year 9 kids are so used to negative language it can be a bit of a boost for them.
Also, sometimes planning written tasks in lesson and having them complete the task for homework can sometimes help. Having a teacher check work as you do it can be a bit intimidating (I used to try and hide my work as a kid when the teacher walked around the room) so writing tasks in his own time and space could help?