Finding the Root Cause of Student Apathy


Jeff Sanders and Rachel Ticktin


Apathy in High School Students: An Examination Into Causes and A Suggested Plan for Change


            It is disheartening to realize that a casual look into the typical American high school classroom typically yields a view of students who are unmotivated and generally lack energy and interest to learn.  According to the famous 1983 study “A Nation at Risk,” education to American students typically “means doing the minimum work necessary for the moment, then coasting through life on what may have been learned in the first quarter.” (12) While educational theorists cite numerous problems in today’s high schools, none present a greater teaching challenge than student apathy.  More funding, better textbooks, smaller class sizes, or any other school improvement will have little to no positive effect on schools if students outright do not want to learn;  the task of educating a truly apathetic student is nearly impossible regardless of other circumstances.  Without conducting a formulaic inquiry into the causes of apathy and developing a plan for change, it is almost assured that student apathy will continue to occur in high schools in the United States.  With such a plan, student apathy can be significantly reduced with current resources.

            To determine overall levels of student apathy, we conducted a survey of 95 high school students with the questions, “how motivated do you typically feel in class” and “what is your primary motivation to come to class?”  The second question was particularly important to include because as psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s Cognitive Evaluation Theory shows, students may say that they are motivated in school, but that motivation may stem from external sources such as a desire to avoid punishment rather than a real desire to learn. (1) In the absence of extrinsic motivators, studies show that these students are as or even more apathetic than other unmotivated students. (2) The results we received from our survey provide ample evidence that the majority of high school students are unmotivated and that those students that do show positive work efforts in school exhibit them for reasons other than a real desire to learn.  Sixty percent of students in the poll stated that they were motivated half the time or less, and only two percent of the polling sample indicated that they were motivated nearly all the time in school.  Furthermore, the primary motivator of the sample was grades or college acceptance (50% response rate), as opposed to only 14% that cited gaining an understanding of content knowledge or learning about subject material.

            It becomes fairly obvious that teaching a body of this type of students presents innumerable challenges, ranging from likely teacher burnout due to frustration to frequent student discipline problems.  Unfortunately, the traditional response of many and perhaps most American schools is to deal with each of these problems individually rather than dealing student apathy directly.  This is an archaic solution that has not and will continue not to work in schools in the United States.  As John McWhorter shows in his provocative book Losing the Race, students who love learning solely for its’ own sake can triumph over nearly any other adversity they face in school, and the exact opposite is typically true of apathetic students no matter how much help they receive.

            To understand why high school students feel apathetic in school, our survey asked our sample to rank ten suspected causes in order between those that most often caused them to feel bored to those that did so the least or did not cause apathy.  We felt that a ranking system was most appropriate to use because it would force the sample to make difficult judgments about what truly caused them to be apathetic as opposed to causing them only minor annoyances. We constructed a Pareto chart (see attached) to indicate the highest frequency of apathy-inducing situations.  Of the ten possible responses, the students in the survey indicated that the answer choice “assignments/content was irrelevant or meaningless” was most likely to make them feel apathetic.  We feel that the average ranking of 5.5 out of 10 for this response is highly significant because all other responses ranked as a 5.1 or below.  While as a whole the sample felt conflicted or non-apathetic about all other responses, irrelevance of assignments was the only response that was rated significantly above the statistical average response of 5. Thus, our survey indicates that while many different problems may cause apathy to different individuals, the only problem that did so for the whole was irrelevance of content and assignments. 

            It is impossible for all but the smallest of schools to deal with individual student problems systematically.  Luckily, our data results indicate that irrelevance of content or assignments has a significant detrimental effect on a substantial majority of students, and thus finding the causes to and developing a solution for this problem will likely remedy a large portion of student apathy.  To help find the root cause of irrelevance of assignments, we utilized a fishbone diagram tool (see attached).  We found five major potential causes of irrelevance, including teacher incompetence (the teacher does not know what are or how to make relevant assignments); a lack of connection made between lessons and assignments (the students have not been told what the relevance of the assignment is); poor curricula (teaching irrelevant material or content is mandated); teachers being overwhelmed (teachers do not have the time or resources to make relevant assignments); and a need for quantification or ease of grading of assignments (relevant assignments are often subjective such as essays or journals and thus cannot be given because they are too difficult to grade). 

After designating each of these five causes, we listed prominent examples or forms that each take.   Each example was ranked as to its likelihood of causing irrelevant assignments on an A, B, or C scale with A meaning most likely to cause and C meaning least.  Only three examples received an “A” ranking.  Under teacher incompetence, we felt that “poor teacher training” and “best and brightest not in the field” were most likely to cause irrelevant assignments.  Creating assignments and teaching content that have true value to students’ lives is an extremely challenging task, requiring high levels of creativity, a thorough understanding of content knowledge, and significant consideration of student development and psychology.  We feel that both “nature” and “nurture” aspects are requirements for teachers to be able to develop and utilize these skills.  Intelligent and creative teachers with poor training as well as hard-working but unintelligent teachers will both be unlikely to create relevant assignments even if they recognize that this is a necessity. 

In addition, under the cause “no connection made between lesson and assignments, ” we gave an A ranking to “teacher does not know” the connection.  It is important to clarify that content or assignments themselves generally cannot be placed onto a continuum between relevant and irrelevant.  A key factor determining student perception of the relevancy of an assignment is how well teachers present the importance of that content.  For example, a social studies lesson on the Holocaust will likely be seen as irrelevant to students if they are not presented with evidence of the possibility of similar events happening today and exactly the opposite if such a connection is made.  Apathetic students often greet material with the question, “why do we have to learn this?”  If teachers do not answer these questions with a legitimate, cognitively challenging response, students are apt to feel that the assignments they are given are for busywork rather than for valuable learning.  Similar to the difficulty teachers face in making relevant assignments, knowing the connections between lessons and assignments is a challenging task.  Even if they wanted to explain the connection to their students, we feel that many high school teachers cannot because they struggle to find them in their own studies.

Of the three “A” ranked examples, we selected “teacher does not know connection between lesson and assignment” as both the most powerful and easily solvable cause of irrelevant assignments.  To find the root cause of this problem, we utilized a “5-Whys” tool (see attached). We believe that teachers most often do not know the connections between the lessons they teach and the assignments they give because they are unskilled at making effective and efficient lessons.  In their planning and research, teachers may make any number of detrimental mistakes such as overemphasizing fact-based knowledge or de-emphasizing the importance of content to focus on a fun classroom environment instead.  While it is easy to understand how these mistakes will affect student learning, what is often overlooked is that they will also have a dramatic effect on teachers’ understanding as well.  We feel that more often than not teachers give assignments not because they see the importance, relevance, or connections of that work to their students, but rather simply because it is their job to do.  

On the next step of the 5-Whys tool, we think that the primary reason why teachers do not know how to make good lessons is because they lack the cognitive skills to do so.  While this investigation has portrayed many negative views of teachers and teaching, we feel that most teachers care about their discipline, have good work ethics, and are motivated to be effective at their jobs.  The reason teachers do not make good lessons is not because they do not try but rather that they cannot succeed in making them when they do try.  Most teachers lack the evaluative or meta-cognitive skills to criticize their own ideas, making the process of effective lesson plan creation more contingent upon luck than slow and formulaic refinement.

Unfortunately, we believe that the principal reason why teachers lack the cognitive abilities to make good lessons is because they were selected from a mediocre applicant pool.  The high level of cognitive ability demanded of secondary education teachers far exceeds the profession’s “pull” for candidates who possess these skills.  Truly qualified potential teachers are typically drawn into other fields for varying reasons such as better pay and the numerous barriers that block an applicant from obtaining certification.  As opposed to the model often used by effective businesses, teachers are frequently picked from who is left rather than who is best.  It is important to note that this observation is not a slander on the educational system but rather a practical reality.  Barring dramatic changes in social values toward education, teacher training programs will probably never draw as many intelligent applicants as other professional training programs simply because of the nature of pubic education.

To develop successful countermeasures to student apathy created by a lack of connection made by teachers between lessons and assignments, it is essential to understand the practical limitations on public high schools.  To create and evaluate the feasibility and effectiveness of suggestions to help counteract this problem, we used a countermeasures matrix tool (see attached).  Using the method, we listed three potential countermeasures to the problem “teachers selected from mediocre applicant pool,” which include “raise standards for becoming a teacher,” “increase teacher salaries to attract better applicants” and “better teacher training.”

After suggesting general countermeasures, we listed likely forms each would take and evaluated each measure’s effectiveness and feasibility on a five point scale with a score of one being least effective and five being highest.  The effectiveness and feasibility scores were then multiplied for each countermeasure to determine which one would be most efficient in deterring student apathy.  Under “raise standards for becoming a teacher,” we listed measures including requiring higher grade point averages (GPA), more thorough testing of potential applicants’ writing abilities, and the establishment of more thorough content-specific testing as a basis for teachers’ acceptance into education programs and actual employment in high schools.  Under “increase salaries to attract better applicants,” we suggested communities raise taxes and find sources of alternate funding such as from private corporations for in exchange for advertising in schools.  Finally, included in “better teacher training” is a call to end “grade inflation” or the practice of freely giving out A’s in education programs, a shift towards more real classroom experience in these programs, and a suggestion to select better performing or more qualified candidates as cooperating teachers for student teachers’ internship experiences.

We feel that raising the standards to become a teacher would be highly effective (score = 4) but impractical (score = 2).  As noted above, schools of education do not have the luxury of hand selecting the best applicants in their content fields due to a variety of constraints including potential salaries and certification requirements.  Teachers are currently at an extreme shortage in some areas, and raising the standards for admittance or employment would only exacerbate those shortages.  We feel that the potential solution of increasing the salaries of teachers to attract better applicants would similarly be effective (score = 5) but be almost completely unfeasible (score = 1).  While creative paths for funding public education for high schools do exist, the majority of districts will always have to rely upon tax revenues to pay their teachers.  The tax burden that the public would have to incur to draw large numbers of more qualified applicants into teaching would be crippling to all but the richest of districts.  We feel that the countermeasure calling for better teacher training is the only solution that is both very effective (score = 4) and feasible (score = 4).  Better teacher training would provide even mediocre teachers with basic skills to make the connections between their lessons and their assignments and to understand that this, rather than outright laziness, is the cause of their student’s apathy in class.  Schools can achieve our prescriptions for ending grade inflation and ensuring cooperating teacher quality could largely by shifting current resources rather than placing impossible strains on the system.  

Once we found the best possible countermeasure to student apathy caused by irrelevant assignments and mediocre teachers, we utilized an action plan tool to designate how education schools can actually improve their teacher models.  We suggest that the countermeasure has three fundamental components.  First, education schools and high schools should select the best possible practicing teachers as co-ops for student internships.  The idea that students can “learn what not to do” from poorly performing cooperating teachers should be thrown out.  College supervisors, in collaboration with the heads of high school content departments and the college internship professor should evaluate their teachers in an ongoing process and only select the best teachers as candidates.  The final decisions of which high school teacher gets the job should be made near the end of the school year between March and June. 

Second, cooperating teachers should be given significant training and have substantially more communication with the college education program.  In current practice, cooperating teachers rarely coordinate their ideas to coincide with those taught to the student teacher in education school.  This can and does create confusion to student teachers who are being taught drastically different ideas between theory and practice.  Furthermore, outside of directly supervised lessons, education professors have little idea how their student teachers are developing in the classroom.  We suggest that being an effective cooperating teacher is a very challenging task and the current strategy used by schools of education is to simply unload the responsibility to them.  Instead, education schools should professionally train cooperating teachers on the psychology of student teaching in formal classes between July and August when high school is out.

Finally, education schools must give highly performing high school teachers more incentive to take positions as cooperating teachers.  In the current state of affairs, cooperating teachers receive little money or recognition for taking student interns.  While it is currently possible that high school teachers will volunteer to be co-ops because of altruism, more often than not their primary motivation is to avoid teaching lessons.  We also assert that truly effective and motivated high school teachers will be unlikely to volunteer for the position because of the effect of pulling them away from their jobs that they feel passionate about.  To help counter these two phenomenon, colleges must increase the stipend cooperating teachers receive in addition to selecting only the best candidates.  This action may also have the additional benefit of motivating poorly performing high school teachers to desire to do better for financial reasons.

Our study on student apathy taught us several things.  The pervasiveness of apathy among students, including those that get high grades, is severe.  Student apathy may be the root cause of many other problems that do not seem connected on the surface. If schools focused their resources on solving student apathy as opposed to other problems, the quality of education in those institutions would raise dramatically.  In addition, implementing effective solutions to student apathy would have significant other benefits to individuals and society.  By ending student apathy, the nightmarish, “Wall” model that Pink Floyd use to describe their experience with education would most likely be erased, and the prominent strain of anti-intellectualism evident in the United States would be significantly reduced.  Finally, we learned that American students do generally have an intrinsic desire to learn, but that learning has to be for a legitimate, valuable reason that is relevant to their lives.  We cannot expect students to be energetic and cheery when they are forced to learn unimportant and practically useless information.  

Overall, we feel that our methods and inquiry were legitimate and we would utilize the same processes again rather than revise them if given a chance.  On a particularly interesting and ironic note however was our observation that the students in our sample were often so apathetic that we had to motivate them to accurately fill out the survey itself.  We feel that students in the United States have been given so much busywork throughout the course of their educational careers that they come to expect it like a learned reflex rather than to evaluate each assignment fairly before they make up their minds.  This observation further assured us that our conclusion that teachers must learn how to discover and explain the relevance of the assignments they give to their students is accurate.

Works Cited


Deci, Edward, et al.  “Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education:                          Reconsidered Once Again.”  Review of Educational Research: Spring 2001,              Vol.71 No.1, pp 1-27.

Mcwhorter, John H.  Losing the Race.  New York:  The Free Press, 2000.