“How do I get students to complete their work?” This question has been asked by countless teachers over the years. Yet actually getting students to complete work is something that many of us have – or will have – to experience at some point in our teaching career. Today I want to share practical tips and ideas to help you out!
First I think it’s important to recognize why the student may not be completing their work. Is it too hard? Is it too long? Do they struggle academically? Is the work boring? Or are they simply refusing to do it? (I wrote an entire post on motivating reluctant students. You can read that here.)
The Work is Too Hard
If the work is too hard, let’s look at ways to help students complete the task.
- Talk to them. Let them know you’re there to help. Tell them you expect the work to get done, but that they need to put in the effort needed. You may find out that your student can’t get homework done because they are watching their siblings all night, working long hours to help put food on the table, or that they failed the last grade and got pushed through – therefore not understanding the material at all.
- Change your teaching. If your students aren’t understanding the work, try teaching it in a different way. Build on what the student does know. Make it relevant. Make the steps more clear. See if you can find a way to help them be more successful.
- Enlist help. If finishing work is a constant problem, seek help from other educators in your school (or online, in a group like this one). Chances are another educator has gone through a similar situation and they’ll be able to offer help. Or your school might even have a specialist or process for determining if this student needs more specific services, like special education, RTI, or Title.
The Work is Too Long
Sometimes a student is going to think the work takes too long. You may want to consider shortening the assignment. Do they really need to solve 20 math problems, or would solving five show understanding and mastery of the content? Or perhaps they can answer one of the essay questions instead of two. However, I realize there are times where simply shortening the assignment is not enough. That’s where these steps may prove helpful:
- Chunk the assignment. Rather than giving a student 20 math problems to complete, give them five. When they have finished those five, give them five more. Continue until all 20 are done. As an adult I often put off overwhelming tasks, so I totally understand why a student might do this as well.
- Make modifications. Sometimes we can alter an assignment in such a way that it becomes more manageable, and therefore more likely to be completed. Maybe you can cut out one of those multiple choice options. Or perhaps you can have the
The Work is Boring
Let’s face it – sometimes school can be boring. You can relate as a teacher, right? Did you really enjoy that last inservice? We may not be able to make every lesson fun and engaging, but if we can do it several times a day our students are more likely to buy in and work hard on those less fun activities and lessons. I always told my students that if they worked hard on every assignment, we would also play hard. This might mean making games a part of our classroom routine, getting to do work with a friend (because almost everyone loves that!), or simply taking a few minutes out of the day for a brain break. Regardless, you want students to be engaged. Engaged students tend to be happy students, and happy students tend to get their work done.
The Student Refuses to Complete Work
So if you’ve read the three points above and you’re saying, “But Heather, I do all that, and they’re still not doing their work!” I can relate! So let’s look at some steps you can take to get students to actually complete their work.
- Talk to the student. I don’t care what age the student is, just simply by talking to them you may be able to turn their attitude around. This is where it’s key to build relationships with students. You don’t want this conversation to come across as gruff and a threat, but as an empathetic one where you’re on the same team. The student’s job is to be in school and learn each day. Your job is to facilitate that learning. See if you can get on the same page. (This post has a great example of how to talk to students in a non-threatening manner.)
- Enlist help. Call the child’s parents or guardians. Let them know what’s going on. Talk to his administrator or literacy or math coach. Gather a team of people. If there’s one adult in the school the child relates well with (even if it’s a lunch lady or custodian), ask that person to check in with the kid at least once a week. Just having a positive adult in their life show they care may be enough to get some students to turn it around.
- Be consistent. Getting students to complete their work is sometimes the fault of the teacher. You must have consistent rules, expectations, and procedures in place for getting work in. If you require it be in by the start of class one day and then allow it to be in by the end of class the next time, you’re sending mixed messages to students. Decide what you’re going to do and stick to it! Life is hard enough without having to guess whether the rules are the same day to day. I’ve heard many teachers say they are consistent, but then when they actually reflect on their practices – they’re not. Make sure you are.
- Enforce consequences. Now that you’re sure you’re being consistent with your expectations, it’s time to enforce the consequences as well. This can be anything from missing part of recess to an after school detention, or even Saturday school. Make sure whatever your policy is that you follow it and that it aligns with school and district’s guidelines and policies. Over the years I’ve taken away part or all of recess, given lunch detention where they sit alone, held students after school, made phone calls home, and made them miss out on fun activities. It’s not fun to be the enforcer, but if you aren’t consistent in enforcing the consequences why should the students listen to you or take you seriously? One last thing I’ve found that works extremely well (especially in lower elementary grades, but even up to middle school) is to ask the student the consequence they feel is appropriate. It may not work in every situation, but students are often honest enough to give themself a reasonable punishment – especially if this is agreed upon ahead of the action taking place.
- Think outside the box. Sometimes it’s hard to come up with ways of getting students to complete work. You may need to contact administrators at other schools, ask teachers on online forums or Facebook groups (keeping confidentiality in mind!), contact university professors, or even implement an entirely new program. (Yes, I’ve done all of these at some point or another!) The program I currently fully support and endorse is called ICU. No, they’re not paying me to say that! We implemented this ICU program at our school last year when I was a principal in grades 6-12. People, it seriously cut the late and missing work by more than 90%! You can learn more about the program and see if there’s a way to adapt it for your classroom or school by clicking here. (While we used this program 6-12, I think it’s worth noting that I believe this program could be implemented as low as fourth grade.)
Yes, it can be hard getting students to complete work. However, I hope the ideas at this blog post have helped. If you have other suggestions for getting students to complete work, please leave them in the comments below. We can all learn sometime from one another!