A Gentle But Powerful Way To Increase Learning, Motivation, And Independence

So you teach this great lesson. Your students are really into it. They’re listening and participating. Their eyes are bright and inquisitive. They pass all your checks for understanding with flying colors.

But as soon as you finish and give the signal for them to practice what they’ve learned independently, only a few get right to work.

Some students look around the room, unsure of how to begin. Some sit poised, pencil at the ready, but unmoving. Others don’t think twice. As if on cue, their hands go up in the air. Other than a predictable few, most of your students seem unable or unwilling to dig into their work.

You set them up for success, take them right to the edge of learning . . . but there they stand, frozen.

So you do what you have to do. You bustle around the room from one student to the next, reteaching what you taught to the entire class just minutes before. You remind. You review. You cajole, exhort, and praise the slightest headway.

You do for them what you know they can do for themselves. It’s exhausting, but you do it lesson after lesson and day after day because it’s the only way you know how to get them to the finish line. It’s the only way you know how to transfer their learning from concept to knowledge.

Yet still, progress is slow. While you’re working with one student, several others sit idly by, just waiting for you. And because they’re unfocused, behavior, too, suffers. It’s a stressful way to teach, but what are you to do? If you don’t help them, little or nothing will get done.

Well, not so fast.

Their problem, you see, isn’t their inability. It’s not motivation, at least not directly. If they can pass your checks for understanding, then you’ve provided everything they need to work independently. The problem is learned helplessness.

Many students have become so accustomed to receiving one-on-one support that they can no longer do for themselves. They’ve lost the spark of initiative. They’ve lost the pride of self-reliance. They’ve lost the thrill of the challenge, the perseverance of the will, and the self-starter quality they need to grow and mature as students.

Independence is a gift you give your students by gently withholding help for that which you know they can do themselves. You prepare them for success with spot-on instruction, to be sure. But then you fade into the background.

Now, you can’t just turn your back and stop helping cold turkey. Improving independence is something you must ease into through kindly encouragement. You’ll still respond to hands in the air. You’ll still approach your students. But instead of kneeling down to help, you’ll offer words of reassurance.

You can do it. I believe in you.”

You don’t need my help. I promise. Trust yourself.”

I have confidence in you.”

Don’t think so much. Just begin. You can do this.”

As the days and weeks go by and you fade further into the background, you’ll notice far fewer hands in the air and far fewer students in genuine need of support. Their work will become more self-assured and competent. Learning, motivation, and independence will increase tenfold.

This doesn’t mean that you’ll never help individual students. As both you and they grow accustomed to true independent work, you’ll be able to recognize when a student really does need assistance. But even then, you’ll only offer enough help to get them moving.

Independent practice is critical to learning, and giving too much help is often more problematic than not giving enough. In time, your students will develop tenacious independence. Instead of glancing around the room lost and perplexed, they’ll be empowered to attack their work with confidence.

After finishing up a lesson, you’ll become a ghostly presence, neither ignoring nor helping, but just watching for signs of struggle, for signs a student is in need of a soft reminder or word of encouragement.

Your job is to provide world-class, high-interest lessons and all the instruction and support your students need to succeed.

But then they take it from there.

Note: I was interviewed this week by Patty Palmer of Deep Space Sparkle. If you’re an art teacher or are interested in some amazing art lesson ideas, I highly recommend her website. To read the interview, click here.

Also, if you haven’t done so already, please join us. It’s free! Click here and begin receiving classroom management articles like this one in your email box every week.

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15 Responses to A Gentle But Powerful Way To Increase Learning, Motivation, And Independence

  1. Shila January 12, 2014 at 12:32 am #

    Thank you, Michael. Happy New Year! It sounds like you were in my class. This is my long time problem. I noticed that the more I help the less some of my students are willing to try independently. It also caused classroom management problems because they don’t have to listen to me when I teach the whole class. However, I am always afraid that if I don’t help individually, some of them will give up completely. As a matter of fact some even went to the office to complain of not getting help from me despite all the tutorials I held. So I gave in thinking that spoon feeding is better than starving. I realised this has been a problem both for me and for the students but don’t really know what to do to change. I would like to hear your opinion. I teach high school Science.

    • Michael Linsin January 12, 2014 at 8:40 am #

      Hi Shila,

      You let them know directly that you’re willing to help, but you gently encourage them to do it on their own. In other words, they have to believe that help is there if they really need it, but that you have no magic formula when you help individually. Everything they need will be provided in the lesson. This also promotes better listening and better, more pointed questions.


  2. Linda January 12, 2014 at 6:33 pm #


    I loved your article this week and I have decided that this issue is my New Year’s Resolution! I so want to help my students think independently and to believe in themselves. I am in the process of writing a letter to parents to let them know that creating independent learners is the goal for the rest of the school year. I would love some suggestions for parents to use at home to help with this goal. I have many parents who are willing to do what I ask in order to help their child. Could you do an article with suggestions on how parents can help?

    Thank you,

    • Michael Linsin January 12, 2014 at 10:03 pm #

      Hi Linda,

      I’m not sure it would be a whole lot different than the advice given above, but I’ll give it some thought and consider putting it on the list of future topics. Thank you for the suggestion!


  3. Victoria January 26, 2014 at 1:05 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    I often find myself in the situation where all the students ask questions in their assignment instead of using their own resources. And just as you said, they do get everything they need from the lesson. Everything they need is in their notes. But how do you teach them HOW to USE their notes to do their homework? And how do you do that for kids who have great difficulty with reading and reading comprehension? That is where I get stuck…

    • Michael Linsin January 26, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

      Hi Victoria,

      Homework must be practice of what they have already learned. In other words, you only assign what they’ve proven they can do without help. They must prove they can do it using their notes in class first, just like they will when they get home. If your students are unable to read well enough to use their notes, then it’s too difficult to assign for homework.


  4. neat September 9, 2014 at 3:36 am #

    thanks for these great ideas

    • Michael Linsin September 9, 2014 at 6:17 am #

      You’re welcome, Neat!


  5. Brittani October 21, 2014 at 6:11 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    I’m a 2nd year teacher (5th grade math) and I’m having trouble with one student in particular in regards to learned helplessness. I’ll begin teaching a lesson, and I will barely touch on step 1 of a process and her hand will shoot in the air and say something along the lines of “That’s confusing” or “That doesn’t make sense”. I can even sense her classmates’ frustration when she does this.

    I’ve started asking her to wait until I finish all of the steps, but then once it’s time for guided or independent practice she still says that everything is confusing. When she asks questions and I respond, she tries to argue with me and say “But you said something else earlier” (when really I never said anything she’s talking about)

    She is not a low performing student, I know she can do it, but she seriously doubts herself. How should I go about helping her?

    • Michael Linsin October 21, 2014 at 7:01 pm #

      Hi Brittani,

      Instead of answering, gently reassure her. Let her know that you’re confident that she can do the work on her own. In a short time, she’ll become more independent.


  6. Veronica January 1, 2015 at 7:15 am #

    Many of my students do not care to listen or take notes. In fact, many do not know how to take notes from the lesson. The lessons that I teach are also available online, and they do not want to go online and bother to go over the lesson. I am a new teacher to this population of students; however, they seem be too old (9th grade) to have so little skills in note taking. I did notice that I help too much some students. However, many would not even care to receive help. Independent learning skills are rather poor. I am afraid to put them in pairs so that they can learn from each other since I noticed that they do not focus on task but on conversation about anything but. I do believe that some have a low self-efficacy about the subject I teach. Also, most of the students have problems with basic skills in the subject which impedes them to progress. I am frustrated that I have to go over same things over and over and retention of knowledge is very low since many do not listen, and I cannot move with more difficult lessons since they still struggling with what they supposed to learn two grades behind.

    • Michael Linsin January 1, 2015 at 8:43 am #

      Hi Veronica,

      The reality is that you often have to teach the basic skills they need–note taking, listening, working in pairs–before beginning work on content.


  7. Linda February 23, 2016 at 8:06 pm #

    Thanks what a beautiful article! I’m a firm believer in using those key phrases with students.
    My students eyes light up when I say, I believe in you and I know you can do it. My students really like this phrase the best ; I knew it, you did it all by yourself. I just knew you had that critical thinking in you, and what an Awesome Job… you have done!

  8. Sandra September 21, 2016 at 1:45 pm #

    Hi Michael,
    Thank you very much for this article! I will be doing this. I worry about one part though: about recognizing the student who truly needs help? Who do you mean? If everything has been explained in the class, who could that be?
    Best regards,

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