I have had some requests in the past for advice about unmotivated students. I will tell you truthfully, I have very few pointers on the matter. I have encountered more than one student whose self worth has been beaten down by their environment, their parents, even other teachers. These are the students who really believe that they'll never amount to anything so it is not even worth trying. In order to reach those students, first and foremost, I try to make all of my learning relevant to them and their lives. If they can see a real world purpose, I've often succeeded in motivating them to learn it.
Sometimes though, you just have to lie. Did I say that? I meant...stretch the truth. ;) I have conned my students into learning a million times by doing something so very simple: Calling it a game!
Students who have not succeeded in school because they simply don't care need an extra push. The second you put them on the spot and give them a team that is relying on them, their attitude changes.
Now, I didn't tell you to let them play games all day (because I'm pretty sure that would at least make you their favorite teacher, but might not be the motivational tool you're looking for). Instead, make them learn and call it a game. As always, I'll provide examples!
1) Vocabulary Silent Ball: The students were very tired of standardized testing the other day but they really needed to review their vocabulary for the next day's test. Instead of "studying" I let them all sit on top of their desks and throw a ball around. The second I called "Stop" the person holding the ball had to define a word. If the couldn't, they had to sit back in their seats and play continued until the last person on their desk became the "winner". They practiced vocabulary intently for 25 minutes in this way.
2) Animal Adjectives: My third graders are learning about adjectives but they hate anything that looks like I might make them write. Today, I gave them each a secret card with a picture of an animal on it. They had to write ten sentences describing the animals which they would present to the class. The student who could guess the animal first (without seeing the card) using the clue won a sticker. (And guess what? They all wrote complete sentences using adjectives and did their best jobs because they had to read them in front of an audience.)
3) Group Math Quiz: I asked my students to complete a word problem worksheet on Valentine's Day. Instead of having them work quietly at their desks, I let them work in groups. Usually this leads to some students working and some students sitting there doing nothing. To solve this, I made it a competition, each child would be graded by an opposing team member so each was responsible for having the correct answers thereby forcing each group member to participate in the process.
4) Show me your work: Every day in math class, the students learn a concept and practice several examples of the same concept. If I can tell they are getting tired of the repetition, I will give them individual dry erase boards. They have to solve their problems on their own and then when I yell "show me your work!" they hold the boards up. I split the class in half and award each of the two teams points based on how many people in their group answered the problem correctly.
Every one of these games sounds pretty boring to me. The kids are just doing the same work that they always would only there are points involved. Let me tell you though, they come to class begging for the "games" and they sure do learn a lot.