I teach Aikido at a local community college. Roughly half of the kids are there just to fulfill a P.E. requirement. These students can be frustrating because they aren't really interested in martials art, they just arbirarily picked a class that met their schedule needs.

I make it a policy that everyone in class has to change partners every 5-10 minutes, but I know the students who are actually interested in learning become frustrated by the ones who never pay attention enough to do the simplist of exercises.

Any ideas how I can get less interested students to become more involved in class?

  • Do you have to sign off on them meeting their requirement?
    – stslavik
    Commented Jun 4, 2012 at 21:54
  • @stslavik They receive a letter grade for the class. It is participation based, and they have to demonstrate a few basic things at the end of the semester. Commented Jun 5, 2012 at 0:43

6 Answers 6


They receive a letter grade for the class. It is participation based, and they have to demonstrate a few basic things at the end of the semester.

You have a fundamentally simple solution: Use positive and negative reinforcement to encourage change. When they try, recognize it and encourage them. When they slack, ignore them. At the beginning of class, remind them that their grade is predicated upon their participation in the class – if they fail to participate, they will not pass. This isn't mean, it's fair.

You, though, have to change the way you view your students. Keep your students at arms length until they prove their interest, and then reward them with your attention. Whatever reason they find themselves in your class, you have the ability to make them seek out your encouragement. This is by means of promotion, one-on-one training, or even invitation out to group dinners following a class. Napoleon Bonaparte knew the importance of a "bit of ribbon", and really this is all to which belts amount. Further, working toward the ends of social cohesion, most with the exception of the most antisocial (sociopathic) will strive toward being part of the social group in an unfamiliar and specialized setting (organic solidarity, Durkheim).

Remember that you're dealing with late-teens and up; essentially adults (though the younger crowd may still be trapped in the sociopathic tendencies of teenage rebellion). Show them respect, be friendly, but don't be a friend (at least not while you're still grading them). You're not going to engage everyone, but you can use the group dynamic to leverage the outsiders into the fold. Teach those who are willing to learn, and let them pick their own partners. Do not force the hard working, interested students to include or choose anyone they do not wish to partner with, which will further separate the outsiders from the group; they will then either a.) leave, or b.) assimilate.

Edit: New Subversion Tactics

It occurs to me that you have literally no excuse to be anything less than a perfect teacher. When a class is set on a schedule (that is, that it begins at the beginning of a semester, and it ends at the end), you have a finite time to create impact but you also have an audience that is captive to your message for a set period of time.

Ask yourself this: What makes a story work? There are, in every story, three parts:

  1. The Invitation – The Hero/Heroine is introduced to the idea that everything will change. Dagny loses the railroad, Odysseus meets Athena, etc.

  2. The Initiation – The Hero/Heroine is forced out into the world to seek a solution. Who is John Galt?

  3. The Return – The Hero/Heroine returns fundamentally changed. Dagny leaves Galt's Gulch to return to the railroad as the government collapses.

We can break up a semester similarly:

  1. The Invitation – The student must have a reasonable expectation set out in front of them. The student is going to learn Aikido and be able to demonstrate a functional capability to defend themselves from XYZ attacks. Failing to demonstrate that capacity is abject failure.

  2. The Initiation – The student must be shown that it is possible, and be expected to demonstrate. Those that refuse will be failed. To succeed, they need to know that they are dependent upon your guidance.

  3. The Return – Final exam time. What they have been taught they must now demonstrate. Much as the hero must succeed to return changed, so too must they succeed to pass the class.

The truth is that you are expecting results; therefore, you must expect them to deliver those results. Show them that you're willing to fail them. Welcome them to the real world where decisions have consequences.

I realize now in saying this, however, that your unwillingness to choose an answer exhibits the same attitude that brought you to ask the question in the first place: for whatever reason, you're unwilling to fail these students. You are accepting that your class is a class designed to be an "easy A". And that's not only disappointing, but shameful.

Have an ounce of pride and start out the way you mean to go: Invite the students to succeed or fail, and let them know that if they don't want to be there, they are invited to fail or find another class.

  • This is a more traditional approach, and it has its merits. But I find that swallowing my pride a little bit and employing a few tricks can get even the disengaged students involved most of the time. See my answer below for more details. Definitely agree with "Show them respect, be friendly, but don't be a friend" though!
    – Campbeln
    Commented Jun 6, 2012 at 2:34
  • I think they will be motivated more if you make it fun. The ballet example: if I really had to pass, I would do just enough. Ofcourse, the onces that don't contribute shouldn't pass.
    – Bart Burg
    Commented Jun 6, 2012 at 11:00
  • I'm basing my answer on social cohesion theory, and, as with most of my answers, my methods tend toward the subversive. I believe in forcing a favorable outcome through manipulation (I was bullied a lot as a kid), and I enjoy pushing people's buttons. Take it for what it's worth ;)
    – stslavik
    Commented Jun 8, 2012 at 15:23
  • I would agree with you, but not entirely for the same reason though. I'd just say not to waist your energy on the ones who are not willing to give you back anything. Worrying about those who are not willing to learn will simply burn you out in the long run. Commented Jun 9, 2012 at 7:59

You have a problem a lot of us teachers have.

What age are you talking about?

What I tend to do is from the 60 minutes I have, spend the warming up and cooling down with a game they love. Of course this game should actually have some physical contact, for that is what you slowly would like them to get used at. Don't forget that for some kids it's not boring but weird or scary!

Reward them with the fun cooling down, don't reward them if they don't deserve it. Be strict and always keep your word. When they're are doing good, motivate them with a lot of positive energy and try to compliment a lot!

A great warming up game: Bulldog (yes it even sounds cool) All children sit on one side of the mat, 2 "bulldogs" in the middle. You count to 10 or 15. If someone doesn't reach the end before you stop counting, he or she is a bulldog too. Make sure they are a little bit warm before you do this.

You have to be a bit cautious that the children don't stack on each other, bite or other stuff. Pay attention!

Kids also love the "tap shoulder" sparring game.

At some point, some kids are simply not made for the sport. Don't let them transfer negative energy to the rest of the group and especially not to yourself. But don't be too hard on them if they simply not love it. For me I see this as having to dance ballet or something ;). As long as you love it, some and maybe of the kids will.

It will never be easy, but you should love the challenge as a teacher ;)

One of the strongest lessons I had to learn: Encourage effort and not victories!

Good luck!

  • The group is 18+ adults in community college. Most of them are 18 or 19. Commented Jun 5, 2012 at 1:15
  • And is it a mixed group (gender)?
    – Bart Burg
    Commented Jun 5, 2012 at 8:12
  • Try to find out their interests. Sometimes you have a group who likes to spar, just do some exercise or train towards a demo. An idea: you can actually ask them or take a few who actually are interested in the sport and discuss with them if they have some ideas. Maybe they would like a creative demo, where they can all have input on. Put elements like music, story line, dance and maybe even cabaret into it. Let them help create it and let them know it should contain some techniques because you are trying to make the lesson fun, so everyone wants to train it. Just some ideas to think on :)
    – Bart Burg
    Commented Jun 5, 2012 at 12:14

Do you have any students that you can trust to take a fall? If so, demonstrate with your best uke(s) the more advanced interpretations of techniques (i.e. showing a high fall from shihonage vs. rolling out of that techique) or showing some reversals, might engage some of the students. I think that aikido is harder to grasp as a beginner, particularly one with no previous martial art experience or desire to learn.


I teach Taekwon-do to kids (5-18) and while they all choose to be there, not everyone is fully engaged every day. So while not the issue you are seeing, I have experienced similar.

So... with the kids we need to learn the basics while keeping it fun. If I see the class start to wane I throw in an active game (see list of suggestions below). These are full class participation style games and I "encourage" engagement by handing our sit-ups/push-ups/burpies/etc to those who do not "tag" someone else. A number of these games actually work really well in my adult classes as well as they are energetic and fun. The trick I have found is to playfully pit the students against each other while still maintaining a strong sense of fairness.

Another thing is to allow students to write on a section of the board (or wherever) what activities they would like to do today. Be it drills or games or whatever. This is a good way to see what the students actually enjoy doing (and further helps with engagement). You can further help class engagement by awarding team leaders based on answering questions in class, doing demonstrations in front of class, or whatever you want them to do.

In class demonstration can also be used to get rowdy students back in line by halting class, having them all sit and bringing the rowdy student in front to demo the activity you were just doing. Have them execute the activity, then ask the class what was good about the demonstration, what they missed and what they can improve. Try not to make any direct comments yourself, let the class do it for you. Then thank the student for the demonstration and ask them to return to their line. If they know they can be called to the front if they screw around to demo the technique, they don't screw around nearly as much!

Also, I state that I am not the arbiter of arguments. It is up to the students to resolve any issues between themselves during games. If they cannot resolve the issue, then the game is stopped. This alone has solved A LOT of in-class problems when using games (because everyone wants to play). I remind students that are having an argument to use their honor, and that's about it.

Always show them respect, and require the same from them (but do this via a soft touch, rather then a Cartman-esque "respect my athor-a-tie!"). Don't be afraid to send someone out of class for the day or otherwise make them sit out. Especially for martial arts, they can put themselves or other students in danger if they are not paying attention. But discuss it with them after class or before the next class so they understand why you took the action, and ask them how you can both avoid it in the future.

Here are A LOT of examples of drills/exercises/etc I use in class with both my child (5-18) and adult students...

  • 'Round the Circle (Running Laps): Generally part of warm-ups, I have my students run a single lap at a time. I first line them up by rank (high to low) and tap them on the shoulder to start running the lap. They can "tag" anyone that started before them, but not anyone who starts behind them. If you get tagged, you stop and do 10 burpies/push-ups/etc, then finish the run. Each person can only be tagged once per lap. The students MUST wait for the shoulder tap. If they do a false start, I have them reset and tell them to be patient (all the while the students they can tag gain ground). I then tap their shoulder and the shoulder of the student behind them in quick succession so they are more likely to be tagged themselves. After the first few rounds, everyone gets that they have to listen to the instructor and follow directions, else they will be screwed over. For the following rounds, I generally have the students who were tagged in the last round placed at the end of the line (so they have more students to tag and less chance to get tagged again). Further, I keep everyone on their toes by switching ends of the line at times (so students who thought they had everyone to tag now have to RUN). It's really funny to see the look on their face when their shoulder gets tapped and they weren't expecting it (but they know the rules, so they haul ass)!

  • Protect the Top of Your Head / Belt Knot / Feet: This exercise is AWESOME and works with all ages. It works well as a 30 second class reset and get's everyone on the move and works well in martial arts as blocks and dodges are employed. The rules are: You have to jump and touch the top of another students head. If you touch, they do 2 push-ups. If you touch but didn't jump, you do 4 push-ups (and they do none). The Belt Knot and Feet versions do not have a jump, but can also involve penalties of different forms. And covering the target is not allowed, and en-cures a 10 push-up penalty. Head and Belt Knot are tagged with hands, (tops of the) Feet are tagged with feet (so everyone ends up looking like a Riverdancer =).

  • Dare Base: This is what inspired the running laps game above. You have two teams, each with their own "base"/safe zone. If they are in their safe zone they cannot be tagged. If you get tagged, you are out until the next round. You can only tag students who entered the no-man's-land between the two bases before you (and therefore anyone who enters after you can tag you, but you cannot tag them). The goal is to be the only team left with untagged members. All kinds of strategies start to happen to goad the other team into entering no-man's-land. It's a fairly quick fire game with each round ending in a minute or two. If the games has started to drag on, you can start shrinking the size of the bases to encourage them to take risks.

  • Grab The Bacon: Another favourite of the kids and adults alike. Like Dare Base, there are two teams that start in their respective safe zones. In the middle of no-man's-land is placed an object (the bacon, which can be a whiteboard eraser or a rubber pig like I have, just something about the size of a hand). As the instructor, call out one (or more) names per team for a head to head. They cannot enter no-man's-land until you say "Go!" else they are tagged out (so more listening). At "Go", the students who's name were called enter no-man's-land. No one can tag anyone else until someone touches the bacon. Once someone has touched the bacon they can be tagged by anyone on the other team. If they are tagged before getting the bacon to their safe zone, they are out. Else if they get the bacon into their safe zone (under control, not throwing it in) then the other person/team is out. After the students get used to this game, they tend to have long stand-offs waiting for the other side to flinch and touch the bacon (or waiting for a clear opening themselves). As the instructor you can help this by moving the bacon around, forcing them to readjust. I also like to kick it around a bit, and if someone get's touched by the bacon when I move it then they are still live (so the students end up backing right away when I come in, which can lead to an opening). It keeps it interesting and helps to shorten each round.

  • Dare Bacon: This is a game the kids came up with, and is a mixture of Dare Base with the bacon from Grab The Bacon mixed in. The rules are as per Dare Base, but if a team is able to get the bacon back to their base without getting tagged then their team wins. This is a nice mixture of the two games that speeds up the play and tweaks the strategies a bit.

  • Sharks & Minnows: Just like you used to play in the pool (just without the pool). There are two safe zones, with a no-man's-land area in between. Start out with one (or two) Sharks in no-man's-land and all the Minnows in one safe zone. The Minnows have to make it across to the other safe zone by not getting tagged by a Shark. The Shark can tag more than one Minnow, and once a Shark has tagged at least one Minnow they are out. The tagged Minnows become the Sharks for the next round. the goal it to tag more than one Minnow and to end up with everyone as Sharks in the middle. This is a good, fun, rapid-fire game that doesn't have a sense of "losing". Works on agility and strategic thinking.

  • 1-Step Tips (Simple): Everyone disperses around the room. On each count, players are permitted to take one step. If you can reach another person without moving your feet, you can tag them and they freeze. You are only permitted to tag 1 person per move. The goal is to be the last untagged person. There is an issue with this game as since everyone is trying to tag everyone else, there can be debates on who tagged whom first. I avoid this by saying that I will not arbitrate any disagreements, we will simply stop the game.

  • Team 1-Step Tips: Same basic rules as 1-Step Tips with the addition of teams of players (two or more teams). Fellow team members can tag their frozen team mates to unfreeze them. The goal is to be the last team standing.

  • Jurassic 1-Step Tips: Same basic rules as Team 1-Step Tips with the addition to rules on how you are allowed to move and tag. There are four teams; T-Rex, Brontosaurus, Velociraptor and Dilophosaurus; each with their own rules. Number per team is roughly 1/4 of the class (with at least 2 Raptors). T-Rex: Are large and move quickly (they can do two steps per count), but they have poor eyesight that is based on movement, so T-Rex's may only tag someone who is moving. Brontosaurus: Are huge and slow (their steps are all heel/toe half steps). They cannot be frozen (tagged) and they can unfreeze any other players. Velociraptor: Are pack hunters, so you have to be tagged by no less than two at a time (so team mates have to work together). Dilophosaurus: Spit to blind their prey from a distance, then move in for the kill. I give these students 50cm/18" long pool noodles we use for blocking drills to extend their tagging reach. I use post-it notes and foldback clips to designate each team (T-Rex's are red/pink, Bronto's are green, etc.) so the student's know who is "attacking" them. The goal is to keep your species alive. The mix of team attributes is excellent in this game! If the student's don't want to "play" they chose to be Bronto's as they don't have to worry about getting tagged and are the "good guys" because they can unfreeze everyone else. Student's love the T-Rex because they get 2 steps rather than one and the Dilopho's because they get extra reach to tag. The only odd one out is the Raptors, but even they are fun as you have to work together with your team mates. The rules to this one are complicated as hell, but after playing it 2-3 times the kids know the rules (it may help that I make them tell me the rules as we are choosing teams). Also, the kids LOVE this one. No team ever seems to win, and everyone is almost always unfrozen, but they absolutely love it. Another nice thing about this game is encouraging class participation throughout class. I put up the team grid on the board, and any student's who answer a question or volunteer get to choose their Dinosaur team. This works on spatial awareness and agility.

  • Animals: This "game" is specifically for younger students as it works on body movements and awareness. The class is moved to one side of the dojang, sitting down on the floor in a line. If you have too many students to move across the hall at one go, you count them off into two (or three) groups. You then ask for animal requests, choosing a student who then relays an animal (frog, cheetah, etc.). If it is an animal that the class has done before, the student then demonstrates the movement while you explain it. Once the demonstration is complete, the class moves across the hall and back in the motion of the animal. If it is a new animal suggestion, discuss it with the class on how that animal moves, and how that should be recreated. then get the student to demonstrate it, followed by the whole class over and back. Now, while called animals, we've expanded it a bit beyond just naimals. Some of the "animals" we use are: Frog high jumps with hands between feet, Rabbit long jumps with hand outside of feet, Cheetah all-fours running in long strides 2 hands, 2 feet, Elephant (or Bear) all-fours walking left side hand+foot followed by right side hand+foot with straight arms/legs, Speedboat Laying on back in sit-up position with hands over crown of the head (as head bumps can happen), use only feet to propel yourself, Butt Walk sitting upright, scoot across the floor using only your glutes and legs to walk across the floor, Commando Crawl like a commando crawling under barbed wire, lay on belly and use arms and legs to crawl, Inchworm like commando crawl, just without any arms, Duck Walk squatting on the ground, walk across the room using only your legs without standing. I'm sure I'm forgetting a few, but you get the idea. the kids are allowed to dictate the exercises to do, as well as make up new ones that the class agrees on. Excellent developmental game!

  • Roman Chariot: This game is better for older students/adults. Pair up students with someone roughly their own height/weight. One student removes their belt, running it around their waist with the ends in the hands of the other student standing behind them. The goal of the student in front it to get to the other side of the room first. The goal of the student holding the belt at the back is to keep them from coming first (but not to stop them completely). Once they get to the other side of the room, the roles are reversed. You do have to be careful with this one, as it's about slowing (but not stopping) your partner.

  • Ball-based Kicking Drills: For younger/less advances students, use larger balls while more advanced students get tennis balls. This can be done individually or as partners. The point is to toss the ball in the air and kick it as it falls. the smaller the ball, the more accuracy you need. Due to the partially random movement of the ball, different kicks can be employed based on where it's falling. In addition to tennis balls, bundled rags can be used. Basically the point is not to chase the ball, but to drill kicking accuracy, so the less bouncy the ball the better.

  • Class Engagement Tricks: These "tricks" work best if you do not over use them, and if you switch up the rules/games fairly often to keep the kids on their toes. You also have to be careful as to maintain the sense of fairness. But having said all of that, these strategies can be an excellent way to get the class focused and engaged. I have a number of card games in my pack; Uno, Scrabble (cards with A-Z), traditional (Ace, King, etc.) and Monopoly (which I haven't figured out how to use yet). I also plan to put together cards depicting Taekwon-do techniques (walking stance, mid section punch, etc.) and use these in a game where the first student to collect cards depicting a drill/pattern wins (so they learn theory as well). You keep the stack of cards at the ready, and before you ask a question or request a volunteer, you peal off X-number of cards. You can hand out cards for participation and/or for executing a drill well. You can also have their fellow students hand out cards. After each drill, you give the class 30 seconds to decide who in the line in front of them deserves a card/cards. Uno cards can be useful here as the back line hands out red cards, the middle line hands out blue, etc. (and you as the instructor hand out cards to most junior students). Having the juniors determine if/when their seniors get cards helps instil a sense of leadership to the senior students. I generally keep the rules of how you win a secret through class. Sometimes we play by the rules of the game (highest poker hand wins), or by who has the most cards (this is the least "fair"), or who can spell the longest word, or who has the highest face value (adding up the numbers on the Uno cards), who has the most of one kind of cards ("I have five 2s!")... pretty much anything you can think of. You can also "sell" candy, or Jurassic 1-Step Tips positions, or whatever for 1,2,3 cards mid class. If the class doesn't know the rules, they don't know if the card they just got is good, bad or indifferent (or if they should "sell" or not). All of this helps maintain that strong sense of fairness as it's not simply the one with the most cards wins (but you do have to be consistent and not be seen as favouring any students).

  • Stance Spacing Drills: In Taekwon-do, our stances are somewhat rigidly defined based on shoulder widths. In order to get students of all ages to be aware when their feet are 1 shoulder width apart (or 1.5) I tape down ribbon on the floor at the prescribed width. I generally setup 2 different tracks on either side of the room and have the students move through them in a circuit. Taekwon-do's L-Stance and Fixed Stance prescribe a gap of 1 inch between the inside of the heels, so for this measurement I have an approx 1-inch wide ribbon with ladybugs on it. I tell the students that their heels have to be touching the ribbon WITHOUT squashing my ladybugs. If they do squash them, they do a push-up (etc.) or don't get a card, etc. This drill has worked really well for my students of all ages to build their Proprioception on when they are in the correct stance.

Anyway, there are a few of my greatest hits you can try in class. I found a few PE teacher websites with some of these games (see: http://www.gameskidsplay.net/ , http://pazz.tripod.com/lesson.html and http://www.playkidsgames.com/).

Hope this helps (and do let me know how these games work on college kids!)!

Almost forgot: As the instructor, be involved in the games! The students LOVE to tag the Black Belt and make them do push-ups! It helps maintain the sense of fairness and you can target the students who are not as engaged. When I step into a game, the intensity instantly goes up for all of the students (as they don't want to be tagged by me as I can "get everyone easily" or "I'm gonna make the black belt do push-ups!"). The troublesome students can get a tiny bit of revenge on you in a non-threating way (and you win as the instructor anyway as they are now engaged in class ;).


Here are 3 ways to get people's attention

For example:

  1. Start with what you know: Classes start with routine exercises or rituals. The same each week.
  2. Surprise them: Teach a new technique, or demonstrate a loud or exciting technique. At my Taekwondo class, a senior might demonstrate a complicated turning kick to the class to get people's attention.
  3. Set up a situation of cognitive dissonance: I like to get students to do the exercise where they have to swing their arms in different directions, which confuses them usually. Or ask a question about self defense in a way that introduces cognitive dissonance - "Do we study martial arts to learn to fight, or to learn not to fight?"

I've used techniques like these in class before to different levels of effectiveness. Hope that helps.


You're fighting a lost battle. By the way:

1) What I would do is to expect everybody to keep a high rhythm for most of the time (with breaks of course).

Start with a energetic warming (may be running, push ups, shouting, cognitive dissonance (shomenuchi in different directions depending on your verbal commands) and so on. That's something you can do and expect everybody to do. (don't tire them, you're trying to excite them)

Then during the lesson, explain the less possible and have them train with the same rhythm. Inciting them verbally to keep the rhythm high is possible but optimal.

If you see somebody going too slow, too fast, talking, etc, go to him/her, and have him as uke for 4-5 throws. The purpose is to non verbally impose your rhythm on him.

In extreme cases (verbal refusal from a student) have him leave the class.

Keep the technical explaination and all the talking for the end of the lesson, when they start to get tired.

2) have them develop one or two specials. That's to say one/two simple (non dangerous) techniques that you'll teach almost every class. Something they can become confident with quickly and that they will be able to do without thinking to much. Have them practice it when they look confused and lost. The goal is to help them find a ludic perspective in the training.

Good luck.

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