How to motivate the unmotivated


Image from Mission College

“I asked my 18-year-old student why he wasn’t putting more effort into learning English. He took me to the classroom window and pointed. Outside, there was a parked Ferrari. It was his. A chauffeur was sitting inside. “I don’t need English,” he said. “My family’s rich.”” (teacher in Melbourne, Australia)

“One student yawned and then lay down on the classroom floor in front of everybody and started checking his phone messages.” (teacher in Milan, Italy)

“She was late to class on the first day and then she disappeared. We started to get worried. We called the host family. It turned out she couldn’t get up on time for an 11:00 a.m. class. We switched her to afternoons. She still didn’t make it.” (teacher in London, UK) 

These are all true stories. (The first was told to me a week ago by an old colleague.) The issue is motivation. I won’t go into the extensive literature, theories, or jargon. Instead, here are ten essentials for motivating the unmotivated:

1. Positive environment

You can recognize a happy class within about two seconds. There’s a buzz. People are moving and interacting. Sometimes, you’re not even sure who the teacher is (they’re monitoring or mingling with everyone else). Do the students feel safe and welcome? Is co-operation more highly valued than competition? Are the teachers and front-of-office staff friendly? Does everyone know everyone else’s name? If the answers are yes, chances are the atmosphere is ripe for learning.

2. Challenge

If the teaching material is too easy, the students are wasting their time. Too difficult and they’ll get frustrated. Balance is everything: tasks need to be challenging but achievable. The students simply have to believe they are being pushed, constantly, to new levels.

3. Lessons Match Student Needs and Styles

You wouldn’t teach a class of Young Learners how to write a business report. It isn’t relevant to their lives. One of our tasks as teachers is to find out what each student must accomplish in English outside the classroom. A Needs Analysis (a questionnaire at the beginning of the course) can help. Also, teachers – particularly older ones – have to understand the world of younger students – their technology, their habits, how they interact – and find ways to connect these to the classroom.

4. Variety

Nothing numbs the mind like too much routine. Change the setting. Move the chairs. Put desks by the walls and sit in a circle. Take the students outside occasionally in good weather. Change the mode of delivery: if you normally teach from a book, use a film clip or a song. If you always start class with speaking, do two minutes of Total Physical Response. Shock the students into alertness (but don’t get fired).

5. Personalized tasks

The one thing that most of us know about is ourselves. Some people know little else. Our personal histories, hobbies, ambitions, families, home towns – these are all good conversation topics. Speaking tasks are more motivating if students discuss things they care about. Good teachers adapt materials to make this possible.

6. Learner Autonomy

De-motivation can stem from powerlessness – sociologists call it ‘learned helplessness’ – and one way to restore power is by taking some control. Occasionally, get students to set their own homework, or ask them how long they want a task to last. Or get them to commandeer the whiteboard. Above all, show them resources for learning outside the classroom, whether online or in the community.

7. Feedback Feeds Forward

The information we get from observing our students should be reflected in how we plan preceding lessons. For example, if the students are doing a speaking task and we notice they are making major, systemic errors (e.g. failure to use the Past Simple), we might begin the next class by reviewing that language point. This brings a sense of purpose and progression.

8. Goals and Assessment

Students who have measurable goals (“I want to pass the First Certificate next month”) have a natural motivator. There’s been much in print recently about the concept of a “future you” or “ideal self” (see Motivating Learning by Hadfield and Dornyei, 2013). This is another way of saying “I have a long-term goal.”

9. Engagement and Fun

I once observed a class of Japanese businessmen singing the ABC song. Two of them were CEOs of multi-million-dollar corporations. They loved it. Classes don’t have to be entertaining but they must be engaging. The topics, material, activities and their sequencing – all need to hold the students’ interest. Most groups of students have a predilection for some form of entertainment: games, songs, youtube clips. Find out what works for these students and use it.

10. Teacher’s Enthusiasm

The biggest factor in motivating students might be the teacher’s passion for teaching. Good energy is contagious. The best teachers make classes come alive, not once in a while but every time. The key ingredient is care, which manifests itself in deep involvement in the whole process of language learning. It comes in the form of careful preparation, alertness to the mood of the class, empathy, and determination to be the best possible guide on the students’ journey.


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