The tricky question of motivation

What exactly is motivation? This is a question most of us face at various points in our careers. We know that motivating learners is part of our job, but how do we do this? There is no question that motivation plays an important role when taking on the commitment to learn a second language, but how does it work? After attending the ‘Matters of the Mind’ conference on psychology and language learning in Graz, Austria in May 2014, this question has emerged as something I feel I need to give more time to examining.


For this blog post my questions are: ‘Can we truly motivate our students? Is this a factor in the learning process that we actually have control over? And if the answer to that is yes, what exactly can we do to motivate them?’


I would dare say that most of us feel that providing fun, engaging, informative, useful and challenging lessons are major factors when looking for ways to motivate students. But are all students motivated by the same thing? We also need to look why they are actually in our classrooms.


I would suggest that their reason for being there is the logical place to start. Some have decided to take up a second (or third or fourth) language because they now live in or are planning to move to a place where that language is spoken by the majority of the population. This would mean that unless they manage to learn to communicate in the target language, they may encounter both social and professional difficulties. This is generally classified as extrinsic motivation as the need for learning the language comes from outside the person themselves. The same type of extrinsic motivation can be attributed for those learners who perceive themselves as just learning for a test. This situation often crops up in schools where languages are compulsory subjects, just like any other subject, and are tested throughout the year by having students take exams which should demonstrate the level the person has reached.


When we look at intrinsic motivation we will most likely find very different types of reasons for being in a language class. Here learners may want to understand films or songs or read literature or other types of printed material. They may simply like the idea of being able to speak another language or they may just feel an affinity to the language. In one of the presentations at the ‘Matters of the Mind’ conference, Miriam Tashma-Baum related how her teacher trainees feel that they take on a new (and in some cases ‘cooler’) identity when they speak English and found the learning of the language actually led lead to self-enrichment. Other learners might have had childhood memories of speaking or hearing another language and decided later in life to pursue it. And some may just be interested in general in how languages work and take on the study of a language as a scientific exploration.



Where is all this leading? I am beginning to question for myself how much influence we as teachers can actually have in the raising of motivational levels in learners. I do think we can inspire and support learners and act as role models that they can identify with. I would like to begin to explore for myself and my learners the various ideas of motivation in the classroom as well as the factors that motivate learners to learn. Until this is clear for us, I am not sure how much we can do to encourage our learners in a systematic and fruitful manner. Asking learners is beginning to give me some insight into this question. A group of university students have said that they need English for their studies, future careers and job opportunities abroad. They indicated that they are mostly self-motivated but said that teachers can have an influence as well as to whether or not they are motivated in a particular class. They felt the split was about 40% (the teacher) and 60% (themselves). With this group I try to be encouraging, find topics of interest, give them space to express their own ideas, answer their questions as fully as possible and create a fun and engaging atmosphere. With a group of adult learners in an in-company course, they have said that their motivation comes from the feeling that they are really learning something useful for their jobs. We are using a course book which deals specifically with their field and they are constantly encouraged to discuss their own experiences. Their comments were that the course has three elements which are important to them: they are learning better English, they have the opportunity to improve skills they need in their jobs and, they have formed a cohesive group which has taken on a life of its own within the framework of an English course which takes place on a regular basis.


I hope to continue looking at this from different aspects in order to find ways to relate it to my next question: how do we motivate ourselves?



Teacher reward stickers – loved by university students and corporate clients alike.