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Enjoying Learning: Motivating Adults through Content (Part 1)

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Young man chewing pencil while studyingIn the first of a three-part series, Mark Hancock, co-author of the English Result series, defines and explores two kinds of motivation that can lead to different learning outcomes with adult learners of English as a foreign language.

‘Many people give up on learning after they leave school because thirteen or twenty years of extrinsically motivated education is still a source of unpleasant memories. Their attention has been manipulated long enough from the outside by textbooks and teachers, and they have counted graduation as the first day of freedom.’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002)

Three key terms in this quote are motivated, attention, and learning, and they are closely related. Attention determines what appears in consciousness, and without it no learning can be done. Attention is a kind of psychic energy, an effort of the mind, and to make this effort, you must be motivated to do so. The quote implies that there is more than one kind, or quality, of motivation; it speaks of being extrinsically motivated, implying a contrast with intrinsically motivated.

And it seems that these different kinds of motivation can lead to different learning outcomes. Stevick has pointed out, ‘In the long run, the quantity of your students’ learning will depend on the quality of the attention they give to it’ (Stevick 1982). Csikszentmihalyi’s quote is pessimistic about the quantity of learning which will result, in the long run, from relying exclusively on extrinsic motivation.

So what are these two kinds of motivation?

Extrinsic motivation is the drive to learn in order to achieve something else unrelated to the content of what you are learning – for example, to pass an exam, to get a promotion, to avoid punishment or to communicate more effectively whilst travelling. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is the drive to learn something for its own sake – perhaps because you find it fascinating, or what you’ve seen of it intrigues you, or you’ve had enjoyable and effective learning experiences which you wish to repeat.

Extrinsic motivation can be related to ambition – an ambitious person will drive themselves to study in order to achieve their ends. If they are self-disciplined, they will be able to exclude competing demands on their attention and focus single-mindedly on their studies. And this determination may well pay off.

However, extrinsic motivation can also be related to shortcuts and cheating. If it’s only the end which interests you, why not get there the easiest way? Why spend time doing a grammar exercise when you could just go straight to the answer key? With intrinsic motivation, shortcuts and cheating are pointless. Imagine renting a DVD and just watching the end to save yourself the trouble of watching the whole thing. It doesn’t happen, because the watching is precisely the point.

In an adult EFL class, you are perhaps unlikely to encounter learners who have exclusively one kind of motivation or the other. Most learners, no matter how extrinsic their motivation, are capable of becoming interested in some of what goes on in the class some of the time. Meanwhile, even the most intrinsically motivated learner probably has extrinsic motives for choosing English from among the hundreds of world languages they could have chosen – English being so universally useful and available.

So it’s not a question of setting these two kinds of motivation up in opposition, but rather complementary drives which blend together. Unfortunately, as Csikszentmihalyi’s quote at the start of this article suggests, the balance in many people’s experience of education has been too heavily weighted towards the extrinsic, which justifies a special focus on intrinsic motivation now to redress the balance.

Over the next two posts in this series, we will consider what makes different types of material motivating and how this balance can be restored.

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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10 thoughts on “Enjoying Learning: Motivating Adults through Content (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Enjoying Learning: Motivating Adults through Content (Part 1) « Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching – Global Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. ‘loved the post: I’ve been a student for 37 years (eg. so far this year, I’ve started taking Sociology & Politics at college) and a teacher for 22 years! =:o)

    Just for sharing (and recalling that motivation is a 19th century invention): what you call extrinsic motivation, I call it stimulation (something that encourages me) and, what you call intrinsic motivation, I call it motivation (a behaviour of mine)! This helps me remembering that stimulating is a teacher’s must and motivating is a student’s must.

  3. This is great! I’m really looking forward to the next few posts about this.

    Don’t you think teachers play a vital role in creating intrinsic motivation? While intrinsic means motivation that comes from within, I think teachers have an important role to play in how they package and deliver their classes.

    If you prepare and employ classes that spark student interest, intrigue, excitement, and fun, aren’t you at the same time paving the way for students to step into an intrinsic motivation mode?

  4. I’ve never been totally comfortable with the idea or extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Rather like Multiple Intelligences Theory, there is something simplistic, fabricated and non-falsifiable about it. As you mentioned, putting them in opposition is not really possible because the two overlap and influence each other so much.

    I think it’s better to look at motivation as a virtuous circle of conducive cognitive styles, the most important of which is field dependent vs field independent – an old fashioned view I admit, but I think a valuable one nonetheless.

    Why not assume that all motivation is in some degree both extrinsic and intrinsic and that differences occur in intensity due to a large range of factors? These factors are related to people’s desires and influences and their falling into the category of extrinsic and intrinsic is not of primary importance. The reality is a complex mixture of nature and nurture, the procedural and the declarative, and that a person’s natural aptitude, habits, curiosity, memory, maturity, attitude, day of the week, time of the month, etc, all contribute to his/her level of motivation, which in turn may reaffirm these qualities in the individual.

    Therefore I think it is the teacher’s job to recognise that each individual is different and brings different needs to the class at different times and so the teacher needs to fuse genuinely interesting and engaging content with an emphasis on expectations in the outside world in order to keep people altogether inspired.

  5. Pingback: Enjoying Learning: Motivating Adults through Content—Oxford ELT Global Blog | jacobtullos.wordpress.com

  6. Pingback: Enjoying Learning: Motivating Adults through Content (Part 2) « Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching – Global Blog

  7. Pingback: Enjoying Learning: Motivating Adults through Content (Part 3) « Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching – Global Blog

  8. Pingback: Keeping the vision alive: Maintaining motivation and promoting effective learning « Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching – Global Blog

  9. Pingback: The Language of Environmental Stewardship « Kalu Yala

  10. Both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation play their role.

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