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Motivational Teaching in the English language classroom

Nick Thorner, author of the professional development title ‘Motivational Teaching‘ in the Into The Classroom series, explores some of the issues that cause low motivation among students and methods to overcome them. You can join Nick for his upcoming webinar ‘Motivational Teaching: Engaging young people in learning behaviour’ on 26th May.

Few issues in education are as troubling as low student motivation. It leaves countless individuals unable to achieve their potential, and many teachers feeling demoralised. But perhaps more serious than low motivation is the lack of understanding we have of its causes, which can be complex and deep-seated. If we can’t understand our students’ lack of commitment, it’s difficult to identify strategies to deal with it and easy to blame individuals. And if students themselves feel puzzled by their apathy, they can become very frustrated. The effect can be a classroom atmosphere of resentment and mistrust.

That’s why I believe we cannot deal with the issue of low learner motivation unless we explore its causes. So we’ll begin our discussion by looking into some of the latest research on the psychology of motivation, and understand how our brains respond to the prospects of rewards, sanctions, and perceived threats. This will then lead us towards three clear approaches for raising motivation.

  1. Increasing task commitment

How often have you set students’ homework in the dying moments of lessons as they pack away their things? All too often, time pressure leaves us setting learning tasks quickly, without much thought to learner motivation. Yet there is so much we can do to help students increase their  commitment to tasks, for example:

  • Explain the reasons for the task to help students value it more.
  • Discuss stages of the task in the lesson so learners can visualise doing it.
  • Get students to decide when they’ll do the task to make procrastination less likely.

The image below shows what a task designed with motivation in mind might look like on paper. We’ll be explaining some of the other features shown below in the webinar. Presenting tasks in this way may seem a lot of work, but getting learners to engage fully with one task can help improve their self-image as learners more generally and build motivation.

  1. Breaking down barriers

No matter how attractive we try to make learning experiences, there is often deep resistance to learning on the part of our students. It’s important that we understand the psychological barriers that can stand in the way of engagement with learning behaviour. These can include:

  • low expectations of learning outcomes
  • negative associations connected with study
  • images of themselves that don’t sit comfortably with study

These psychological barriers are often firmly entrenched, but we can slowly wear them down in the way we speak with students and through exercises that help students connect learning with their own personal values and ambitions. An example might be producing a real vlog that they can post online, or doing visualisation exercises to help them imagine the life they might enjoy as proficient users of English.

  1. Creating reward-rich experiences

Finally, we all know that if we make lessons fun and interesting we can help motivate our learners. This is because memories of enjoyable learning experiences help students to predict rewarding outcomes. But labels like fun and interesting are a little too vague to be useful: in fact, there are lots of specific ways to make learning seem rewarding. So, we’ll finish our discussion by considering how we can fill learning experiences with psychological rewards, from novelty and sensory stimulation to play and revelation, and see why techniques like back-chaining can transform classroom experiences.

I hope you can join my webinar and leave it believing that motivational teaching is not about following general principles, but about practical day-to-day steps we can take as teachers. And by increasing our understanding of the factors that lie behind motivation, we can start discussing it honestly with students and create trusting classroom relationships.


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Recognition and motivation

Audience applaudingFiona Thomas is an EFL blogger and Director of Education at Net Languages, a large online language school. Here she considers the importance of recognition and motivation for teachers to excel at their jobs.

How appreciated do you feel in your job? It doesn’t matter what position you hold, everybody likes to feel that their colleagues, boss and people they are responsible for appreciate them when they work hard and do their job well. However, too many teachers and managers suffer from the frustration of feeling that what they do goes unrecognised and unappreciated.

Why is recognition so important? Frederick Herzberg spent much of his professional life researching what motivates people in the work place. His findings show that when a person is recognised for a high level of performance at work, this has a powerful effect on motivation (Herzberg, 1987).

He distinguished between what he classified as hygiene factors and motivational factors. Hygiene factors are those factors which need to be in place for us to be able to do our job.  If these factors are not satisfactorily covered, they will cause anxiety, distract us from our job and lead to demotivation and general dissatisfaction – e.g. if we do not earn enough money to cover our general needs and expenses, we will not be able to focus on our work. However, these factors do not actually motivate us – e.g. if we are given a pay increase (money is a hygiene factor), the effect of the pay rise on our motivation is, in theory, very short-lived. We soon get used to earning more money and as a consequence, its effectiveness in terms of motivation is soon lost.

Motivational factors, on the other hand, are factors which make a difference to how the worker feels about their job in a longer lasting way. Herzberg cited the following areas as motivational: achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, and advancement. These, therefore, are the areas that language schools need to focus on in order to motivate the people who work there. And of these factors recognition is arguably one of the easiest to apply.

Recognition needs to happen all the way down the hierarchical ladder of any organisation, from Directors to DOSs and other managers, to level coordinators and to teachers. If the person who is directly responsible for us does not seem to notice or care when we perform outstandingly, we understandably feel unappreciated. This in turn can affect our work performance to the detriment of the organisation we work for.

Recognition from colleagues or those higher up the ladder can also be very effective at motivating us. This, I believe, tends to happen most in a climate where there is a general sense of well-being and appreciation within an organisation. People who work in an environment where recognition is part of the institutional culture are much more likely to reciprocate in kind.

Interestingly, people often receive more recognition from their PLNs (personal learning networks) than from the place where they work. The growth in online PLN communities has helped to provide the support and recognition which helps teachers and managers to develop as professionals, especially when this is lacking in the institutions that employ them. It seems, however, such a wasted opportunity that this potential is not exploited positively by these organisations.

It is somewhat ironic that teachers are trained to give praise, recognition and encouragement to their students (sometimes in excess, according to Jim Scrivener, but this is part of a different debate). However, when these teachers are promoted to management positions, they tend to forget to apply the same good practice to the people they are now responsible for. Managers seem to have become so busy directing or managing in their new positions that they forget to apply the same basic effective principles they used when managing students in a class.

If we strive to have vibrant, high-quality language organisations, the motivation of students, teachers, managers, and all other staff is an essential part of good management practice. If we accept that taking the time to recognise good work can make a significant difference to people’s levels of motivation, then language organisations would be well advised to make sure that the recognition of people’s merits, initiatives and hard work becomes part of their institutional culture.

Reference:

Herzberg, F.I. 1987, ‘One more time: How do you motivate employees?’, Harvard Business Review, Sep/Oct87, Vol. 65 Issue 5, p109-120

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