3 min read

How to motivate the unmotivated

07-May-2019 18:37:28

“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)

“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 11am class. We switched her to afternoons. She still didn’t make it.” (teacher in London, UK) 

These are true stories. The issue is motivation - here are 10 essentials for motivating the unmotivated:

1. Positive environment

You can recognize a happy class within about two seconds. There’s a buzz. 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.

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.

5. Personalized tasks

The one thing that most of us know about is ourselves. 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. 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, 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.

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.

JJ Wilson
Written by JJ Wilson

JJ Wilson is a writer and teacher. He has published over 20 books in the field of language learning and teaching, as well as fiction, memoir, journalism, and poetry in the UK and the US.

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