Motivation in your classroom: a micro approach

I want a house with a swimming pool.

That’s what a friend said to me during my first week at college. It was my first understanding that we are all motivated by different things. And it’s as true of language learners as it is of mountain climbers, entrepreneurs or ex-smokers. Think of your own students: how many strive for a mark of 10/10? Which of them are happy when you correct their every mistake? Who is happiest when they can talk and talk and talk?

What I want to do with this blog series is look at what we can do on a day-to-day basis to help our learners stay motivated according to all their different needs. Using ‘micro-motivators’ can be especially useful in settings where students study English as a compulsory requirement or when they reach a ‘plateau’ in their learning.

Why ‘micro-motivators’?

I feel that often the big ‘Why?’ questions and answers about  a student’s motivation – wherever it is on the scale of  intrinsic / integrative to extrinsic / instrumental or the extent to which it’s based on social bonding – is beyond my control as a teacher. But I want to keep my students engaged with their learning as that way they are more likely to process and retain the lesson. Adding in a variety of mini-tasks to motivate students keeps up the level of engagement. Keeping things quick and simple means you can have a wide variety of tasks – and hopefully something for everyone.

‘M’ for measurable

Perhaps a good place to start is to look at one of the more familiar aspects of motivation: goals1. We’re going to borrow the ‘M’ for measurable from the SMART goals acronym (specific, measurable, agreed, realistic, time-bound). There are actually  several variations of this acronym but this one will serve. Attaching a measurable target to a class activity gives students a specific outcome to aim for and leads to a sense of achievement.

To take a simple example: rather than asking students to ‘underline the past simple verbs’ in a text, we can ask them to underline five /eight / ten (however many examples there are) past simple verbs.  To see how this works in the learner’s brain, just think about ‘to-do’ lists. If you regularly write ‘to-do’ lists, then you are familiar with the sense of satisfaction you get when you have ticked off everything on your list. I find targets particularly helpful at lower levels as it gives tasks a structure that students find more manageable.

It only needs a minute or two of your time to count the desired items before the class.:

  • Underline four contractions in the messages. 2
  • Read the article and find three words that describe street food in the Philippines.2

But as well as this extra focus for simple noticing or scanning tasks, number targets help in the same way with more in depth comprehension tasks:

  • Read and underline four sentences that show the writer’s regrets.3
  • Listen and write down five expressions that show the speaker’s agreement.3

And they are a handy way of re-focusing attention when you want to exploit a listening or a reading one more time with the whole class or with fast finishers.

Measurable targets work equally well with lead-ins, discussions and writing tasks. Students can instantly envisage what’s expected of them and the task has a built-in end point:

  • Say three things about your 16-year old self.3
  • Describe two people you used to know, or still know.3
  • In your email include two things you want the company to do.

Other quantifiable targets include time limits for brainstorming or reading and limits for mingle or group speaking tasks:

  • Add your own ideas to each profession. You have three minutes.
  • Sit down when you have collected ideas from four people.

The other side of the coin is to challenge students to find / write / talk to  ‘as many as’. The key point here, in terms of providing the satisfaction and therefore, hopefully, the motivation, is to make sure that the last step of such open tasks is to count up the totals and compare, praise or otherwise reward the achievement. Remember though that with this kind of challenge that working in pairs or groups is less threatening than working alone for some students.

Over to you

Over the next couple of weeks, try to find three tasks that you can adapt following the suggestions in this blog post – either adapted from your course book or your own ideas. Observe your students and see who seems to be motivated by reaching targets.

In the next post, I’ll look at the idea of closure/completion to see how we can exploit that in our classes.

Helen is the author of titles in the National Geographic Learning series Life, English Explorer, Total Business, and the award-winning Keynote. The second edition of Life will be released in 2018!


  • Keynote B2 Stephenson, Lansford & Dummett (2106) has a lovely TED Talk by Derek Sivers about goals and whether to share them or keep them to ourselves.
  • These examples are from Stephenson, Hughes & Dummett (2018) Life Beginner Second Edition, units 3 and 6.
  • These examples are from Keynote B2 Stephenson, Lansford & Dummett (2106) unit 12.

Author: Helen Stephenson

Helen Stephenson is based near Barcelona and works with the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) and as an ELT author. In her career she has taught students in Secondary schools and at British Council centres, and trained teachers at Barcelona University (UB) and for an ELT publisher in Spain. She is the author of titles in the National Geographic Learning series English Explorer, Life, Total Business, and the award-winning Keynote.


  1. Congratulations,your idea’s and methods are perfect,I like so much,and I practice now,and last week I begin to observe the work at class .Thank you.

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