Motivation in your classroom: completion

In my previous post in this series on quick and simple ways to motivate our students, I looked at setting measurable targets for tasks and classroom activities, the idea being that giving students a specific outcome to aim for leads to a sense of achievement. Part of meeting a measurable target is the sense of finishing or completing a task. In this post, I’ll look at types of tasks that focus on completion theory.

Does an unfinished crossword make you

How did you feel just now when you read that sub-heading? Did you want to finish it? Did you start to think about what words are missing?  The need to complete things is known as the completion principle in psychology.  It’s actually something we exploit a great deal in ELT, although it’s not limited to language at all. It seems we have an urge to complete patterns, to fill in spaces and to join dots wherever we find them. What’s missing here, for example?


Empty spaces

We often organize information for students in the form of a table or a chart. Tables are easy to build up on the board and are a way of showing language and ideas clearly. You might use them to present new language, to collect ideas or to take feedback after a comprehension activity. Additional value comes when you add an extra column, with little or no information, to the grid structure. Our students’ brains automatically want to put something into the final column – and in doing so will produce the language we want them to practice. The reading text below is an example of something that can easily be transferred to the board with an additional column for a third tourist attraction that is familiar to your students. Eliciting the information to complete the column fills the need for completion while supporting the students’ language production.

Life Beginner Second Edition
  The Skytree Big Ben ?
What is it? a tower a tower  
Where is it? in Tokyo in London  
When is it open? every day it isn’t open  
Why is it famous? new old  

You can use empty spaces with visuals such as mind maps or flow charts, but remember to plan carefully what you want to focus on. It’s a good idea to start with a completed visual yourself and decide what to omit. In all these cases, the motivation is higher when the students themselves are providing the information that leads to completion.

What happened next?

The linear narrative structure has a strong hold on our minds, which probably explains all those ‘and you won’t believe what happened next’ videos on the internet. Apparently, anticipating completion or closure actually makes us feel good (buying stuff, for example). Any text you have to hand that has a sequential structure can be made more interesting by withholding the ending at first. You can leave it open for students to complete or provide more scaffolding by giving alternative possibilities, as the example below.

Life Intermediate Second Edition








You can also make gaps by hiding steps or events within a sequence, and have students provide suggestions to complete them. There are some areas of language that work well with this. For example, suggesting conclusions or speculations with the third conditional, or explanations using the past perfect or cause and effect expressions.

I should add that in the examples above, we are asking students to provide the completion from an open set of possibilities. In that sense, they differ from gap fill, cloze or other similar language practice tasks.

Fill the silence

Another example of how the completion principle affects our behaviour is in speaking. We want to finish other people’s sentences if they don’t and we need to fill the silence if the other person doesn’t speak. Both handy techniques for teachers to encourage our students to talk more!

A final point to be aware of is that if completing things is motivating, then not finishing stuff is unsatisfactory and de-motivating. So it’s worth remembering the effect on motivation that running out of time in class, or leaving a page or an exercise unfinished, might have on our students. Setting a clear end point to an activity, as we saw with measurable targets, is a way of providing completion and is easily done via instructions such as ‘sit down when you have spoken to everyone’ ‘put your hand up when you finish’ ‘ask your partner a follow up question’ and so on.

Over to you

Find something in your usual course book that you can exploit either as a visual with spaces or a text without an ending. If you can, try the task with two different classes, one with gaps and one as usual. Then compare the two.

In the next post, we’ll look at ways of reminding students of the many reasons why they are learning English.

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.

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