Lunar new year

Motivation in your classroom: what’s in it for me?

Last time, we examined the psychological need to complete things and make them whole, and how that can be exploited to help students stay motivated. The word ‘need’ is a key term when we’re looking at students’ motivation, of course.  At its most fundamental level, motivation is all about wants and needs. Let me ask you a question: why are you reading this National Geographic Learning In Focus blog? Perhaps a colleague told you about it, or you read it out of habit. Maybe you need to solve a particular problem in class or you want to find new ideas and you hope to find some answers here. It doesn’t really matter what your answer is, but I’m sure you had an answer. That is, you know why you’re making the effort to read the blog and that awareness affects the results of your effort. I think that we can help our students if we also remind them of the reasons why they are making an effort in class.

The payoff

There are certain groups of students whose goal is a rather distant or imposed one, like the need to pass an exam. We can flag learning activities to show such students how their efforts are helping them reach these goals. For example, asking students to look back over work to notice specific things:

  • ‘Asking questions correctly will be useful in the speaking exam. Look back at the unit we’ve just finished and find all the question-word questions.’
  • ‘You’ll need to use linking words in the exam. Look at your last three pieces of writing and list the linkers you’ve used.’

Students with external or imposed academic and professional goals may have strong feelings about what they need to learn. I think it’s up to us to keep an open dialogue with them about how the classroom activities meet their needs, so that they see a clear ‘payoff’ and feel a degree of control over their learning.

It also helps to show students in this situation what their progress is. I like to do this at random times, in addition to any formal assessments. For example, students can make short ‘benchmark’ videos at the start of the course which you can show in a surprise viewing, with one or two comments on specific improvements you’ve noticed. You can do something similar with written texts or give students a short task which they have already done earlier in the course and compare the results with the earlier attempt.

The takeaway

Many of our students, of course, don’t have an external obligation to learn English. Some, in fact, might not really know why they are coming to class at all. It’s standard practice to begin a course with some kind of needs/wants analysis to highlight for both the student and the teacher what the student hopes to get from the course. Motivation can change over time, but most people will appreciate a ‘takeaway’ or benefit from class – and the more frequent the takeaway, the better. The examples below are activities where language practice is integrated with information that students can do something with in real life (i.e. not in an English-speaking scenario). Bringing this kind of information into your class reminds students that using English is a means to an end.

An exercise from Life Intermediate Second Edition


An exercise from Life Intermediate Second Edition

Group Activities

To end, I’ll take a quick look at group activities where the takeaway is connected to social bonding in the classroom.  The features to note here are that the activities are not assessed (so there’s no issue with someone not pulling their weight), they’re quite quick and simple and they have a finite objective. The idea is to bring content that students would discuss with friends in a ‘normal’ setting and structure it for relevant language practice.

An exercise from Keynote Upper Intermediate


An exercise from Keynote Upper Intermediate

Over to you

Find a needs analysis activity (there are plenty online) that you like or can adapt easily for your class or have used before. Even if you did an analysis at the start of the course, work through the activity with your students and talk about whether their reasons for learning have changed and what kind of learning activities they think are most helpful and most fun. Collect the results and see if you can program in moments when you can explicitly show students how a given activity works towards their goals.

In the next post, we’ll look at motivation in large and very large classes.

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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