4 ways to effectively motivate your students

Is it really possible to motivate students to learn English? The answer is YES! Some students have strong intrinsic motivation, they know what they want and work hard to reach it. However, most students learn English because they have to, they are learning English because of an external need and not because they want to. Although it is harder to keep motivated when the goal is not a personal choice, there are a few strategies we can use to help them feel more engaged and eventually the goal will be internalized as if it were self-chosen.

The most likely to be successful goals are the ones that fulfill three basic human needs: relatedness (goals that are about creating and nurturing relationships with others), competence (goals that focus on personal growth) and autonomy (goals that you choose, related to your interests, your abilities, or your values). Unless the goal meets these needs, we will have difficulties in persisting when things get hard. And that’s exactly when some of our students give up and start prioritizing other things, procrastinating and avoiding doing what they need to do to reach their learning goals.

Here are a few simple but effective ideas you can apply in your classes to motivate your students:

  • Give them a sense of personal control to foster the feelings of autonomy: learning English may not have been their choice, but what they do in the class can. Whenever possible, provide them with opportunities to choose things, for example, the language they are going to use to accomplish a task, the task itself, or the order of the activities they will do in class. The illusion of being in control is enough for them to feel more motivated towards the goal.
  • Encourage them to establish success criteria for the tasks: provide them with a model of successful completion of the task, ask them to analyze it and say what they think that they need to do that will result in a successful outcome. Then, after they have finished the task, they should analyze it and compare it to their success criteria to determine what they did well and possible areas of improvement. The feeling of accomplishment is essential to boost motivation and it fulfills the basic need of competence.
  • Make the goal contagious: the sight of someone else reaching the goal we are pursuing is extremely motivating. Find role models of people who pursued a learning goal and use them in class in a listening or reading comprehension task, to explore specific vocabulary or grammar structures.  Start the class with quotes of famous people about motivation and persistence and have students talk about these people’s behaviors and attitudes which contributed to successful outcomes. Then, they can talk or write about it, relating it to their situation as English learners.
  • Help your student find an accountability partner: when students take the necessary actions to achieve their learning goal, they are more likely to reach positive results. Knowing these actions are helping them improve is a great motivator to keep doing them. But students don’t always have the discipline to do what they need to to reach their goals. To help them strengthen their will, encourage them to find someone to share their successes and struggles with. This is effective because we tend to commit to our plans more when we know there is someone watching, and because in this sense we are fulfilling the basic need of relatedness.

All of the suggestions above can also be adapted to your own goals.

Which strategy do you think would work best with your students?

*Some of the ideas in this post were inspired by the book ‘Succeed: how we can reach our goals’ by Heidi Grant Halvorson Ph.D. published by Plume in 2011.

Marcela Harrisberger

Marcela Harrisberger has been an English teacher for over 17 years, she is also a teacher trainer and a professional coach certified by the International Association of Coaching. She holds a CELTA, a degree in Educational Psychology and another one in People Management. She is Brazilian and she is based in Germany, where she teaches adult students face-to-face and online.

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