Are teachers responsible for students’ motivation?

“In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure” said Bill Cosby when inquired about his successful career as a comedian, actor, author, television producer and musician. From weight loss programs to competitive jobs in multinational corporations, the desire for success is a predominant characteristic of human behavior. This strong desire is commonly referred to as simply “motivation”. As we walk in the field of English language teaching, scholars have been equally interested in investigating the relation between motivation and success in learning another language. However, what does it mean to be motivated? And why is it so important for success?

Zoltán Dörnyei, along with Istvan Ottó, define motivation as cumulative and dynamic stimuli that directs a learner into initiating, expanding, and self-monitoring language learning by managing interior desires and impulses. According to the authors, these desires and impulses would be either reinforced or censured in a way to guarantee success in learning (Dörnyei, 2001, 1996). Dörnyei explained that even under limited or unfavorable learning conditions, linguistic competence can still be accomplished if there is motivation. The author claims that the contrary is also true. Learners under advantageous learning conditions can fail to learn a language if they lack desire and impulse.

However, are teachers responsible for students’ motivation? This has been a very controversial issue in the educational field. In the 90’s, a strong emphasis on what teachers can do to motivate students took place. Cognitivists suggested that teachers should – for example – raise students’ interest in a reading material or create the need for using a linguistic item before teaching it in order to enhance motivation in the classroom. Other examples of such instructional practices included establishing a positive rapport with students and providing a comfortable learning environment through reflection-based feedback.

This perspective also included how to handle materials in ELT. Material selection should be age and level appropriate and include cultural information about the “native” speakers of the target language. The importance of flexibility in the curriculum was also emphasized so that it can be accommodated to individual needs of students.

Although these are excellent classroom practices and we all learn them in teacher training courses, there is a lot more to know about motivation in the ELT classroom. Ushioda and Dörnyei (2014) very recently suggested that motivation is determined by how learners relate learning and experience. In other words, it is about how they relate what happens in the classroom to what they live in life. Maybe this is still too broad, but bringing it into down-to-Earth terms, the best teachers can do is to deliver great teaching and try to develop the best relationship possible with students.

As teachers, we know that there is just so much we can do to enhance learners’ motivation. But this much might be all that they need to enjoy learning the English and bring it to their personal experiences in life. There are many studies out there that explain motivation and suggest what EFL teachers should do. But here is my personal conclusion to all that: let us do what we do with love and enjoy every minute of it! I am sure this will favor a classroom environment where motivation will definitely choose to flourish.



Dörnyei, Z. (1996). Moving language learning motivation to a larger platform for theory and practice. In R. Oxford (Ed.), Language Learning Motivation: Pathways to the New Century (pp. 71-80). Honolulu: University of Hawai’I, Second Language Teaching & Curriculum Center.

Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Teaching and researching motivation. Malaysia: Pearson Education Limited.

Ushioda, E. & Dörnyei, Z. (2014). Motivation. In S.M. Gass & A. Mackey. The Routledge handbook of second language acquisition (pp. 396-409). New York, New York: Routledge. Laura.

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Anderson Maia

Anderson Maia is currently the dean of a campus at Universidade Federal do Pará and a PhD in TESOL candidate at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais. He was the academic manager at Centro Cultural Brasil Estados Unidos for 6 years, an adjunct TESOL professor at private colleges for several years, and has been an English language educator for 15 years in both Brazil and North Carolina, USA. He holds a degree in English and an MA in TESOL from Greensboro College, USA.

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