On motivation

By the time this post is published, I will have spent two days in the lovely city of João Pessoa where, as most of you know, the 14th BRAZ-TESOL International Conference is being held. This will be my 7th BRAZ-TESOL Conference. While I was packing I began asking myself: What motivated me to go? Why do I want to leave my kids behind? (If you have done the same you will know the feeling…) Why do I feel like spending the holiday attending talks and workshops instead of lying on the beach? Just like me, there are hundreds of other teachers, editors, trainers and others who were also wiling to do the same. There is no a single or simple answer to that question… each individual will list their reasons, from meeting old friends to networking, from learning new things to having a break from routine, and so on and so forth.


I am totally convinced that motivation is an individual phenomenon and when I come across the common utterances ‘We need to motivate our students’, ‘Students will be motivated by this or that material or activity’ I feel suspicious. How can I take-on such responsibility? How can I possibly be so powerful as to assume I can motivate someone else? My own belief is that this is an unrealistic and pretentious task. Of course there are things we can do to encourage learners, for instance: pinpoint progress in an area they find particularly difficult or remind them of what they CAN do rather than what they cannot do yet. However, finding the motivation to do something is the learners’ role.


There are clearly sources of extrinsic motivation that can be provided, but I believe they are short-lived. If you teach at a High School, for example, particularly in the final year, you will probably see that an important factor that will influence students’ motivation is passing the university entrance test. They will tend to work harder, especially on the subjects they consider to be more difficult to grasp. From my experience, teenagers in general tend to work harder when tests approach. Nevertheless, they may lose enthusiasm when tests are over. In other words, it is easier to provide extrinsic motivation factors, but this is not enough, not only for learning a language, but also in other spheres of life.


This reminds me of a film I saw a couple of weeks ago in which the boss demanded her employee saw a therapist. Otherwise, she’d lose her job. Afraid of being fired, she obeyed. However, this didn’t last long as the external factor alone wasn’t enough to keep her going even though she knew it’d be difficult for her to get another position.


Is there anything we can do to change this situation and work on motivation? I’d love to have the answers but I’m afraid I only have questions. To me, the only thing I can do to help my students feel motivated by their own learning is to help them find their motives on their own and to rely on their own strengths to overcome their weaknesses. Maybe the key is to provide some external factors to encourage learners to keep going and to find their own reasons. Finding their own reasons is probably what led over 700 teachers to join the 14th BRAZ-TESOL International Conference and to keep learning instead of just relaxing at home.

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Elaine Hodgson is a freelance teacher trainer and materials writer, as well as a supervisor on the Distance MA in TEFL at Birmingham University (UK). She holds an MA from UECE and a PhD from UFC in Applied Linguistics. You can read more about her work at Email:

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