This post reflects on a talk by Zoltan Dornyei (available here: Tokyo JALT State of the Chapter 2021 with Zoltan Dornyei - YouTube) discussing Second Language Acquisition and motivation. Many of us are keenly interested in doing all that we can to keep our students motivated as the semester rolls on. We see the effects of burnout start to affect our students, causing us to have to work even harder (student apathy, lack of task focus, increased absences, tardiness, etc). Additionally, many students may have a lack of vision and motivation even from the start of the semester. In Dornyei’s talk, he carefully spells out the psychology behind motivation and how to sustain it. Unfortunately, I found that Dornyei’s examples lack real application to our own classrooms (this is the biggest bone I pick with his work). To that end, I tried to synthesize his ideas into a practical, systematic application we can use at the start of our semester and maintain as the year rolls forward. These ideas are directly taken from my own research and somewhat welded to the layout Dornyei presents in his talk (I recommend watching the video first).
1. Facilitation of a “self-concordant vision” (i.e., creating meaningful goals)
This is the starting point for motivation and accomplishment the fuel that keeps students moving forward, as Dornyei states. Goals need to be personally relevant to the individual learner. We cannot expect the goals we as teachers see as valuable to automatically mesh with what our students have in mind (often they may have no goals in mind). This is where we need to act.
a) First, use the class orientation to spell out the goals of the course, perhaps even putting them on a piece of paper for the students to look through. Accompany this with prompts for students to write down their own goals as it relates to the course. Set a specific time frame, such as the next five weeks. Do not let them write lofty, farfetched goals such as increasing their TOEIC score by 300 points in one semester or vague goals such as “speaking English more fluently.” It is impossible to measure progress for these types of goals and even more difficult for the student to hold themselves accountable.
Instead, ask students what they specifically want to accomplish? Keep it simple. This can be difficult for students, so include examples such as:
- Giving their opinion three times in each class discussion
- Using three words they have learned in each class.
- Completing all the homework assignments on time for the next 5 weeks
- Every evening I am going to ________.
Encourage them to establish a routine here.
b) Second, have students discuss their goals out loud with their peers. They may be shy to do so, but this helps students add vision and mental imagery, which is key in the psychology of motivation, as Dornyei mentions. Remind students to be encouraging. Questions here can include things like:
- What will you do to move toward your goal in each class? (毎回の授業で、自分の目標に向かって何をしますか)
- How would you feel if achieve your goal? (その目標を達成した場合、どのように感じると思いますか)
- How are you going to measure your progress? (自分が目標の達成にどれだけ近づいているかをどのように測定するつもりですか)
- What will you do outside of class to move towards your goal? (授業以外で、目標に向かって、何をしますか？)
c) Finally, tell students to write their goals on a shared google document that you will keep. During the next few weeks, frequently remind students of their goals in assignment feedback, or verbally during class. Perhaps even have them assess at the end of each class how they have progressed towards their goals, or instruct them to write about their goal progress in reflective journals.
2. Refueling and avoiding depletion of “motivational energy”
As Dornyei says, “motivation is a limited resource,” however this resource can be “refueled” by recognizing accomplishments and achievement of the short-term goals students have set for themselves. Likewise, if learners can form habitual routines, these are far less impactful on depletion of motivational fuel (i.e., willpower) over time. What this means for our students is we need to allocate time to check-in and review their goals, and they need to verbalize what they have been doing these past five weeks (or whatever amount of time you determined for their goals). Remember, focus on the positive progress here if you can. As Dornyei says, “ongoing positive emotional experiences” during their studies are key to creating a passion for language learning.
a) After the five weeks (or whatever amount of time you determine), take some class time to revisit the student’s goals. Ask questions such as:
- Did you do the activities you set for yourself? 自分が設定した活動をしましたか？
- Did you fail your goals? What is stopping you? 目標を達成できませんでしたか。何がその原因ですか。
- Do you want to change your goal? 目標を変えたいですか。
- How much effort did you put in? / How hard did you work on your goals? どのくらい努力しましたか。
Have them discuss these in groups.
b) Try to monitor the conversations. Here, how you deliver feedback is extremely important. In a recent piece I wrote for JALT (being considered for publication in September/October 2021), I summarized the following research-backed research strategies produced by Zeeb (2020) and other researchers:
1. If students succeed with the endeavor, try to praise specific behaviors related to their efforts, such as time management or the strategy they implemented.
2. If a student has failed despite their best efforts, focus on what opportunities these failures bring for learning and suggest new strategies for learning.
3. If situations arise where students have thrived without much effort, offer more challenging tasks or another skill to develop. It might also be helpful to have these talented students take helping roles in the classroom.
4. When students neither succeed nor show evidence of effort, it may take more time to investigate what obstacles are stopping them and what options might be more appealing to them.
In all cases, it is vital to praise hard work when there is clear evidence of progress and remind students of past obstacles they have overcome.
c) Finally, have students set up/modify their goals here according to their discussions. Did they fail? Then what is the next goal? Did they succeed? Are they happy with their current goals for the next five weeks?
***Try to repeat these processes at set intervals throughout the semester where your class can get together, discuss, and refocus.
3. Overcoming Roadblocks
During this process, it may become obvious which students are having an especially difficult time. Some may still lack specific goals even weeks or months into the semester. Dornyei recognizes that there are inevitably going to be low moments for our students and situations where they fail. This is where psychological resilience comes into play (article on resilience here: Building your resilience (apa.org)). Additionally, students will have vastly different resilience capacities as formed by their experiences in the past (and genetics). For teachers, being able to recognize students whose motivation may be especially depleted is important. This is arguably the most difficult and time-consuming step.
a) When you recognize individuals with particularly low motivation, sit down with these students individually outside of class time. Ask them specifically to visit you during office hours. Go through the process of goal setting again with these students using the methods from parts 1 and 2. Praise their efforts where you can. Focus on the strengths they exhibit in class. Let them know you are paying attention to them.
b) In many cases, students in this situation will have lost faith in themselves and their ability to learn English. Be careful with your feedback here. You want to exhibit a “growth mindset” as a teacher; showing the students you believe in their ability to improve despite the setbacks. Research has shown that perceptions students’ have of their teachers’ mindsets directly affect performance and engagement in class (Muenks et al., 2020). So, ask students directly why they believe they are not good at English. From the language anxiety intervention I conducted a couple of years ago in my EFC class (and wrote about in the JALT 2020 Social Brain bulletin available here: Issues Archive – Mind Brain Ed Think Tanks+), it often helps to try and dispel the harmful beliefs and negative thought patterns students may have picked up from previous learning experience. These can include:
- Comparing themselves to others in the class
- They should speak English perfectly (without errors)
- Beliefs that other students are judging their mistakes
- Beliefs that the teacher is judging their mistakes
Try to discuss these beliefs directly. Or, better yet, it might even be worth dedicating some time in class to have students discuss these topics in small groups. Learning that they often share these common fears can act as a foundation for changing how the students view their own learning.
c) Finally, check in with these specific students later. Pay special attention to the work they submit in class and praise the progress they have made. Even quick words as they enter or leave class can be huge to students’ motivational resilience here.
These steps are by no means meant to be set in stone. They should be flexible and accommodating to individual teachers' time frames. Creating the conditions to facilitate and sustain motivation is an incredibly arduous process. Honestly, there are days when I say to myself “hey, these students chose to study English and should already be motivated to do so” and “I don’t have the time for this.” Perhaps you have said the same.
So, why do it? Why take such exhaustive steps to facilitate learner motivation? Well, for me, it lies in fueling my own motivation as a teacher. What keeps me going are the small successes I have and watching students change how they view their own learning. As cheesy as that sounds, it is truly an amazing experience. Ideally, I would love for Japanese universities to have a class that focuses on goal setting and changing the way students approach their own learning (and to dispel a few of the harmful habits/beliefs they developed in high school about language learning). However, putting that aside, implementing some of the above strategies is something to consider when planning future courses.
Muenks, K., Canning, E. A., LaCosse, J., Green, D. J., Zirkel, S., Garcia, J. A., & Murphy, M. C. (2020). Does my professor think my ability can change? Students’ perceptions of their STEM professors’ mindset beliefs predict their psychological vulnerability, engagement, and performance in class. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149(11), 2119.
Zeeb, H., Ostertag, J., & Renkl, A. (2020). Towards a growth mindset culture in the classroom: implementation of a lesson-integrated mindset training. Education Research International, 2020.