Motivating students Inspiring a high level of motivation

Inspiring a high level of motivation among students of all ages and maintaining it, is an ongoing challenge for even the most experienced and skilled teachers. One thing is certain, the motivation of a student has no connection to the matter being taught, but can instead always be reliably linked to the reasons why the student is learning the matter and how (Barrakeet, 2005, p 73- 74).

Knowledge of human learning, and the factors influencing human learning, has increased dramatically over the past 100 years. From early thoughts by Psychiatrists Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung between 1900 and 1920, arguing that we are born with a wealth of knowledge through a connection to a collective unconscious (Jung,1962), and that our motivation is based entirely around instincts (Freud, 1920), we jump, after two World Wars, into a paradigm shift onto the ‘Nurture’ side (Nature vs Nurture paradigm), the scientific method, quantitative psychology, and Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s Determinism and Reinforcement / Reward Theory (1953, 1968) in the 1950’s.

The principles of Reward theory - to focus on the good, with minimal or absent punishment - is to date a cornerstone of all behavior modification programs worldwide, applied to the training of humans and animals alike. Within quantitative psychology, however, the linguist Noam Chomsky (1957, 1968), a stern critic of Skinner, powered a splintering away from Behaviorism in the 1960s, and shaped the field of Cognitive Psychology, and specialised in Language Acquisition.

Relying on over 100 years of qualitative and quantitative exploration of the principle that every human can learn anything within his/her measurable physical and cognitive abilities, we look toward how we can validate this in the classroom when teaching English as a Second Language, and see motivation as the key. Leaving us with one question: if we can learn anything, how can a language teacher motivate us to do so'

Barbara Gross Davis (1993) believes that there is no single magical formula for motivating students. However, whatever level of motivation your students bring to the classroom, it will be transformed, for better or worse, by what happens in that classroom. She concludes that, the best way to motivate students is to motivate them to become self-motivated independent learners. She presents these timeless principles, based on Reward Theory, to instructors:

Table 1

Frequent, early, positive feedback that supports students´ beliefs that they can do well

Be specific when giving negative feedback

Ensure opportunities for students’ success by assigning tasks that are neither too easy nor too difficult

Make students active participants in learning

Tell students what they need to do to succeed in your course

Design tests that encourage the kind of learning you want students to achieve

Help students find personal meaning and value in the material

Reward success

Guide students into independent thinking and problem solving techniques

Create an atmosphere that is open and positive

Emphasize mastery and learning rather than grades.

Help students feel that they are valued members of a learning community

Avoid creating intense competition among students

Ask students to analyze what makes their classes more or less "motivating."

Introduce students to the good work done by their peers

Adapted from: Gross Davis, B. (1993), Tools for Teaching.

Weimer (2002) agrees and defines that this is the only way to motivate students – to create and maintain a student-centered learning environment, where the student is or becomes his/her own teacher, master and motivator.

Weimer (2002) identifies learner-centred teaching as encompassing five changes to practice: Table 2

1. Shifting the balance of classroom power from teacher to student.

2. Designing content as a means to building knowledge rather than a ´knowledge end´ in itself.

3. Positioning the teacher as facilitator and contributor, rather than director and source of knowledge

4. Shifting responsibility for learning from teacher to learner.

5. Promoting learning through effective assessment.

Adapted from: Weimer, M. (2002) Learner-Centred Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice.

Barrakeet (2005), who applied Weimer’s principles of student- centered learning to improve the motivation of her students, concluded that the reorientation of teaching methods toward a student-centred approach proved particularly rewarding and that integration between student-centred and more traditional approaches to teaching are a recipe for success. Everyday practice in ESL teaching concurs with this observation. Students who choose to attend class of their own volition and for their own reasons, are the most highly motivated students and most easily motivated. And if we need documented support, Ericksen (1978) observed almost 30 years ago, that most students respond positively to a well-organized course taught by an enthusiastic instructor who has a genuine interest in students and what they learn.

One argument against student-centered learning is that some courses, in order to certify an overall knowledge base, must cover material that a certain proportion of the students will never find relevant and they will therefore display a lack of motivation, e.g. medicine, law, engineering.

However, English as a Second Language does not fall into this category. It is an entirely applied subject, not theoretical, and the student will need to know all of the components taught in order to reach the final goal of ‘native speaker’ level. The dual challenge for a good ESL teacher therefore, who wants to motivate his/her students, is simple and twofold: maintain the motivation of the self-motivated learner, and modify the remainder into becoming self-motivated learners. In this article we have looked at 100 years of psychology from Freud, Jung, Skinner to Chomsky, and have found that student- centered learning as practiced today (Gross Davis, 1993; Weimer, 2002; Barrakeet, 2005), is our best tool and technique in motivating learners of all ages and background for all tasks and goals to give it their all.

The best motivation still remains intrinsic motivation which comes from the student her/himself. Instructors and teachers can to date recognize, facilitate and maximize this spark of motivation in the student, until in the future we may have even more reliable and effective methods to produce pinnacles of motivation in even the most disenchanted students.


Barrakeet, J. (2005)."Teaching Research Method Using a Student Centred Approach' A Critical Reflections on Practice” , Journal of University and Teaching and Learning Practice, vol.2 (2)

Chomsky, N. (1968). Language and Mind.

Chomsky, N. (1957). Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton. (Reprint, 1985).

Ericksen, S. C. (1978)."The Lecture." Memo to the Faculty, no. 60. Ann Arbor: Center for Research on Teaching and Learning, University of Michigan.

Freud, S. (1920).

Beyond the pleasure principle. Gross Davis, B. (1993). Tools for Teaching. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco

Jung, C. G., & Edt. Jaffe A. (1962). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. London: Collins.

Skinner, B. (1968). The technology of teaching. New York: Appleton-Crofts.

Skinner, B. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: MacMillan

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-Centred Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

© Amanda Riessen, January 2007, Munich, Germany.