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Motivation - for Students and for Teachers

Updated: Apr 5, 2020

Why is this over-repeated phrase actually so important for our success in teaching and learning? Do you even care? :)

The featured photo for this note could easily be one of the many inspirational Instagram posts all trying to spread a positive message, such as “inspire yourself,” “be a better you,” and “motivate yourself.”

Motivation is indeed a highly important part of our daily lives because without motivation, we seem to lose focus, concentration and end up in a pointless, aimless area. Not surprisingly, “motive” also stands for “aim” and “goal.”

For language learning, motivation is one of the most, if not the most, decisive factors, as it is also said by Dornyei (1998: 117):

Motivation provides the primary impetus to initiate learning the L2 and later the driving force to sustain the long and often tedious learning process; indeed, all the other factors involved in L2 acquisition presuppose motivation to some extent. Without sufficient motivation, even individuals with the most remarkable abilities cannot accomplish long-term goals, and neither are appropriate curricula and good teaching enough on their own to ensure student achievement.

So how should we motivate our students?

Imagine that I’d like you to come mountain biking with me. Which of the following methods will lead to a quick result and which of them are actually motivating?

  1. I tell you that it’s fun and leave it up to you

  2. I convince you of how much fun it is and ask you to join me once – once there, I ride away on the hardest trail

  3. I bribe you with money or guilt trip you

  4. I convince you of how much fun it is and ask you to join me once – when there, I help you come down a trail that fits your abilities

  5. I force you to come with me

Even though options 3 and 5 will yield a quick result, you’re probably not going to enjoy the activity, so in this case the only one who’s motivated is me but not you. In case no. 1 I’m actually not doing anything at all; the only reason you might come with me is because either you are already interested in this sport or you’d like to spend time with me, but I wasn’t motivating here at all. In case no. 2 I immediately demotivate you by not caring about your skills and abilities. In case no. 4 I manage to get your interest and I also try to make the day enjoyable for you, so the focus is not on my motivation anymore but on handing this motivation over to you by making you feel comfortable and supported in a new and foreign environment.

Which of the above scenarios illustrate extrinsic and intrinsic motivation?

Extrinsic motivation: “performing a behaviour as a means to an end, that is, to receive some extrinsic reward (e.g. good grades) or to avoid punishment.”

Intrinsic motivation: “behaviour performed for its own sake in order to experience pleasure and satisfaction such as the joy of doing a particular activity.” (Dornyei, 2001:11)

Solution: 1, 2, 4 are I (even though the ways motivation is sustained in 2 and 4 are different); 3, 5 are E.

How can we create a motivating environment?

According to Dornyei (2001):

  • Be enthusiastic about your profession

  • Show commitment toward the students’ learning and progress

  • Have sufficiently high expectations for what the students can achieve

  • Set rules and norms in the classroom

  • Care for the students as real people

  • Be available and approachable

And here is a more recent version by Wilson (2012):

  • Make your students curious

  • Challenge your students

  • Avoid the obvious

  • Devolve responsibility

  • Teach unplugged (occasionally)

  • Let students use their tech skills

  • Let students use their imagination

  • Find out what they know and what they’re good at

  • Take a break

  • Turn your classroom into a spider’s web (let go of your power sometimes)

And what can you do if you as a teacher are unmotivated?

It can happen more than occasionally that while we are trying our best to motivate our students, we lose motivation ourselves, and feel drained and exhausted.

Do this quick quiz to check whether you are showing any signs of teacher burnout. If you answered yes to most of these questions, you seriously need to start thinking about getting a break.

Do you often get irritated for no reason? Do you take on a lot of hours and have some sort of made up explanation for it? Are you complaining a lot about your students? Do you hate coming to work? Do you call in sick quite often? Are you the biggest fan of TGIF and shooting off asap? Do you storm out of the classroom as soon as the lesson is over? Do you take ages to correct anything for your students? Are you hard to approach for students? Do you often zone out and can’t pay attention?

How can you avoid teacher burnout?

What I would personally recommend because this is what I do on a regular basis is find a hobby that can recharge you. As far as I’m concerned, it should be something physically challenging because if you are mentally exhausted, more mental work will not necessarily revive you.

As it was mentioned in the example above, I’m fond of mountain biking, and getting away for a day is perfect for letting go of most of the stress. However, sometimes, from time to time, you need to take longer sabbaticals, which I do when I visit my family’s little summer house at a lake and spend a couple of weeks there.

Nevertheless, it’s important to mention that not everybody can get away for weeks (although for teachers I would prescribe that as some sort of compulsory medication) and not everybody can enjoy several days alone because they might have families or other duties. But even then, spending some time away from all the work and hassle could do miracles.

Also, if you cannot get away soon enough, sharing the workload could be a solution. It might be that you use other teacher colleagues’ ideas and lesson plans, or that you recycle your materials from time to time without worrying too much about having the most up-to-date lesson. Using ready-made lessons or lesson plans can also be a good idea (e.g.,, ESL brains, or Film English).

Another quicker remedy could be setting a reminder for yourself when you should definitely stop working. In today’s world it’s inevitable that you take work home with you, but try setting yourself a limit after which you put the pen/tablet down and deal with your other things at home. Try not being a perfectionist and leave those tasks for later which are not urgent.

What’s done is done and what’s not can be done tomorrow.


Dornyei, Z. (2001). Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom. Cambridge University Press.

Dornyei, Z. (1998). Motivation in second and foreign language learning. Language Teaching, 31, pp. 117-­135, doi:10.1017/S026144480001315X

McCombs, B. L. & Pope, J. E. (1994). Motivating Hard to Reach Students. American Psychological Association.

Sakai, H. & Kikuchi, K. (2009). An analysis of demotivators in the EFL classroom. System 37, pp. 57-69. doi: 10.1016/j.system.2008.09.005

Wilson, K. (2012). Motivating the Unmotivated. Report:


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