Learner Motivation: A Wannabe Runner’s Musings
I started running again at the end of August. Now, for those of you who don’t know me well (or at all), this may not sound like a big deal. I mean, I’m not a sloth. I’m a relatively fit individual who tries to stay healthy by working out regularly and watching what I eat. However, I’m not what one would describe as an athlete and certainly not a “natural” runner. I wouldn’t even say that I have an aptitude for the sport. I don’t glide effortlessly through the dewy country air with an unbearable lightness of being. No. My feet hit the pavement with an audible thud and my legs move with a heaviness that I try to conceal. For me, running is a struggle. It’s hard, sometimes it hurts, BUT when I’m done I feel lighter. I feel a sense of accomplishment that pushes me to continue.
So…what does all of this whining have to do with education? Well, a lot actually. The question I ask myself as I’m plodding along, hoping that my lungs don’t explode is: Why am I doing this? And more pressingly, why do I keep doing it? These cries of anguish got me thinking (and my neighbours too) about what motivates me to learn, and in turn, how and why the students I’ve tried to teach over the years are motivated to learn things that are potentially difficult for them.
In my opinion, one of the great equalizers in the classroom, if not in life, is motivation. But how do we as parents, educators and students harness its power? How do you motivate yourself or others to want to learn something and to keep on coming back for more? The literature in the field is ripe with theories. My particular area of interest is motivation as a variable in the acquisition of a second language or language learning motivation (LLM). So bear with me, fellow FLS/ESL teachers, as I try to make the connections between what motivates me as a learner, what I have observed when teaching kids a second language, and some of the research that supports this dialogue.
Here are my top 4 motivators for learning:
1. A goal. Not a big one, just something to set my sights on. My current goal is to complete a weekly “couch to 5K” running program by the end of October and then compete in a fun run for charity. Having to prepare for my goal gets me moving, and knowing that the goal is attainable pushes me to not only make an effort but to sustain that effort over time. In a classroom context, goals can be individual or defined by the group. They can be personal in nature or related to a learning situation. According to theorists, goals help to direct our attention toward relevant activities, they encourage students to regulate their effort, and they positively affect persistence (Locke and Latham, 2002). Of course, having too lofty a goal can backfire. For example: I’m finally going to learn to speak French this year and ace my finals. Baby steps people!
2. Regular, positive feedback. I’m not only talking about corrective feedback here. Right now, I don’t have a running buddy. I have to rely on the kindness of Robert Ullrey (see below) and his free podcasts to get my fix of the warm and fuzzies. He provides just the right combination of enthusiasm, running tips and jazzy music to keep me going. In my experience, just being an accessible, attentive and enthusiastic teacher, who provides a safe learning environment, garners points for positively affecting the motivation of students. If we revisit the notion of goal setting, feedback has been proven critical in showing progress and influencing performance. (Locke and Latham, 2002). Feedback encourages students to think about what they are doing in order to make adjustments, get better and stay invested. In a quick exchange with a physical trainer two weeks ago, I learned that I was a classic “heel-striker” and that my running form had a critical flaw that was causing me some pain. So, I changed my stance and I’m now back on track….literally.
3. A little success is always a good thing. Three years ago I completed my first 10K. This small victory has given me the courage to take on more athletic pursuits. I suppose you could classify this type of causal thinking under the attribution theory of motivation. Dörnyei (2001) hypothesizes that the reasons to which students attribute their past successes and failures in learning a language impact and shape their motivational outlook. In a school setting, these reasons (or causes) include: ability, effort, luck, task difficulty, mood, family background, and help from others. The locus of control is super important here. If students attribute failure to something they perceive to have little control over, like natural ability, their motivation for learning decreases. For a learner then, maintaining a positive self-image and a belief in his/her potential is critical to learning. In the language classroom, experiencing small successes also helps to increase self-confidence in a learner’s ability to communicate and lessens the anxiety of making mistakes.
4. Choice. Making choices gives me the feeling that I’m in control of my life. Nobody forced me to start running again. I’m the captain of my destiny! Of course, being cajoled into learning a second language is not ideal – but that’s what most of the FLS teachers I know deal with in the real world. Providing students with choice within the context of the classroom, as well as in the design of our courses and lessons is a good start. I would be remiss however, if I didn’t include a nod here to the theory of self determination and how it applies in a larger sense to motivation and learning. To be self-determined implies that learners have a choice in terms of their own actions…in both the initiating and regulating of what they’re doing. Another word for this would be autonomy. Deci and Ryan (2000) distinguish between two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. When we are intrinsically motivated to do something it is for the internal rewards we get out of it: happiness, satisfying our curiosity, the shear joy of running, etc. Extrinsic motivators might include things like: praise from a teacher, good grades, well-defined calves, etc. What theorists suggest is that when self-determination is shaped by intrinsic motivation and autonomy, that’s when the learning outcomes are the most beneficial. Which brings us full circle: How do we get students to motivate themselves to learn?
I have to admit that motivation is both an ill-defined and complex concept. LLM interplays with a myriad of factors including attitude, aptitude, context, content, and the list goes on. I’ve only tapped into a few of these. I’m currently working on compiling concrete how-to’s, strategies, tips or anecdotes that have to do with intrinsically motivating students. And you, how do you handle motivation in your classroom?
I’ll see you after my run!
References (for your reading and listening pleasure)
Locke, E. & Latham. J. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57 (90), 705-717. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.126.9922&rep=rep1&type=pdf.
Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “What” and “Why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11 (4), 227-268. Retrieved from
Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Teaching and researching motivation. Harlow, England: Longman. (Sorry – this one is not available online)
Dörnyei, Z. (2003). Attitudes, orientations, and motivations in language learning: Advances in theory, research, and applications. Language Learning, 53 (1), 3-32. Retrieved from
Robert Ullrey’s Couch to 5K Podcasts (http://www.c25k.com/podcasts.htm)