In Pursuit of Motivational Strategies that Enhance Independent Learning

Michael E. Canning, English Language and Cultural Services (ELCS)
Cheri Pierson, Ph.D., Wheaton College
Ryan Schultz, Wheaton College

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When I first started studying Hebrew, I was more interested in going to Jerusalem to be immersed in Jewish culture than in learning the Hebrew language.  I was reluctant to speak Hebrew in the classroom and my goal was simply to survive the language classes.  Fortunately, my enthusiasm for Hebrew grew under the encouragement of several teachers who were highly motivated to help me learn.  
First and foremost, my teachers invested in me and sought to know my goals as a language student.  They could see that I had a curiosity about Jewish culture, and they helped me to understand that becoming a proficient Hebrew language learner would help me gain a better understanding of Jewish culture and life in the Middle East.  My teachers were open and honest with me and provided constant feedback on my work.  They set high standards and believed that I could grow to be a confident Hebrew speaker.
Specifically, their feedback on my speaking exams was very telling about my progress.  A major turning point occurred during one particular speaking exam: I maintained a conversation in Hebrew for a full twenty minutes.  I didn’t know that I had it in me!  My teachers were quick to praise me for how much my speaking skills had grown.  Although the experience was challenging, I left the exam more encouraged than ever to take risks and speak in Hebrew.

The language-learning activities that I enjoyed the most were role-plays and in-class presentations.  Certain teachers created a comfortable learning environment where risk-taking was encouraged.  We did not feel embarrassed when we made mistakes.  We learned strategies for overcoming communication breakdowns, and my knowledge and confidence grew. 

This personal account from Ryan, one of the authors of this paper, highlights the learning environment and strategies used by his teachers to enhance his motivation toward becoming proficient in Hebrew.  In the following paragraphs, we draw from this account as we provide a working definition of motivation in language learning, recommend questions to determine our students’ motivations, and describe three effective motivational teaching strategies.   
Motivation and teaching motivationally

Zoltán Dörnyei (2011), a scholar on motivation in second language learning, states the following in his book Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom:
Because human behavior has two basic dimensions – direction and magnitude (intensity) – motivation by definition concerns both of these.  It is responsible for the choice of a particular action, the effort expended on it and the persistence with it.  Therefore, motivation explains why people decide to do something, how hard they are going to pursue it and how long they are willing to sustain the activity. (p. 7) 
Student motivations to improve in English are wide-ranging, but it helps us immensely as teachers to learn what these are.  In the first week of class, asking each student a question like, “Why do you want to improve your English skills?” or “What do you want to be able to do in English?” will yield important information about them.  It is beneficial to have students write down their motivations so we can refer to and connect with them during the course.          
Once we have an understanding of our students’ motivations, we can use teaching strategies to enhance them.  Dörnyei (2011) describes thirty-five motivational teaching strategies, but recommends that at any given time teachers choose a small number – perhaps one to three – to implement in their classrooms.  Adhering to this advice, we will describe three teaching strategies that we have found to be effective. 
1. Explain the purpose and utility of a task.
Before plowing directly into our lesson for the day, it is meaningful for students if we first explain the purpose of that item/principle and how it connects to daily life and/or their future.    

We can describe where a grammar item fits into a bigger picture and why it is useful, illustrate why vocabulary is important to learn for the different professions they are aspiring to, or explain why the reading or writing principle they are about to learn will help them become stronger readers and writers in their chosen fields.  We can find examples of where the items/principles can be seen in daily life (Dörnyei, 2011, pp. 79-80) – on the web, in newspapers, in reading genres that they will soon be encountering, etc.    

Ryan’s teachers in Jerusalem, after learning what his goals were, impressed upon him that full engagement with his daily lessons would lead to proficiency in his learning of Hebrew. This in turn would help him reach his primary goal of gaining greater knowledge and appreciation of Jewish culture and life in the Middle East. 
Increase learner satisfaction by providing feedback on progress and taking time to celebrate victories.
A teacher’s prompt praise and encouraging words provide in-the-moment feedback that can be very beneficial.  However, there is more to feedback than simply praise and encouragement.  Motivational feedback is designed to “prompt the learner to reflect constructively on the areas that need improvement” (Dörnyei, 2011, p. 123).  An approach known as positive information feedback (Raffini, 1993, p.147) involves describing to the students their strengths, achievements, progress, and attitudes.  Students receive valuable and specific teacher feedback on their performance and effort, leading to greater satisfaction.

Celebrations “affirm the entire learning process… and provide the bright spots along the road towards the ultimate goal” (Dörnyei, 2011, p. 125).  Besides verbal and written praise to individual students, the teacher can address the whole class at the end of a unit with, “Look at what we’ve done and the things you’ve learned in these last 8 weeks.  Good work!”  Celebrating periodically with snacks and with an end-of-term party also fosters satisfaction.

Returning to Ryan’s language-learning experience, his teachers provided frequent, honest, and specific feedback on his progress.  They praised his hard work and growth, and celebrated his ability to sustain a twenty-minute conversation in Hebrew during a difficult oral exam.
3. Teach students communication strategies to help them overcome communication difficulties.
Every language learner encounters communication roadblocks.  Communication strategies – e.g., repetition, approximation, gestures, asking for clarification, and word coinage – are tools that enable the learner to move past roadblocks and maintain communication.  As students gain knowledge of and skill with strategies their confidence and independence will grow. 

Ryan’s teachers superintended a classroom-learning environment where risk-taking was encouraged.  Through role-plays and other activities, Ryan and his classmates learned and applied specific communication strategies to keep communication on track.
If we know our students’ motivations to improve their language skills, we can teach in ways that specifically connect with and enhance those motivations.  We have described three effective motivational teaching strategies; there are many others.  Through the use of selected motivational teaching strategies we can assist our students to become increasingly independent and make strides in their language learning.
Dörnyei, Z.  (2011).  Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press   
Raffini, J. P.  (1993).  Winners without losers: Structures and strategies for increasing student motivation to learn. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.


Michael E. Canning is an intensive language school and workplace communication instructor; Cheri Pierson, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Intercultural Studies/TESOL at Wheaton College; Ryan Schultz is a Master’s Degree candidate in Intercultural Studies/TESOL at Wheaton College.

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ITBE Link - Fall 2013 - Volume 41 Number 3

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