What motivates students?


This past semester, some of my colleagues and I at the Intensive English Institute participated in a book club.  We read a wonderful book---What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain (2004). I had actually started to read this independently, and then I realized how much better it would be if I could relate it to language teaching by discussing it with others in the TESOL field.

Several chapters gave me lots to chew on---but one area that I'm really still puzzled about is student motivation.  Bain points to the research of Deci, Richard, and deCharms that suggests that if students suspect any sort of manipulation due to external reward, they might lose interest. But, at the same time, he mentions that without external motivation, intrinsic fascination might also diminish.  According to Bain, the most successful educators he has worked with aim to avoid extrinsic motivators and instead work to develop intrinsic motivators for students. 

What Bain seemed to uncover across a selection of the best college teachers makes sense: those teachers strive to help foster intrinsic motivators while avoiding the extrinsic.  This requires instructors to demonstrate to students the faith they have in their abilities and provide them with feedback and opportunities to improve. This suggests the need to refrain from curving grades and instead provide students with opportunities to earn the highest grades.

When I read this, I think, "Well, I do these things."  Yet, sometimes it seems like students still lack motivation.  If I provide extra reading, vocabulary, or listening practice and students know it isn't tied to a grade, most choose not to do it.

Bain says that in order to take the focus off grades we need to appeal to inquiries and always bring the class back to the big questions that are tied to the course.  We should highlight the course promises, the sorts of questions about the discipline that students will learn to answer, and the intellectual and physical abilities they will develop as a result of the course.

This makes me think about the big questions in language courses, specifically ESL.  This is when it's vital to look back on my own second language learning experiences.  Please share--How do you keep those sort of inquiries at the forefront of your course?


Photo credit: Flickr user aldrin_muya