You’ve heard the proverb you get more bees with honey than vinegar, haven’t you?
It’s a simple way of pointing out there are both positive and negative ways to motivate someone. It’s true in the classroom, too. There are positive and negative ways to motivate students. Here are three techniques for motivating students in the right way, no vinegar in sight.
3 Techniques for Investing Students in Their Own Learning
Let Students Set Their Own Goals
What are some things you absolutely want to do in your lifetime? What’s on your bucket list? No matter what holds that number one space on your list, I’ll bet you’d work a lot harder to make that happen than to accomplish what is number one on my bucket list, whatever that may be. We don’t get our bucket lists from other people. It is something we come up with based on what’s inside each of us. That is because your bucket list is a collection of your goals, what you want to do. It is not a checklist that someone else said you had to accomplish.
Trying to complete someone else’s bucket list is kind of what learning is like when we are the ones setting all the goals for our class. Yes, we may know what our students need best, and we should seek to accomplish those teaching goals. But students like to have a say in their own education as well. When we let students play a part in setting goals, they will be more motivated to accomplish them.
You don’t have to make student goal setting complicated, either. Something as simple as a K/W/L chart at the beginning of a unit will give them some input in what you cover in class. If you aren’t familiar with a K/W/L chart, you should be. It’s a simple process that is very rewarding for everyone involved.
At the start of your unit, whatever it is on (in this case, let’s say transportation), take some class time to brainstorm what you already know about the topic. Write “travel” at the top of your board or a piece of paper, and divide the page into three columns. At the top of the first column, write Know. What do your students already know about transportation? Write down everything they say. This process will get them thinking about the vocabulary and concepts they already know that relate to the topic of travel. After that, move on to the second column, which you will title Want to Know. Then brainstorm every question your students have regarding transportation. This is a subtle way of letting students set their own goals. You will know what they want to learn, and hopefully you make it possible for students to answer their own questions throughout the course of the unit. Once the unit is over, you fill out the final column of the chart, which is titles What I Learned. It is a nice time to review the subject matter of the unit as well as show students their accomplishments.
There are more obvious ways to let students set their own goals, too. Try interviewing students to find out what they want to do with the English they learn, brainstorm with your class what topics students want to cover, or ask students to share their learning goals in another way.
Give Feedback Rather Than Grades
I recently read about a study that compared three different ways to give students assessment during a project. One group received only feedback with no grades until the project was complete and they got their final grade. The feedback consisted of what they were doing well and ways they could improve their performance. The second group got feedback as well as grades. The feedback, like that given to the first group, consisted of comments on what they were doing well and ways they could improve what they were doing. The third group got only grades with none of the other details.
The students in the first group performed at a much higher level than either other of the other groups. And what is interesting is the group that got feedback as well as grades didn’t do any better than the group that got nothing but a letter on the page. The study went on to conclude that grades do not motivate students to do better in class.
This just goes to show that the best motivation is internal motivation. Students want to learn and take steps to improve themselves, but sometimes grades can actually hinder that.
To motivate your ESL students without grades, try giving periodic quizzes in which you do not assign a grade to student performance. They will still see what they got right and what they got wrong, but instead of giving them a grade suggest ways they could improve their performance.
If you are doing a longer project such as a research report, a speech or presentation, or reading and entire novel, rather than giving grades throughout the process, discuss with students what they are doing well and where they need to improve as they complete the project. Not only will this be conversation practice, it will motivate them to do better and improve their performance. At the end of the project, have a final conference with each student and ask what grade they think they earned for the project. Most likely, you’ll already agree with them. If not, encourage them to think about certain aspects of their performance and consider a different grade. At the end of the conference, you and your student can come to an agreement about what grade they should receive for the project.
Listen to Their Thoughts, Even If It’s on Your Teaching
It can be difficult to stomach criticism in the best circumstances, but when it comes from your students it can be devastating. Try as we might, however, every class is different and what works with one class will not work with another. That’s just one reason we should give students a voice as to how and what they want to learn.
Some classes enjoy learning through games. Others are big fans of movies. Still others want to work independently or do online instruction and quizzes. Giving your students a way to tell you how they want to learn and then apply their suggestions will help them become more engaged and motivated when it comes to language learning.
One simple way is to have a suggestion box where students can write out suggestions for what they want to learn, activities they liked or disliked, and things they would like to do in future classes. If you want to be a little more formal in your evaluation, do a survey periodically asking each student to answer each of those questions. If you want even more input from your class, try conducting an evaluation session after a large project or when you finish a unit. Have a class discussion about what went well, and take notes on what students say. When the conversation dies down a little, move on to what didn’t work well. Again, write it all down. Wrap the conversation up with suggestions from your students as to what they would do differently next time, then apply that information to your next big project.
Motivating students isn’t always easy, but it is rewarding.
When students are motivated from the inside rather than by grades or even punishment, they participate more and more willingly, they take ownership of their own learning, and they feel that successes are personal accomplishments, which will only serve to motivate them further. Try one of these techniques and you will see your students come alive with the love of learning and the energy to accomplish their tasks.