(This readers’ favorite narrates a success and a failure and draws lessons from both. May it encourage you to keep learning how to motivate your students!)
I looked up from my textbook having just explained the task at hand. Every hand was in the air, and some students were doing that eager half-stand between desk and chair. I smiled, “I love you.” They smiled. I drew two names from my stack of student cards, because who can choose from 24 earnestly raised hands? The two lucky winners executed the task beautifully and I praised them generously. That was Wednesday.
Thursday, same textbook, podium, and classroom, different students, and one hand was in the air, and it belonged to the highest-level most motivated student in the class, one of the few strong that carry the rest from the starting line to the bell, and maybe through a few homework assignments. I drew two names. The two unfortunates stumbled through the task, and I corrected the most easily corrected errors because they were simple and related to something I just taught.
Walking to my bike after class, I reflected on the week. My Monday class fell between these extremes. I fought the temptation to gear my lessons toward the motivated. I fought the temptation to break out the monkey suit and hustle for the approval of the unmotivated ones. Here’s what I came up with instead:
Clarify the expectations and rationale.
Isolate the main objectives for the lesson and connect them to the goal of the course. Explain to the students what the task at hand is designed to accomplish and that you expect them to complete it to the best of their ability though not with perfection. While giving them ample time, monitor students, especially groups who are not engaged, checking for understanding. These are basics, and when you’re dealing with unmotivated students, you have to return to them, perhaps repeatedly, as if they are the only things on the menu.
Take learning styles into account.
Whatever subject you teach, there is probably a conventional way to teach it, and for good reason. Sometimes, however, conventional methods exercise certain learning styles and preferences over others.
It turned out that the bulk of my Thursday class preferred individual work over group work. They were more capable of processing new language in writing before they were willing to speak. So I created a worksheet to accompany the lesson. Before every oral group task, I gave them several minutes to complete it individually in writing first.
The worksheet wasn’t beautiful or innovative, but it administered a hearty dose of extrinsic motivation. I could collect it at the end of the class and the act of handing in their work motivated some to engage tasks rather than just “observing.”
To be human is to be creative. The opportunity to create a product other than the immediate goal (spoken language, in my case) may open stores of untapped motivation.
Before class one day I unloaded sheets of butcher paper, markers and tape. Simple art supplies. My students’ eyes widened, and I had their rapt attention as I explained the task. It wasn’t novel but something we would do regularly. The only difference was the supplies and ample time for creativity. The results were amusing and attractive, and each group delighted to explain their creation. I wondered if they realized they were speaking English.
The last class of the year with Thursday’s students was a gift. Knowing that I would be indefinitely returning to my home country, they honored me with speeches, singing, dancing, nunchucks, kungfu, and gifts. I blessed them with heartfelt words for true life and prosperity. My efforts were rewarded beyond measure, and I’m thankful. Had they not been though, it would have still been worth it to meet them where they were, discern what could be done to prod them on, and diligently apply these three principles to both the motivated and unmotivated students alike.