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Your students have plenty of motivation—use it!

Each of us has dozens of goals. I would love to have time to publish ten journal articles a year, take my wife on dates, write a book, learn Mandarin, and run a half marathon each week. But there are only so many hours in the day, and with limited time, some things are going to win out over others. That 300 page masterwork on English phonetics is not going to get finished if I’m more interested in working on my calligraphy.

Your students are the same. If you want them to prioritize your work, take a three-pronged approach. Make it relevant, make it social, and make it fun[1]—or at least less painful.

Who do your students want to become?

First, understand why your students are taking your class. Is it a mandatory course? Maybe they only care about a passing grade. Is it part of their major? They might have career goals. In your introductory student survey, ask your students why they’re taking your course. You do have an introductory student survey, don’t you?

Understanding your students’ goals helps you teach, and it helps motivate your students, too. Research on motivation stresses the importance of the “future self” for long-term motivation.[2] Asking students about their goals reminds them of that future self they are working to build, and helps encourage autonomy. Maybe they want to be the sort of person who studies abroad for a semester or two. Help them become that person, and work relevant material into your lessons when you can.

People power sets priorities

Use the power of relationships to make your work a higher priority. We’re social apes, and we want to be liked. If you design a group project well, your students will have an extra level of social pressure that will make them put the project higher on their list. They may not value your class more than watching the latest episode of Kimetsu no Yaeba, but they probably value their reputation at least that highly.

There’s a social aspect to solo work as well, though. If your students care about your opinion of them, they’ll put your assignments ahead of other things on their list. So much of classroom management comes down to mutual respect, and you’ll get it if you earn it.

Remove the barriers

One reason your students might be de-prioritizing the work is that the tasks are hard to start. Think about your assignments from their perspective. Can they crack their knuckles and get to work straight away, or do they have to read 300+ words of explanation before they can do the assignment? Don’t lock the meaningful work away behind a bunch of busywork and preparation. Make your assignments as clear, concise, and painless as they possibly can be. Design your worksheets carefully, so your students know exactly what they need to do.

The motivation trifecta

Students will make your work a priority if the incentives are there. Make your work relevant to their needs, and they’ll motivate themselves. Make your work social, and they’ll motivate each other. Make your work accessible and fun, and it will motivate students, too.

Photo Credit: Photo bySuzy Hazelwood fromPexels


[1] Richard Koestner and Gaëtan F. Losier, “Distinguishing three ways of being highly motivated: A closer look at introjection, identification, and intrinsic motivation.” In Deci & Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of self-determination research (p. 101–121). University of Rochester Press, 2002.

[2] Martin Lamb, "Future selves, motivation and autonomy in long-term EFL learning trajectories." In Murray, Gao & Lamb (Eds.), Identity, motivation and autonomy in language learning, Multilingual Matters, 2011.


Jeff is a language teacher and linguist based in Tokyo, Japan. His research focuses on second language phonology and articulatory phonetics—how we learn to use our mouths to make foreign sounds. He would very much like to know how you pronounce “marry, merry, and Mary". Twitter Contact: @JeffMoore

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