13th March 2018

Unlocking student motivation and engagement: what makes learners tick?

By Tom Garside

In the choppy world of full-time language teaching, teachers working with several groups of learners for short periods, sometimes moving between settings with adults, kids, teens, businesspeople and tutorial students, it is easy to lose track of the individuals who are looking up to you for their development.

A common symptom is when the personal touch gets lost, and teachers work to the format of materials they are using rather than considering the profile of the learners themselves. A good principle to bear in mind is to teach students rather than teaching to the textbook. But how can we ensure we are targeting individual social, personal, motivational and linguistic needs of each learner in our classes?

The first step to achieving this is to look more closely at who our learners are, and what drives them to be in our classroom in the first place. This approach can help us to personalise our delivery to the members of the groups which we teach, and helps to engage those who would otherwise be demotivated and switch off.

Holistic needs analysis

A strong first step towards giving your learners what they need is to find out directly what needs they have in different areas of their study. Needs analysis can take the form of a test, a series of interviews, questionnaires or monitored tasks, depending on how your class responds to these forms of assessment. Ideally, a needs analysis activity should take place early in a course of study to leave time for targeted teaching to be designed in order to meet the needs that you identify. A good needs analysis activity should address the full range of factors that can affect learning. This can include linguistic, personal, motivational, experiential and goal-oriented factors.

Language needs

When diagnosing learners’ language needs, you have a choice of where to focus the assessment. If you know what outcomes you will be working towards over the course of study (e.g. if you are working to a curriculum or preparing for an exam), you may want to design a typical test containing questions relating to the specific skills an language needed for a successful outcome to be reached (a practice exam paper, or grammar and vocabulary test combining examples of the full range of language which appears on the curriculum). On the other hand, a more global perspective can be gained from a productive task such as a written response or a spoken interview with pre-planned questions. The benefit to using speaking or writing as a mode for testing is that the learner must draw on their full linguistic resource (any and all of the language they possess) to complete the task, so common areas of strength and weakness can be diagnosed from their real production of language. A comprehensive needs analysis questionnaire might look like this .

Learner preferences, not learner styles

Aside from purely linguistic competence, it is also important to find out how your learners prefer to study. Do they like to work with pictures, puzzles or word games? Do they like acting, or do they prefer writing out their ideas? These different approaches to learning can be informed by previous educational experiences (and the styles of educating that are favoured within them), or may be simply down to the individual preferences of the learners themselves. Both of these are valid factors in this important area.

Be careful not to pigeonhole your learners into the famous ‘visual / auditory / kinaesthetic’ boxes, as this is a severe oversimplification  of the range of ways that people prefer to work with language. Any group of learners will have a range of different preferences, but by quickly diagnosing the range of likes and dislikes in a group, you can plan to include the different stimulus types that they will respond to in your teaching. This will lead to higher levels of engagement and therefore (hopefully) higher levels of performance too.


One view is that despite what we would like to think, it is not really possible for a teacher to motivate students, but that true motivation (or lack of it) already exists within the learner. A good teacher will target that motivation and bring out the best in their performance along the way. This means that it is important to know why your students are (or are not) motivated to work in certain ways in your classes. This again depends on a range of factors, from assumptions about the educational setting based on prior experience, to learner preferences and to outside factors such as family pressure or school expectations.

Broadly speaking, motivational factors can be split into two groups: intrinsic (meaning the student-specific likes and dislikes, preferences and personal goals which come from the individual) and extrinsic (meaning outside influences such as competition with classmates, the wish to be promoted to a better job, or for success in an exam, where the criteria for achievement are set by factors outside of the learners themselves). Intrinsic motivators can be appealed to in the same way as learner preferences, above, by finding appropriate stimulators for performance (by using topics and situations in classes designed according to the likes and wants of the learners), but external motivators are a little more difficult to manage.

As the criteria for success are not set by the learner, it is your job as a teacher to find some middle ground between these external requirements and the day-to-day interests of the students. With a little work, even the driest exam sections can be made more enticing to learners by changing the topic of the reading and rewriting the questions, or applying the same exam skills to different, more stimulating resources. Answering inference questions about a video clip from a sitcom dealing with city life rather than a test recording about urban decay, for example, targets the same key listening skill, and can act as a more engaging springboard into discussion of city problems.

Understanding learners’ purposes

Finally, it is worth considering why your learners are studying in your classes at all. Are they headed to university in an English speaking country? Will they need English for their chosen career? Do your learners find English important in their lives at all? The answers to these questions will inform you of how to pitch the content in your classes. Relating what you teach (directly or indirectly) to where your students will be going in the future goes a long way to helping them to focus and engage with what you teach them. If you are teaching listening and note-taking skills, that’s important for university-level study. Working with technology vocabulary? That will serve you well in the IT industry. Teaching persuasive language through speaking? That is a key skill for business negotiations. Knowing where your students might apply the language you teach in their futures can inform how you relate language and purpose. This is much more helpful than ‘you need to know this – it’s on the test!’.

In all, getting to know your learners has many benefits. A little extra effort to find out who they are and what makes them tick can help you to identify keys to motivation, preferences, personalisation and language that can unlock learning for them, and give them what they need in a way that they will enjoy. Stay interested in your learners, and they will be more interested in what you do in the classroom.

Are you looking for continuing professional development workshops in Hong Kong? Check out our CPD calendar for a full list of teaching skills workshops.

Tom Garside, EfA’s former Director of Teacher Training, has 18 years of teaching and training experience in Europe, New Zealand and China. He holds a degree in Linguistics and French, Cambridge CELTA and DELTA qualifications, a Post-Graduate Diploma in TESOL and an MATESOL. He has trained teachers in Europe, as part of the European Union Comenius teacher development project, provided initial training for the Trinity CertTESOL and provides in-service training for native and non-native-speaker teachers in a wide range of teaching situations. He is the author of the essential CertTESOL course supplement, Tesol: A Gateway Guide for Teachers of English.