A quick review with personal account on learning motivation and suggestions for EFL teachers

Have you ever wondered why you have to learn certain subjects? Have you ever been asked by your students why they have to do certain things in class? We all do our best when we see what we do as helpful or enjoyable. In other words, we do things better when we have motivation. This also applies to learning in general and language learning in specific. In this blog, I would love to decode the term motivation from the literature on second language learning and relate it to my own learning experience to develop some suggestions for teachers.

Many researchers have confirmed the significant role of motivation in second language learning success (Gardner & Lambert, 1972; Dörnyei, 1998; Williams & Burden, 1997; Engin, 2009). In this blog, motivation is defined as “a combination of effort plus desire to achieve the goal of learning the language plus favourable attitudes towards learning the language” (Gardner, 1985, p. 10). Motivation is commonly believed to vary from individuals to individuals. Gardner and his fellows have categorized motivations into instrumental and integrative (Gardner & Lambert 1972; Gardner 1985; Gardner & Tremblay, 1994). However, according to Brown (1994), these studies had more to do with the differences in learners’ orientations, not motivation. Cognitive theorists distinguished intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (Williams & Burden, 1997). Extrinsic motivation refers to a situation “when the only reason for performing an act is to gain something outside the activity itself” (Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, as cited in Williams & Burden, 1997, p. 123). By contrast, intrinsic motivation is generated when a person does something because they have their own interest and enjoyment in doing the activity itself.

At the beginning of secondary school, my motivation came from extrinsic motivation. The main reasons for studying English included participating in competitions, passing exams with flying colours and pleasing my parents. Whenever I was praised by my parents or teachers for having an excellent performance at school, I was more than happy. I was highly encouraged that if I studied well enough, I could get high scores. However, later in my journey, having gained some recognition, I became more interested in learning the English language and culture than the scores. I wanted to enrich my knowledge, considering learning English more enjoyable, relevant to intrinsic motivation. At this point, I started to learn English for enjoyment, not for a particular purpose as previously. Now, I love learning English because I see my progress and find pleasure during my learning activities. I like sharing things with my friends when we discuss, and I feel more confident when achieving the tasks.

There is a relationship between these two kinds of motivation, which may work together to motivate learning (Harter, 1981). Such positive reinforcements as positive comments or rewards can boost students’ self-confidence and enjoyment (Brown, 1994). In other words, intrinsic motivation plays a more significant role, but extrinsic motivation indeed can lead to intrinsic motivation. In my case, although I started with a view to having excellent academic results, the achievements encouraged me to put more and more effort into my learning.

At this part, I suddenly think of my Chinese learning journey, lasting for about 6 non-continuous months. I admit that I was not a successful Chinese learner, but I am confident that I was a successful test taker. I started to learn Chinese because I had to get a second foreign language certificate for my university graduation. I first started in a Chinese small-sized class and ended up with 4-month tutoring sessions. To be honest, I often failed to complete the homework and was also less active in my learning process compared to when I learned English. I stopped learning Chinese 9 months ago after I successfully got my certificate.

I didn’t start learning English and Chinese because I found the learning process pleasing or interesting. However, I gradually gained my confidence in the English classroom and found joy in the learning process. This was mainly because of the exciting activities I participated in class and the recognition I have gained. By contrast, I focused too much on the test during the Chinese tutor sessions and, therefore, ignored other exciting things about Chinese culture. As a result, I could not maintain my motivation after the test and dropped the language in the end.

A visual summary of my experience and suggestions

From my own experience as a language learner, here are the five suggestions for any language teachers to improve and sustain students’ motivation.

1. Offer rewards

This suggestion has something to do with extrinsic motivation. When students perform well, some incentives like candies, compliments, books and so on (of course, these have to fit their preferences) can boost their mood for learning and therefore, they keep trying their best next time to get the good rewards. This especially works for young children when they do not really find it necessary to learn and think spending time playing games or watching TV is more interesting.

2. Create activities that fit different learning styles

Different learners have their own ways of learning. Some like pictures but some like music. Some learn best when they watch video while some prefer to read materials and discuss. For this reason, classroom activities should be varied in order to make students feel comfortable and enjoy themselves in the learning process.

3. Set high but achievable goals

Learners are encourage when they can feel success. Classroom should be an environment for learning, not testing. One way to this is to help them achieve their goals. That said, too easy tasks may make students lose interest and too difficult tasks can easily discourage them.

4. Support reflection

One way to sustain intrinsic motivation is to make learners aware of their own progress. Teachers can achieve this but setting short-term and long-term goals and help students recognise that they have achieved the goals at specific times. A lesson diary or a learning journal can help students recognise how far they have gone, giving them a sense of progress.

5. Make students responsible for their activities

Modern classrooms are moving away from the teacher-centred model and therefore, students should be able to make decisions. Giving them some control can make the class more engaging and provide learners with a feeling of commitment. Also, learners may feel more comfortable if they are not under too much control.

A reflection on my learning experience has suggested that motivation should come first at the beginning of the learning journey to help learners actively participate in the learning process. Motivation can be derived from materialistic awards initially, and teachers should make the most of these to activate students’ interest and sustain it for the entire learning journey.


Brown, H. D. (1994). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Dörnyei, Z. (1998). Motivation in second and foreign language learning. Language Teaching, 31(3), 117–135. doi:10.1017/S026144480001315X

Engin, A. O. (2009). Second language learning success and motivation. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 37(8), 1035–1041. doi:10.2224/sbp.2009.37.8.1035

Gardner, R. C. (1985). Social psychology and second language learning: The role of attitudes and motivation. London: Hodder Arnold.

Gardner, R. C., & Lambert, W. E. (1972). Attitudes and motivation in second language learning. Rowley: Newbury House.

Gardner, R. C., & Tremblay, P. F. (1994). On motivation, research agendas, and theoretical frameworks. The Modern Language Journal, 78(3), 359. doi:10.2307/330113

Harter, S. (1981). A new self-report scale of intrinsic versus extrinsic orientation in the classroom: Motivational and informational components. Developmental Psychology, 17(3), 300–312. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.17.3.300

Williams, M., & Burden, R. L. (1997). Psychology for language Teachers: A social constructivist approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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