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Wake up, this is your teacher speaking

A look at motivational strategies in the EFL classroom

EFL Students, especially the less proficient, may not view teachers’ motivational strategies as intended, according to a study by Moon Hong Min and Yuah Chon, at Hanjany University, South Korea.

While there have been many studies proposing motivational strategies for language teaching, Min and Chon’s focus was on the learner’s experience and how effective such strategies actually are in improving language proficiency. To do this, they developed a 40-item questionnaire asking students and teachers to agree or disagree with statements based on an established model for developing motivation: ARCS (Keller 1987).

The four subscales of the questionnaire were based on the four ARCS components:

  • Attention-getting: eg, ‘Q1. T makes use of a variety of visual and auditory materials.’
  • Relevance-promoting: eg, ‘Q 13. T explains in detail how successful learning is going to help me.’
  • Confidence-building: eg, ‘Q 27. T allows us to control the pace of learning.’
  • Satisfaction-generating: the outcome of the previous three factors that can relate to extrinsic (eg, grades) or intrinsic (eg, feeling competent)motivations: eg, ‘Q40. The difficulty of the exams are appropriate, neither easy nor difficult.’

Two hundred and forty-six 16-17-year-old students and their 12 teachers from private high schools in Gangneung, South Korea, completed the questionnaires. Students also gave their results from a recent national English proficiency test and were further categorised as having high, mid- or low-level proficiency. Eight of the students were also interviewed in more depth.

Throughout the account, these classes were typically described as being ‘non-communicative’ in style, with several references to ‘sleep-inducing’ conditions. This in itself is quite a barrier to motivation. One of these student interviews gives an example of low motivation that may be all too familiar:

Researcher: “What is most difficult for you?”

Student: “I often miss what the teacher is saying. I feel so sleepy, I can’t understand or concentrate.”

Analyses of the responses showed that students’ perceptions of the strategies used in the classroom were significantly different to those of teachers’ – on all four subscales. Students were generally less aware of the strategies being used, but were most likely to notice strategies to build confidence, then relevance, satisfaction and, lastly, attention.

Teachers’ responses showed that attention-getting was in fact the least-used strategy and cited time pressure due to curriculum constraints. When interviewed, students commented on a lack of variability in both lesson style and content.

Students’ language proficiency significantly influenced their perception of teachers’ motivational strategies. In particular, more proficient students were more likely to recognise confidence-building strategies. Since confidence is highly motivating, this suggests lower-level students need particular support and are more difficult to reach.

Despite the disparity between the strategies as overtly intended and the students’ perception, confidence building and, to a lesser extent, attention- getting strategies were strong predictors of student proficiency, although relevance promoting or satisfaction generating did not predict proficiency.

The interviews were able to shed more light on why students’ might not be either perceiving or responding to the motivational strategies attempted by their teachers. When interviewed, some students reported that teachers’ efforts appeared to be focused on the more proficient students, making lower-level students feel apathetic and alienated. The authors suggest that tapping into the students’ personal motivations and allowing them more control over their learning may be instrumental in reaching the weaker students.

With regard to promoting ‘confidence’ and ‘relevance’, some students had different ideas of ‘relevance’ compared to their teachers, resulting in ‘lack of motive matching’. While teachers focused on college-entry exams, students often had other, eg, vocational goals in mind, such as becoming a nurse or flight attendant, requiring specific communication skills.

Attention-getting strategies were the most under-utilised, yet still predicted proficiency, indicating that these kinds of strategies, using the students’ interests as well as novelty to arouse their curiosity, have untapped potential. This brings to mind the popular description of ‘the all-singing, all-dancing TEFL teacher’. Such strategies are a major time and energy investment for teachers, so it’s good to know that they really do motivate students and increase proficiency.

Lack of real-world consequences may also be largely why ‘satisfaction’ scores were low and did not predict proficiency. Suggestions for improving satisfaction include opportunities for students to apply their proficiency, eg, using stories, games and collaborative project work, as well as regular feedback. Simple verbal praise should not be underestimated, for both students and teachers.


  • Min, MH and Chon, Y V (2021), ‘Teacher motivational strategies for EFL learners: for better or worse’, RELC Journal 52(3): 557-573.
Image courtesy of PHOTO BY PIXABAY
Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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