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Classroom Motivation
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Several years ago, a book on successful management and motivation in the workplace was released. It was called First, Break All the Rules. Based on contributions from more than 1,000,000 employees and 80,000 managers in 400 companies across all industries in the US, the statistics were compiled and analyzed by the Gallup Organization. The result provided new insight into what makes for a successful company and / or department.

And so I thought: Could these ideas be applied to the language classroom (or, really, any classroom)? After all, a motivated company or department produces tangible results the same as a motivated class. The former sees an increase in work output by the employees while the latter sees in increase in language output by the students.

The book presents twelve questions that any department or company should ask its employees, or at least consider during day-to-day management. Each employee rated the questions from one to five. One represented strong disagreement with the question, while five represented strong agreement. The twelve questions were:

1: Do I know what is expected of me at work?
2: Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
3: Do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
4: In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for good work?
5: Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
6: Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
7: At work, do my opinions seem to count?
8: Does the mission / purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
9: Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
10: Do I have a best friend at work?
11: In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
12: This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

It should be noted that the twelve questions were specifically ordered. The book offers an analogy of a mountain, where each set of questions represent a base camp. In order to successfully reach the summit of the mountain without adverse effects, you need to progress your way upwards through the base camps; you must positively answer the earlier questions, followed by the later questions, to meet with the most success at work.

So how might these questions apply to the language classroom?

Let's begin with the first two questions. I have rewritten the questions, substituting words more suitable to the language classroom. I have also written "the students" instead of "I," thus directing the question to the teacher rather than the students for self-assessment.

1: Do the students know what is expected of them in the classroom?
2: Do the students have the materials and equipment they need to effectively learn?

These first questions focus on the start of a new class. If students don't know the expectations you have of them, nor have the right materials or equipment to succeed, then their satisfaction and motivation will remain very low.

Syllabus: A syllabus with clearly laid out guidelines and class objectives serves as one idea to set expectations. Students know where their journey will take them over the coming weeks when provided with a syllabus. Even in a less formal learning environment where a syllabus seems unusual, the teacher can lay out objectives and expectations from the first lesson. For example, the student will receive homework which must be completed by the next lesson. Or the student should read keep a journal to practice writing skills. Or the student will build fluency and accuracy skills through communicative tasks.

Textbook: Focusing on the second question, a good textbook is one place to start. Additional realia that support the textbook's contents and allow students to practice and automatize new language points are important too. Support materials should not only follow the theme of the lesson, but also be level relevant and give chances to reuse new vocabulary later. (I make this comment because I often see teachers select worksheets that fit the idea of the lesson. However, the teachers don't always consider the vocabulary and grammar of the worksheet. The worksheet which should reinforce and even expand on the textbook is oftentimes too easy or too difficult, and so the worksheet represents a wasted opportunity.)

Other Realia: The teacher should also consider outside materials for self-study and improvement. Students don't know the best websites, books, or methods to improve their language ability. The teacher needs to specifically show the sites, the books, the exercises, and methods for students to have the right materials and equipment for success.

3: Do the students have the opportunity to do what they do best in every lesson?
4: In the last seven days, have the students received recognition or praise for good work?
5: Do I, or someone in the class, seem to care about the students as people?
6: Is there someone in the class who encourages their development?

This next set of questions become more important as the class continues. The perspective of the students change over time, namely because they contribute to the class through interactive activities, assignments, group work, and all the other points that create a cooperative learning environment. Self-esteem is an important point for anyone, and students want to be valued for their work and participation in the class.

Learning Styles: Everyone has a mix of learning styles, and a good class usually offers a variety of activities that tap into a mixed styles of learning. Analytical learners might get the chance to pick apart language in an activity that has them look for mistakes. Kinesthetic learners might get the chance to stand up, mingle, and practice their speaking skills during a discussion or role play. If you limit the scope and variety of activities to the same handful, then some students won't be able to do what they do best.

Praise: Praise comes via meaningful comments in the class. The praise must be genuine, not false. For example, if students complete a relatively easy activity, you have less need to comment on a job well done. Conversely, if students struggle, make many mistakes in a difficult activity, yet finish the work, praise is warranted. Praise can also come via written comments on worksheets and homework.

Personalized Help: Students should be viewed as individuals with personal problems, difficulties, and constraints originating outside of class. If someone misses lessons, for example, it's better to determine the reason rather than simply give a stern warning (or even fail the student). Of course, the student is ultimately responsible for themselves, but you should also work towards finding effective solutions with a student so that he might succeed.

We can also consider this idea of personal help and attention when you provide extra work for struggling students. Perhaps the student has poor listening skills, and so you give him homework that addresses this problem. Perhaps the student needs to improve his vocabulary, and so you work vocabulary building exercises into the lesson or the homework. Whatever the form, you provide personal help to the student so that he can do well in the lesson.

7: In the classroom, do the opinions of the students seem to count?
8: Do the students feel that their participation is important?
9: Are their peers in the class committed to doing quality work?
10: Does each student have a best friend in the class?

The similarities and differences between the students in the classroom also affect motivation. If only one or two students are focused on speaking and applying English while the majority of the class is more concerned with grades, then the former one or two students will feel quite out of place. Everyone should have a similar focus.

Cooperative Learning: Students can and should participate in activities where they must rely on one another to finish the task. Interactive learning is key, where each person can work with and support one another. In such an environment, students will provide opinions and ideas to their peers. Therefore, it's the teacher's responsibility to mix and match students to find the best partners and groups.

Study Partner / Friend: A study partner or friend in the class lets a student turn to someone for help, let off steam, and so on. With a confidante, then the student doesn't feel as isolated as he struggles with something as difficult as a foreign language. You should incorporate activities that require the students to get to know one another from the start, and express the importance of having a friend in the class.

11: In the last six months, has the teacher talked to the students about their progress?
12: This last year, have the students had opportunities to learn and grow?

The final two questions look at long-term growth and development. In general, students first need to understand the expectations of the class. They need to take responsibility for their learning. They need to gain confidence. They need to understand how their ideas and contributions to the learning environment will be viewed by their peers. Each of these points have been examined in the first ten questions.

Student-Teacher Meetings: It's always a good idea to sit down with students and talk about their long-term plans and goals. Why do they want to learn English? What do they want to accomplish? In so doing, you can help the students set realistic goals. Feedback on their progress, and then additional guidance and advice are all helpful too.

I believe that the majority of the solutions commonly appear in many classrooms around the globe, although perhaps not all together. The same holds true for the ideas presented in the original survey results introduced in First, Break All the Rules. However, it's the exact combination of these ideas, and their specific order, which can improve the motivation of the students. And with increased motivation comes increased language acquisition and output.