Motivation…or students’ lack there-of, the great scourge, the destroyer of many a teacher. This can be especially true for ESL instructors faced with a room of students who are required to take your class. They did not necessarily want to be in your class, studying past perfect progressive in a language they couldn’t give two flips about (at current exchange rates, 1 flip is worth about 0.65 rat’s asses). Looking out over a sea of glossy eyes or smartphone-illuminated faces hour after hour is enough to drive a teacher to drink. Drink more, anyway.
There is an age component to the motivation problem, in my experience. As long as you keep the lessons well-paced and active, little kids have boundless energies for almost any task, whether they really care about it or not. They’re like empathetic sponges, so if you’re excited about gerunds, they’ll be excited too. This effect diminishes as the learners get older. If you walk into a room of middle school students with a writing lesson after lunch, you can have an unlicensed proton pack of excitement strapped to your back and it won’t matter one whit. But what do you expect? They’re walking bags of rapidly-changing hormones, in a society and at an age where standing out can be social suicide. I thought that intrinsic lack of motivation was a phase. I was wrong. Oh, so wrong.
When I started teaching at a university in Seoul, it was not my first time teaching older learners. I’d had many private lesson students, and I had taught community classes for a vocational school south of the metropolis. I had, I thought, a fair idea of what to expect in terms of motivation. The adults I’d been teaching for the past few years had all been enthusiastic. So imagine my surprise when, during my first lessons, getting my 18-20 year-old students to answer “How are you?” was like asking them to pull their own teeth out with a spoon. I should have realised the key difference between my university students and my adult learners. The adults I’d taught had chosen of their own free will to take my class. The freshmen at the university, by contrast, were required to get 4 credits worth of English in order to graduate. For the most part, students who were already good at English – i.e. the ones who wanted to learn the language – had long before mastered it, gotten high scores on standardized tests, and were thus exempted from the mandatory classes. Those who remained were decidedly uninterested in English, though many of them recognized that they did actually need it, if only to get a decent job at Samsung or Hyundai. But knowing you need to learn something doesn’t make you want to learn it. Necessity isn’t the mother of motivation.
One afternoon, I stumbled across a TEDx talk on something the speaker was referring to as ‘game level theory’. The talk wasn’t actually that good, and as memory serves, I believe he made have made some rather dubious claims, but at its core, there was something exciting and potentially revolutionary. He opined on the possibility of using elements from games – earning points, winning badges, leveling up – as a way of motivating people to do things that we – teachers, bosses, governments – want them to do but that they might not be interested in doing on their own. Of course, he what he was referring to was “gamification”. Put simply, gamification is the application of game-like features to non-game tasks in order to spur motivation.
As someone who’d grown up with D&D and video games, this was immediately fascinating to me. I set about that evening to create some sort of ‘level system’ for my classes based on participation. At first, I had some fanciful ideas about awarding points which students could use to buy armor and weapons and somehow compete in a fantasy world (see my D&D comment above). That I rejected as being far too complicated and potentially unappealing to many students. Not that there aren’t viable ways of doing just that. Instead, what I settled on was a rather simple system of 6 levels – our freshman program mandated that 30% of students’ grades be based on participation, so each of my levels was worth 5% of their overall grade. Each level had a number of little dots that had to be filled in if the student wanted to ‘level up’. They could fill in a dot every time they answered a question (regardless of accuracy), asked a relevant question (“what does this mean?” yes, “teach-uh, bath-uh-room?” not so much), did extra homework, and the like.
The system solved a few problems from the very first day I introduced it. One, students went from rarely raising their hands to fighting for my attention whenever I asked a question. Extra bits of homework, which weren’t factored into their grades, used to be ignored by nearly every student; once I introduced my level system, not only did they almost always complete the work, they would actually ask me for more. No one ever forget their books, as not having your material would cost you some dots. The students also no longer complained about their participation scores. If they only got a 15 out of 30, they knew why; they only had to look at their sad, half-undotted level sheets to see why.
In short, it felt like a great success.
But, was it? We’ll discuss that next time.