(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)
This posting is a more detailed response to my interview question on Day 2 .LINCS Discussion: Student-Centered Approach to Teaching Writing Skills. .
Below in blue, you’ll find the details that I’ve added to the Day 2 LINCS’ posting.
I have found six ways to motivate students.
1) Give Students Autonomy
According to psychologist Edward Deci, the most important ingredient for motivating students is autonomy. 1
Having autonomy doesn’t mean that students decide what is taught in a lesson. Instead, students can experience autonomy if the lesson is set up so that they can individually choose which exercise to do first, second etc., how fast to work, when to ask the teacher a question or for help and even when to take a break.
A writing-workshop approach is an excellent way to give students autonomy. Here is how it can be done:
Step 1) The teacher briefly explains the assignments that student will be working on during the class.
Step 2) S/he returns any homework assignment that students had turned in and which the teacher had marked. They will correct these and show the teacher, but they DO NOT start writing yet.
Step 3) If there is a group-activity, the students do that. As each group finishes, they don’t have to wait for the others to finish. Instead, they start the assignments from Steps 1 and 2 individually.
Step 4) AUTONOMY! Students start the assignments by individually choosing which one they want to do first, second, third. At any time, they can ask the teacher any questions they might have and show him/her corrections from the returned assignment.
Some of the benefits of the Workshop
- Each student works at his/her own pace. Assignments that are not completed during the class time are done as homework.
- No student has to wait for “slower” students to finish an exercise.
- “Slower” students don’t feel pressure to work more quickly because others are waiting for them.
- Students feel comfortable asking the teacher a question or requesting help without worrying about taking up their classmates’ time and/or thinking about “losing face” by asking a silly question.
- Students who tend to get restless after sitting for a while can take a break at any time without having to wait for a “break time.” During the Workshops, I’ve noticed that half of the students don’t ever feel a need to take a break. They’d rather continue to work on assignments straight through. Others can concentrate more once they’ve used the restroom or made an important phone call or checked their messages outside the classroom.
For more about the Writing Workshop approach and to see a more detailed lesson plan for one workshop class, see • The Writing Workshop: Countless Benefits for ESL Students and Teachers
Or my YouTube video Video: The ESL Writing Workshop
(1 According to psychologist Edward Deci on an NPR segment: A Lost Secret: How To Get Kids To Pay Attention)
2) Explain the Purpose of the Assignment.
Students need to feel like they are working toward something worthwhile and are doing something important. We can satisfy this need in students by explaining the reason for the assignment.
Examples of Explaining the Purpose
When we introduce an assignment, we can explain:
– how they’ll be able to apply it when they write their next essay or paper.
– how the skill or technique will help them do well and impress their instructor at the
– how they’ll be using the skill or technique when they take college classes or in the
Here are a couple of examples of how I have done this:
Technique: Giving an example to support and idea.
Explaining the purpose: “This is a technique that you can use in almost any essay. It’s a good one for helping you explain an idea, and you can use your imagination. If you can use them correctly, you will impress your instructors.” (We can then juxtapose a paragraph without an example to the same one that includes one, perhaps with a PowerPoint.)
(For more about this technique, see • Powerful Tool for ESL Writers: Giving Examples in Essays.
Technique: Using transitional expressions
Explaining the purpose: “Good writers show how ideas are connected. They can do this by using transitional expressions, for example, However, Therefore, Also. Your teachers at the next level want students to know how to use these. Today we will practice some.”
3) Show Your Enthusiasm
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you use an animated voice and happy talk.
- When introducing a writing technique, for example, including a short story for support in a paragraph, we can say, “This technique is a lot of fun to use because you can use your creativity. The story doesn’t have to be true. For example, one of my students included an interesting story about her son’s problems, and later I found out that she’s not married and has no son.” (See • ESL Students Can Increase Positive Emotions in Readers/Teachers with This Writing Technique)
- Tell them how much the technique will impress the reader. For example, when introducing dramatic introductions, I say, “I love reading these at the start of an essay. I immediately become interested in what the student will write in the rest of the essay.” (See Teaching the most interesting type of essay introduction )
- In our comments on their papers, next to specific sentences, we can write, “Wow!!” or “Interesting,” or “Great example!” or “Funny!” or “Amazing! Is this true?” (See Effective method for giving specific feedback. )
- At the end of essays in which students had obviously put in a lot of effort, we can write, “This was fun to read.” or “I enjoyed reading this.” or “You are a talented writer.”
- When conferencing with students about their essays that they are revising, we can point to specific parts and say any of those descriptions above (e.g., “Wow!” “I like this example,” etc.)
4) Arouse Curiosity
We can stimulate students to want to learn more about what they’ll be doing or studying in the upcoming activity or assignment. For example:
- We can tell them the reaction former students had about the upcoming activity. For example, when introducing Definition Essays, I start by saying, “Several of my students have told me that this was the most challenging essay, but it also was the most rewarding.” (See Most stimulating and engaging essay mode )
- We can explain how this assignment is going to make them special. For example, I’ve introduced a set of exercises about using commas by telling my ESL students, “Most Americans don’t know how to use commas correctly. Several of my American students told me that when they read what they wrote, if they take a breath, that’s where they put a comma.” (That usually gets a laugh from my ESOL students.) Then I tell them that after they complete this assignment, they will know so much more than most Americans about using commas. (See Inductive grammar: Why are there commas in these sentences? )
5) Give your course credibility in the eyes of your students
A very powerful tool for motivating your students is their confidence that your course will help them develop their skills. Testimonies by previous students (your students’ peers) about how much your course has helped them can give your course a great deal of credibility.
On the first day of class, through a PowerPoint presentation, we explain specifically what skills they will need to be successful in their next level of instruction and how our course is designed to teach them those skills. We then show them what previous students have told us about the effectiveness of the course. Some of these are actual quotes that students have said or written, and others are just capturing the essence.
Below is an example for introducing the highest level of an ESOL writing course:
“My friends who took Academic ESOL Level 5 told me that if I do all the assignments in the course and come to class on time, I will pass to English 101. So I followed their advice and I passed to 101 and got an A in it.”
Below are two examples for introducing a Writing Level 3 course:
“I just finished Writing Level 4 and got a good grade. I can say that I did well in Level 4 because of all the techniques that I learned in Level 3. I used those in most of my essays in Level 4.”
“Before I took this course, I hated writing. But I learned great techniques for explaining my ideas and for improving my grammar. So now I enjoy writing a lot.”
6) Leave the students with a good impression at the end of class
Studies have found that people judge an experience by how the event ends. Psychologists refer to this as the “peak-end rule.” This can also explain why two-week vacations are not necessarily remembered more fondly as one-week ones. What seems to matter is how they end.
Similarly, negative endings can leave us with a bad impression about what had been a pleasurable experience up until then. A common example is a breakup of a relationship as we clearly recall the painful final interaction.
How this applies to teaching.
We can become more aware of how we finish our classes. For example…
- as we are cleaning the white board or packing up papers, we can try to still make eye-contact with the students and smile as they leave.
- if, during the class, we had to have a talk with a student who was not performing as expected, (e.g., came to class late, hadn’t finished the assignment, wasn’t paying attention, disturbed others), we can make a special point of smiling at him or her and perhaps saying, “See you next time” as she/he is leaving.
- to class, we should be aware of what final message we’d be sending to students if we were to be checking our phones instead of making eye contact with them as they were leaving.
(For more about this and about the research, see The Importance of a Classes’ Final Minutes—The Last Impressions.