February 2021
TESOL HOME Convention Jobs Book Store TESOL Community

Monique Yoder, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA

In general, people tend to make an effort to do things when there is a clear and known purpose for doing it. This drive to do things is called motivation and is commonly believed to play a considerable role in any learning situation, including language learning. In this piece I give a commonly accepted definition of learner motivation, touch upon new ways that motivation is conceptualized, and provide language teachers with ways to incorporate reflective practices in their classroom to bolster learners’ motivation.

Definition of Motivation

Essentially, second or foreign language learning (henceforth called L2) motivation is the degree to which someone works or makes progress toward learning an L2 because of “a desire to do so and the satisfaction experienced in this activity” (Gardner, 1985, p. 9, emphasis added). Unlike individual differences such as age, gender, aptitude, intelligence, and personality that are slow to change or are maturationally based, motivation has a more rapid, dynamic socio-psychological element that ebbs and flows depending on internal and external factors. These factors are related to the learner and their daily environment. Profiling learners’ motivation over time can provide opportunities for language teachers to design course curricula, assessments, and lesson activities specific to the language environment and needs of the learners that can in turn encourage and sustain motivation.

Past Work in Motivation in TESOL

Much attention has been given to studying and exploring motivation since it is such a commonly observed social-affective factor believed to influence not only L2 learning but learning in general. In attempting to unearth what contributes to one’s language-learning motivation, Gardner (1985) proposed four components: (1) having a goal, (2) exercising effortful behavior, (3) having a desire to attain a goal [emphasis added], and (4) having a positive attitude toward doing a particular activity. Consequently, when investigating language motivation, researchers, and to some extent teachers as action researchers, have used Gardner’s (1985) self-reporting Attitude/Motivation Test Battery (AMTB) survey (in full or adapted) to capture learners’ motivational profiles. However, researchers now understand using such one-size-fits-all surveys to measure learner motivation can be problematic in that the learner is asked to report on their level of motivation at a fixed point in time. Motivation to do something can change with time, both in purpose and intensity. Thus, a more representative way to gauge learners’ motivation may be to capture their L2 learning motivation repeatedly at the task level, over longer periods of time, and in ways that are specific to the time and context of the learning situation.

New Work inside the Field

Given that learning an L2 can take years, figuring out what factors can sustain positive motivation over time is important. Over the decades, researchers like Iwaniec and Dunn (2021) have shifted away from the idea that motivation is an intrinsic (non-changing) trait. Instead, they conceptualize motivation as dynamic and sensitive to many macro- and micro-level factors.

Drawing from psychology work by Csikszentmihalyi (1990) on flow—when a person’s concentration level is at a state where they are completely absorbed in an activity—Dörnyei et al. (2016) conceptualized motivation as Directed Motivational Currents (DMCs), defined as “an intense motivational drive—or surge—which is capable of stimulating and supporting long-term behavior” (p. 2). Their analogy is that of ocean currents. DMCs “represent the optimal form of engagement with an extended project” (p. 33, emphasis added). In applying this to L2 learning, this extended project is progress toward target language attainment, language attainment is the distant goal (vision), and the actions that amplify the intensity and persistence in reaching that vision occur within the learner experience. The learner and teacher play active roles in generating these surges that help learners sustain their motivation to learn the L2 in both the long and short terms.

Recommendations for TESOL Teachers

Reflective activities can be used to foster motivation in the language classroom. Specifically, student reflections can be tailored to elicit learner diagnostic and self-assessment information. Here are some activities that have been used to capture students’ goals and desires to learn, motivation profiles over time, and what motivates students to engage with revising written work.

Learner Motivation Diagnostics

Using learner diagnostics to elicit learners’ short-term and long-term goals allows students a chance to articulate their purpose(s) and desire(s) in learning an L2. It also provides valuable information that a teacher can use to shape instruction. Identifying students’ goals can be done informally on the first day of a class as the teacher and students get to know each other. A more formal approach could take the form of a learner biography (see Figure 1) in which students share a brief history of their L2 learning, why they currently want to learn the L2 (not their parents’ or employers’ reasons), and how they envision using the L2 in their lives. This teases out students’ current L2 attitudes and initiates a reflective practice of developing their future-oriented self. From students’ responses, teachers can identify global and individual L2 goals (e.g., using the target language to communicate in a multilingual workplace) and desires (e.g., positioning one’s self as a global citizen) to inform instructional decisions, such as planning topics or tasks that are relevant to achieving these overall goals and desires. For example, if there is a global desire for students in a class to communicate more effectively at work, a teacher could create a motivation surge by incorporating effective interpersonal communication, email-writing, or video conferencing activities into the classroom.

Figure 1: Sample of learner biography questions

Student Self-Assessment Reflections

For classroom purposes, language instructors do not need a battery of assessments like the AMTB to measure their students’ motivation profiles over time. Informally, there are observable student behaviors that may indicate a student’s level of motivation. Class attendance is a strong indicator of a student’s desire to make active steps in learning, but it does not necessarily mean that the student is mentally or socially present. A teacher might use other behaviors like body language, eye contact, and where a student sits within the classroom to gauge learners’ class motivation and adjust an activity within a lesson to maximize student interest and engagement. However, these observations may not necessarily capture a learner’s true state of motivation since they could be culturally bound or represent peer-to-peer dynamics. Therefore, using student self-reflections may be a more direct way for a teacher to gauge students’ motivation and engagement. It gives students a chance to retrospectively see how they interact in the class and think about what helped them make progress. For teachers, it provides an opportunity to gain a richer sense of which activities or topics foster motivation, which may be helpful when planning lessons.

Figure 2 shows a pre-task / post-task self-assessment method that a teacher could use as a reflective approach to raise students’ awareness of and reflect on motivation in a singular class session. The idea is to use these self-assessments repeatedly and consistently throughout the course to create a comprehensive picture of when a student feels motivated in a class lesson and what might be contributing to this motivation. Although this activity can provide a more nuanced understanding of L2 motivation, it also assumes a classroom environment where class time can be afforded to do these repeated self-assessments and flexibility in course curricula to do so. Such an activity, therefore, will depend on institutional and classroom contexts.

Figure 2: Sample of task-based motivational survey items in a reflective self-assessment

If a classroom environment cannot afford time to do frequent self-assessments, a teacher could utilize a quarterly or mid-session survey. Figure 3 shows a mid-term student reflection worksheet assignment that I used in a 14-week, university-affiliated EAP writing class. I asked students to specify which types of writing feedback I used in class were motivating or not motivating to them as they revised their work. My main objectives in using this reflection piece were to get students to think critically about their revision strategies and to help me identify how to optimize my time in providing feedback to students. I did not expect students to self-report that doing this activity motivated them to work harder within the course. In their end-of-course surveys, they voiced an appreciation for having had the chance to provide input on how the course is run. This illustrates an upward spiral that Dörnyei et al. (2016) observe: motivated students see themselves as agents in the classroom, and students who are actively involved in planning their learning become more motivated to learn.

Figure 3: Sample of a student self-reflection task


Defining motivation and its construct and determining how teachers and researchers can gauge a learner’s motivation continue to evolve. In part this may be due to the dynamic and socio-psychological nature of motivation. Or, it could reflect the influential nature of context on motivation, whether that be at the macro-level (e.g., motivation to be part of the L2 community), meso-level (motivation within the L2 learning experience), or micro-level (motivation within the learner themselves). What remains constant across motivation theories and the lived practices of teachers is that motivation is tied to a desire to learn and a wherewithal to actively take action upon that desire. Learner motivation manifests itself in various ways, both visible and invisible, within a classroom setting. Through reflective practices, both students and teachers as agents in the learning environment can co-construct a space that enhances actions that sustain long-term motivation.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row.

Dörnyei, Z., Henry, A., & Muir, C. (2016). Motivational currents in language learning: Frameworks for focused interventions. Routledge.

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

Iwaniec, J., & Dunn, K. J. (2021). Measuring motivation. In P. Winke & T. Brunfaut (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of second language acquisition and language testing (pp. 157-166). Routledge.

Monique Yoder is a Ph.D. student in the Second Language Studies Program at Michigan State University (USA) and an MA TESOL affiliate faculty member with LCC International University (Lithuania).
« Previous Newsletter Home Print Article Next »
Post a CommentView Comments
 Rate This Article
Share LinkedIn Twitter Facebook
In This Issue
Search Back Issues
Forward to a Friend
Print Issue
RSS Feed