Ten tips for teaching low-motivation classes

As language teachers, we are sometimes confronted with courses that are more challenging due to very low student motivation. The reasons for this may not be clear; the students may have to take the course to graduate or perhaps they have had negative past experiences with language study. It may even be that it’s the last class on a Friday and they’re already in weekend mode.

Having experienced a number of such courses over the years, I’ve decided to briefly outline a few points that I’ve found useful teaching such courses. While some may seem obvious and others may not necessarily work for your courses, I hope they at least provide some useful teaching tips or provoke some constructive conversation on the topic. The points are from experience teaching English language courses at Japanese universities, but many are likely applicable to other teaching contexts.

1.  Get their attention
Not getting student attention at the beginning of the lesson means it’s unlikely you will get it later. While you don’t have put on a clown suit and stand on your head (although it may help), I’ve found putting more energy into the first few minutes to get the students engaged makes a big difference to how the rest of the lesson (or course) progresses. It could be a funny picture on the projector screen, an interesting prop to hold up, or just a simple thought-provoking question on the whiteboard. So, yes, you will need to plan what you do here and perhaps be a bit creative but for me it’s usually worth the extra effort.

2.  Assign seats
How many courses have you walked into to find all the students sitting at the back and chatting with their friends? It can be challenging getting their attention, especially in the first lesson. While teacher-assigned classroom seating may seem a bit childish, I’ve found students to be much more attentive sitting away from their friends and, as I have realized, some actually prefer it. The key here is that the seats also need to be reassigned periodically throughout the course to give students a fresh neighbor to work with (also, some students just don’t get on). Another advantage to assigning the seating is that you also know who’s sitting where which makes it easier to remember names for classroom management. If you have a tablet (or even a smartphone), assigning names and face photos to seating positions is really easy using free classroom management apps like TeacherKit.

3.  Mix it up
Sometimes it’s more about keeping the students awake than progressing though lesson in a logical order. While it may make pedagogical sense to do the writing activity after the reading one, as we all know, leaving students sitting inactively at their desks for extended periods of time can lead to restlessness and boredom (or conversely mayhem depending on the student…). I’ve found alternating the activity types throughout the lesson students is a great way to keep the students engaged and motivated. For example, if one activity is on passive-type reading skills, the next one is on active-type speaking skills. Alternatively, if one activity has students sitting at their desks, the next one has them moving around the classroom. It’s also a good idea to keep the activities under around 30min in length.

4.  Spice things up with pronunciation
By pronunciation, I mean it in the broadest sense: from the pronunciation of individual sounds (phonemes), to word and syllable stress and intonation and pausing. One thing that’s really surprised me over the years is how much students enjoy pronunciation activities. Maybe it’s because they’ve never experienced them in a communicative class, or perhaps some students who don’t do typically do well in other activities do well with pronunciation. As with other activities, the key to making it motivational is to make the activities as student-centered and interactive as possible. Many general course books don’t include a lot of material on pronunciation, so you may have to supplement with your own material or other more specialized course books. One book I’ve found really popular with students is Pronunciation Games (Hancock, 1996). In fact, I even keep the materials for the Pronunciation Journey activity in my bag as one of my emergency back-up activities. If you want to take it a step further and address more sentence-level pronunciation issues, then I recommend the Well Said series (Grant, 2016).

5.  Students as teachers
Putting the students in small groups and having them plan and deliver a short five minute lesson can also be great fun. It also allows course content to be reviewed in a productive way and builds student empathy toward teachers and teaching (ie. “Wow! This class is really hard to manage!”). Topics are assigned to each group at the beginning and students are encouraged to use classroom facilities (whiteboard, screen, microphone etc.), and be creative with their lesson approaches (eg. quiz-type games, roleplays etc.). Although the content of these lessons can sometimes go off-topic or be incorrect, it’s easy for the teacher give advice in the preparation stage or feedback to redirect at the end.

6.  A flexible lesson plan
Sometimes I find that, for whatever reason, the lesson activity isn’t going as planned and no matter how much energy I put into it the students are not responding as expected. In some of these cases, I cut my losses and move on to something completely different. I’ve come to realize that on some days some activities don’t work and more time spent on them is time wasted (and possibly further demotivating for the students). I just say “OK, let’s continue this some other time. Now I want to try something a bit different…”. Having students close their books or put away their handouts always helps refresh their mindset. If nothing else seems to be working, and I still have time, I often fall back on one of my emergency back-up activities (see point 4).

7.  Recognize good work
It’s obvious that praising students for good work will increase motivation but it’s something I discovered I needed to do more. I used to feel that giving the class more constructive feedback on their problem areas would be more beneficial. However, experience tells me most students (not just low-motivation ones) also really need that positive reinforcement. It’s not patronizing or condescending to tell adult foreign language learners they did well pronouncing a sound or expressing their opinion clearly. Just remember to be specific about what you’re praising them for (you may have to write it down).

8.  Everything is handed in
The more classwork students hand in, the more accountable they will feel. While having piles of submitted material to grade sounds like a lot of extra work for the teacher, it doesn’t have to be. You could have a system where random samples of submitted work are checked or even just where the quantity of work is checked. I’ve found students will make much more effort to complete the work if they know in advance they have to submit it at the end. If they’re using their course books, no problem, just have them submit their answers on a separate (named) piece of paper (it’s no fun carrying around 30 course books until the next class…).

9.  Everything is connected to the grade
Limiting the class grades to a final test and one or two reports means that some students will inevitably not bother to complete any other course work (even if it’s indirectly related to their grade). As we all know, there is no greater motivation for students than passing the course, so also connecting as much of the in-class work as possible directly to this makes them all the more productive. It doesn’t have to mean more work for the teacher either, it could involve weekly peer-evaluated activities/quizzes or random samples of submitted work being checked by the teacher (as in point 8). As students are keeping active logs of all their graded scores they can track their grade progress. The key point here is that, at the beginning of the course, all students are very clear on how this is all tied to their final grade.

10.  Be authentic
While interacting personally with students is an obvious way to build motivation I have often neglected to do this in the past due to the large number of students or lack of time. However, I have found making more time to say “hi” or “how are you?” to start a short conversation with one or two students each lesson makes a big difference in student attitudes. Some students will genuinely show an interest and want to continue chatting with you (a good idea to start with the more outgoing ones). I’ve found that, over time, these small personal exchanges make a big difference to building student trust and rapport which often later turns into motivation. As the students feel more comfortable talking with you informally, inevitably they will start asking you more personal questions like “Why did you come to Japan?” or “Do you have children?”. While some teachers may feel uncomfortable answering personal questions, I would argue that the more authentic you are with them then the more authentic they are with you.

Grant, L. (2016). Well Said (4th Edition), Heinle ELT
Hancock, M. (1996). Pronunciation Games, Cambridge University Press

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