Motivation: A Teacher-Student Problem?

Motivation: A Teacher-Student Problem?


This paper describes the what, why and how of L2 motivation. The central argument of the paper is that since motivation plays a central role in L2 learning, it should receive greater attention from important L2 stakeholders than it used to. The paper also argues that while motivation is both a student and teacher problem, and that both will need to work together to foster a healthy level of motivation in the L2 learning process, the responsibility of initiating and sustaining motivation in the learning process should rest more with the teacher. The bulk of the paper discusses five key factors that teachers can exploit to enhance student motivation.  These factors are referred to as the 5 Ts of motivation: Teacher, Teaching Methodology, Text, Task and Test. Practical suggestions on how these can be productively used to increase student motivation are provided.



The central role of motivation in learning, any kind of learning, is widely acknowledged in education (McInerney & Liem, 2008). Motivated learners are more enthusiastic, goal-oriented, committed, persistent and confident in their learning. They are willing to work hard to achieve their goal and they do not easily give up until they achieve that goal. This is true whether we talk about motivation in general education or in language learning contexts.

In second language learning (L2) contexts, teachers are well aware that motivation is key to L2 development. They know that students with higher motivation are likely to be more successful than those with lower motivation. Their views are shared by L2 motivation experts and researchers. A renowned L2 motivation researcher, Zoltan Dörnyei (2001, 2012), for example, attributes success or lack of success in L2 learning to students’ varying degrees of motivation, saying that the more motivated students are more likely to develop a higher level of proficiency in the language compared to the less motivated ones.

Many L2 teachers that I have worked with seem to share Dorney’s views. They believe that one of the most important characteristics of a good language teacher is their ability to motivate their students to learn English (Renandya, 2014a). They also believe that they themselves can be a great source of motivation and can play a major role in creating and fostering motivation in the classroom.

Interestingly, however, the same group of teachers report that they lack the necessary skills and knowledge to increase their students’ motivation. When asked about the kinds of topics that they wanted to know more about if they had a chance to attend a professional development course, they ranked motivation as the number topic that they needed to know more about.

This paper discusses the what, the why and the how of motivation in L2 learning. The central argument of the paper is that motivation is both a student and teacher problem and that both will need to work towards maintaining a sufficiently high level of motivation in the L2 learning process.  However, experience and repeated observations seem to indicate that the teacher should perhaps play a more central role in initiating and sustaining their students’ motivation.

This paper suggests a principled approach to motivation by examining five key factors that can potentially make classroom learning more engaging and motivating. These five factors are referred to here as the 5 Ts of motivation (T1 = Teacher, T2 = Teaching Methodology, T3 = Text, T4= Task and T5 = Test), each of which will be examined in the later part of the paper.


In simple terms, motivation deals with the questions of why people choose to do an activity over another, how much energy and effort they will be putting in to do the activity and how long they will continue to do the activity (Dörnyei, 2001, 2012). When students choose to participate enthusiastically in a language lesson and are willing to extend sufficient efforts even when the activity is challenging, they are said to be motivated to learn and are likely to take in more and remember more from the lesson. Those who are not as motivated normally do not participate much in the lesson, do not put in sufficient effort, give up easily when the task gets harder to do and after a while lose their interest in learning.

The definition of motivation above is quite straightforward to understand. But when we take it one step further and ask people about the sources of student motivation, we are likely to have a wide range of answers. The following are typical responses we hear from experienced classroom teachers:

  • Students’ perception about the utility of the target language beyond the classroom. They become more motivated if what they learn in the classroom can be put to immediate use outside the classroom.


  • Their attitude towards the target language. Students who have a positive attitude towards the target language, its culture and community, and who appreciate the social and economic benefits associated with it, tend to have a higher degree of motivation.


  • Their sense of competence in the target language. Students’ motivation goes up when they feel that they have the required skills and abilities to perform a task. They are more confident and more willing to participate more actively in the classroom.


  • Their perception about the enjoyment level of the lesson. Students become more motivated when they find the lessons intrinsically interesting and enjoyable, where they learn things that they like and want to learn, and not because they have to.


  • Their perception of the value of the language lessons. Students feel motivated when they can see the value of what they are learning. For example, a task or activity that they feel contributes more directly to their growing proficiency is likely to be perceived to be more motivating.


  • Their classroom learning environments. When the classroom is stress-free and students can participate without fear of being ridiculed when they make pronunciation or grammar mistakes, they tend to be more motivated to learn.


  • Their teacher’s personality and teaching effectiveness. Students tend to have higher motivation if their teacher is warm, humorous and caring, and who can teach well.


It is not always easy to identify the single most important source of students’ motivation (or lack of it). More often than not, students’ levels of motivation are the results of a mixture of factors that are at play simultaneously at any given time. It is possible, for example, that in a reading lesson students are motivated because the teacher is perceived to be warm and humorous and the reading materials used in the lesson are interesting and enjoyable. In addition, reading skills may also be perceived to be of immediate relevance to students’ lives outside the classroom.

Similarly, a grammar lesson may not be perceived as motivating because it is often associated with long explanations of grammar rules and unappealing grammar exercises that are of little use beyond the classroom walls. Students may remember the rules, but may not be able to express their thoughts using grammatically appropriate sentences.


Motivation is perhaps the single most important factor affecting the outcome of L2 learning. Indeed, Dornyei  (2001) contends that when L2 learners have sufficient motivation, most of them can acquire a working knowledge of the language. He further maintains that L2 learners’ ultimate success or failure is determined by their sustained ‘enthusiasm, commitment and persistence’ (p, 5) in the long and drawn out process of language learning. But whose responsibility is it to ensure that students’ motivation and levels of engagement remain high during the learning process?

The answer seems to depend on whether we see motivation as a fixed or dynamic construct. When we see motivation as a fixed entity, we simply describe our students as being either motivated or unmotivated. In other words, we see motivation to learn as being essentially a ‘student problem’ (Johnson, 2008). The students are responsible for their own motivation and there is not much we can do to change it.

However, if we believe that motivation is a dynamic construct and can change depending on the learning situation in the classroom or school, then it should no longer be seen as a student problem, but should be viewed more as a ‘teacher problem’ (Johnson, 2008). When motivation is seen as a teacher problem, we acknowledge that there are many classroom-specific factors that the teacher can exploit in order to foster student motivation.  This however is not to say that students have little or no responsibility to work on their motivation levels. They do, because ultimately motivation is the responsibility of the individual students.

The view that motivation is dynamic and changeable is more in line with recent theorizing on motivation (Dornyei , 2001, 2012; Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002).  As Linnenbrink and Pintrich (2002) point out, ‘motivation is not a stable trait of an individual, but is more situated, contextual and domain- specific’.  Thus, students may be motivated in a science class, but not in a language class or vice versa. Within a language class, students may be more motivated in a speaking class than in a writing class. We also often see students showing a higher level of motivation when taught by Teacher A, for example, but not so when taught by Teacher B.

The dynamic view of motivation also means that during the course of their studies, students’ motivation does not stay at the same level; it fluctuates, going up and down in response to changes in learner internal as well as external factors (DÖrnyei, 2001). What often happens in L2 classes is that students normally start off with some initial motivation which gets strengthened as time goes by because they find the lessons cognitively and affectively fulfilling.

However, the contrary is also possible, i.e., the initial motivation dies down because students find the lessons uninteresting or the homework assignments frustratingly demanding. Sometimes, their motivation drops to a low level simply because the prolonged learning activities tire them out. It is rare to observe students whose levels of motivation remains high throughout the whole semester, much less throughout the whole school year.

In the next section, I discuss in detail the 5 Ts of motivation (i.e., Teacher, Teaching Methodology, Text, Task and Test), which, when fully and systematically utilized in the classroom, can potentially increase and sustain the level of student motivation for a longer period of time.


Instead of looking at the myriad of factors that can affect student motivation within the school context, we should focus on classroom specific factors that teachers are most familiar with and which they can make the most impact on. Research on motivation tells us that the classroom environment, our behaviour and actions in the classroom, our relationship with the students, the way we teach in class, and how we structure our lessons, and the way we assess our students all have huge implications on student motivation. These classroom specific factors are referred to as the 5 Ts of motivation (Teacher, Teaching Methodology, Text, Task and Test) (Renandya, 2013). Each of these will be explored and elaborated on in the following sections.

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5 Replies to “Motivation: A Teacher-Student Problem?”

  1. I interest to raise student’s motivation. But there is true fact that since English is not compulsory in Elementary School in Indonesia, it seems like difficult to motivate YL . Why do they need to learn English, if it is only a burden ?
    Please enrich my knowledge, thankyou

  2. My dissertation topic was about the teachers’ motivation Pak. It will be interesting to discuss. Thank you for sharing this.

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