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Solutions for mixed motivation classes

There are whole books written with theories and tips on teaching mixed level and mixed ability classes. Personally, though, I have found it much more difficult when I have had classes where some students are desperate to improve their English and will do anything to get there and others just see it as a hobby or even just a way of killing time, or when there have been several students with very clear reasons for studying English that clash with each other. Here are 15 methods I have read, observed or come up with over the years to deal with such “mixed motivation classes”.

1. Motivations analysis
The first stage in any mixed motivation situation is to identify that such a potential problem exists. You can start this process at the beginning of a class or even before it starts by including questions on motivation in a needs analysis questionnaire, interview, section of a placement test or pairwork activity. Useful questions include ones about future work, studies or travel, and reasons for studying English. A needs analysis is just the start of this process, however, due to things like people with little motivation coming up with one just to answer the question in the way they think they should, and other people becoming more or less ambitious with their English as they get an idea of how quickly or slowly they are likely to improve. You can continue this process of analysis by talking to students who seem impatient with their progress or the amount of work they are given, or by getting them to talk about such topics every time a suitable textbook topic or language point comes up (e.g. future tenses).

2. Explain the class’s motivations
Once you have got some idea of how motivated your students are and why they want to study English, you might want to make sure the whole class knows that information. For example, if more than half the class are most interested in learning how to telephone in English, telling people that fact should make it easier to justify going off the book and spending time on that in class. Methods for sharing this information with the class include showing them the results of needs analysis and feedback questions (e.g. “As you can see from this table, 70% of students said they wanted more practice tests in class”) and starting each activity with a brief explanation of why you decided to do it (e.g. “This was a special request from one of the students”)

3. Get them to explain their motivations to each other
This is an alternative to Explain the Class’s Motivations above, as the secret is to make sure that they share that information with everyone rather than just their partner and you. One method is to have them interview each other in pairs and then present their partner to the class. Another approach is to do a Pyramid Ranking Debate, where students work in larger and larger groups on trying to agree on which things from a list are the top priorities- although agreement is usually impossible, they learn a lot about others’ motivations while they are negotiating.

4. Follow the most motivated
Once you have made it clear to the class that some people have very particular needs for English and are working hard to get the language they need, it might be that less motivated students will be happy to go along for the ride while the class works on those things. The secrets to making this work include making sure you find out whether the other students really are happy to go along with that and making sure that the accountancy vocabulary that the motivated students need doesn’t end up boring students who started off willing to go along.

5. Everyone helps the most motivated
A development of Follow the Most Motivated above is building a classroom atmosphere of a team who are all working together to help the people who really need to improve their English right now. Techniques include students giving each other advice on studying (useful when studying “should”), asking how people have used English recently and what difficulties they had, and role-playing situations that people will have to deal with in English in the future.

6. Make clear why everyone really shares or should share those motivations
This is similar to the tips above, but means persuading students that the motivations that some people are strongly stating are actually relevant to all of them, e.g. showing them how writing in English can improve all their English skills and so is not just relevant for the people who want to go on to study EAP (English for Academic Purposes).

7. Widen your definition of motivations
It could be that the problem of some students seeming to be motivated and some not could be solved in your and their heads by the simple expedient of reclassifying what a motivated student is. For example, “It’s just a hobby for him” and “She only comes to English class to talk about her week at work” are not really criticisms but results of a motivation analysis that you can use to plan your lessons and possibly justify doing certain things in class (e.g. “A few people have complained about spending too much time just chatting in class, but we are still going to include that in every class because some people really like it.”) You can then use the other techniques in this article to prioritize between those motivations and the more “traditional” ones like needing to pass an exam or having a job interview in English.

8. Critical periods
Another way of prioritizing what you do in class is to spend a period just before one student particularly needs English especially helping them, and then going back to the book or doing something that the other students like to make up for it later. Examples include spending a few weeks on TOEIC practice even though many in the class aren’t taking the test, doing travel English just before the summer holidays because some people are going abroad, or allowing someone to practice their presentation in front of the class. You can get support from the rest of the class for doing this by explaining the reasons for it, saying what you will do later to make up for it, and designing the activity so that everyone gets at least some useful language out of it.

9. Give each person a motivation
Although there are plenty of ways of motivating students in their studies (showing them they can be successful, positive feedback, fun etc), that will have to be the subject of one or more other articles. What I mean by giving people motivations here is to get them to choose one future aim for their English and then aim towards it, even if it is something fairly arbitrarily chosen such as a country they’d like to visit but have no particular plans to go to soon or choosing one of the four skills to particularly concentrate on for a while. This will make it easier for them to monitor their own progress, might help take away any self-image they have of being a “bad student” that can come about by filling in all needs analysis questionnaires with nothing, and will mean that lessons you do on learner training topics like choosing self-study materials for themselves will be more relevant to them.

10. Take turns
Another way of dealing with motivations that differ in type or amount is to divide up a lesson, term or course by the things that each person needs or wants to learn. You could also theoretically give those things weightings by how many people need each thing or how much some people need them.

11. Extra self-study work
An obvious way of dealing with a student who wants to work harder than the others is simply to give them more work to do. Possibilities include giving obligatory and optional homework each time, giving lists of online resources connected to the topic and language in the textbooks, giving them tips on how to set up conversation exchanges, giving photocopiable worksheets on particular topics or language points that only some students have shown an interest in, and recommending self-study books such as graded readers or grammar practice books. There are quite a few potential issues with this one, including making all students feel like slackers by not doing the extra work and helping them with questions that come up while they do the extra work, and these will be dealt with in a separate article.

12. Optional extensions
This is similar to Extra Self-Study Work above, but means things that keen students who finish activities in class early can do while they are waiting. Books and article on teaching mixed ability classes have lots of information on these, and some textbooks for kids and teenagers also have ideas or photocopiable activities to make this easier to implement.

13. Design it around the motivation
One way of combining the particular demands of a few students and the needs of everyone to get a well balanced improvement in their general English level is to use that need as the basis of a much less specialized lesson or course than it seems. For example, if you have one Business English student who needs pharmaceutical industry vocabulary you can make sure that all four skills are still practiced with recordings of news stories on drugs disasters, that the topic is of interest to everyone with stories related to really common diseases, that the vocab is useful to all by doing body parts, and that people with other specialities and interests are still involved by discussing the share prices of pharmaceutical companies and how drugs are manufactured.

14. When the others aren’t there
It might be that the more motivated students are more likely to be there during particular periods like the first ten minutes of class or classes on or near public holidays. If that is likely to be the case, you could plan to do a lesson or activity connected to their special area of interest, or at least one that is higher level and so pushes the students more.

15. Extra lessons
This one is more in the hands of the management of the school than individual teachers, but sometimes all a motivated student needs to feel satisfied is extra classes to go to. Possibilities include: once weekly conversation classes (which can be more mixed level than normal classes to make scheduling easier); book clubs; debating societies; lectures by teachers on their hobbies, hometowns etc; and school websites where students can take part in online conversations.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net March 2009
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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TEFL.net : TEFL Articles : Teacher Technique : Solutions for mixed motivation classes