Why should we be motivated to learn?

If you think about doing something you have not done before, why should you do it? The “what is in it for me” question always comes up.

Do you think these two “I”s are important in order to be motivated to learn?

  • Interest
  • Involvement

This personal article is written from experience, reading motivational experts’ material and some individual analytical thinking in an attempt to explain why we should be motivated to learn.
The article tries to relate this general question about learning to learning English as a foreign language at all levels for all age groups.

All classrooms, virtual or physical, regardless of size and number of attendees have a teacher and at least one student.

The teacher passes on  information to the student that he doesn’t  know. There are two fundamental parts for  the initial communication. Firstly, the teacher must have a competent technical knowledge of English. Secondly, the teacher has to know how to deal with students so that they will be motivated to learn. Besides, if the teacher is technically incompetent and fails to enable learning, no learning will take place and also the student won’t be motivated to learn.

be motivated to learn

This article concentrates on the second part, “enabling learning”, because without it, regardless of the teacher’s technical knowledge of English, learning may not take place.

Some motivation experts indicate that different mental and physical states such as warmth, physical comfort, being properly fed, emotionally balanced, no stress caused by external situations, etc, must be in place before learning can be considered.


Learning at all skill levels and ages, according to many motivational experts such as Maslow, Herzberg, Ausubel, et. al. concentrate on “me” as the driving factor. “Me” is what makes you tick. It is what drives the way you live and the way you think.

There is a saying: “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.” This applies to all of us , because you can put a student in a classroom, but you cannot make him/her learn. As teachers, we often forget this and assume that everyone in the class is there because they want to learn. We wonder why some students do much better than others. We blame it on mental capacity, bad attitude, defective parenting, economic/cultural differences, etc.

There are several Hollywood movies about true teaching stories. Most of these are based on a 180 degree change in a class of children where they represent the point of view of the society. The protagonists are hopeless children with a lost cause. The reason this “losers'” story become a successful one is because the teacher understands “me”, “interest” and “involvement”.In fact teacher’s main aim is to involve their students in their lessons. A good example could be “Stand and deliver” starring Edward James Olmos.

What many of us fail to realise is “me”. Here a simple diagram that helps to many people to catch the idea of “me”.

A simple diagram of “me” and why “me” does things

be motivated to learn

The green triangular structure shows “me” and why “me” does things. Everyone does things because they have an interest and are involved. For the moment, it doesn’t matter what causes these two “I”s because without them, you will not do whatever it is that is asked of you and you won’t be motivated to learn.

If you have NO INTEREST and/or NO INVOLVEMENT with something, will you do it?


The hard part for English teachers


All teachers have students. All students are individuals. All students are “me”. The teacher has to stimulate and maintain interest and involvement in many “me”s.


be motivated to learn

If you are interested in something, you will be involved.

  1. Presenting a challenge. Some people like challenges, others don’t. The ones who don’t probably feel that way because they have failed challenges in the past. Laziness shouldn’t be excluded. However, what appears to be lazy could be a manifestation of previously failed challenge attempts.
  2. Needs may be driven by personal requirements or mandatory requirements. The latter is a weaker need because, as for example with school children, they are obligated by law to attend school while they remain within a certain age group. At its most extreme, “need” can be a survival need. The need to do something is not necessarily the result of something positive. However, need caused by a negative influence will not be as effective because it is imposed against the learner’s wishes.
  3. Curiosity is a strong, personal emotion. The wish to find out more about something is the strongest motivator of all. If you can engender curiosity in your students, their learning will improve. They will also challenge you more with questions and explanations.
  4. Achievability must be ever-present. If you see that you cannot do something and you think that you will never acquire the new skill, you will eventually stop trying to learn it. Besides everything that is taught must be achievable. If not, it is a waste of time. That’s why achievability is also relative so when you ask for something to be done, make sure your students are capable of doing it.

Just because something worked with one class does not mean it will work in another.


be motivated to learn

If you are involved with something you, will be interested.

  1. Participation in a learning environment is critical. If students do not participate, they will lose interest. Passive learning is never as efficient as active learning so make sure all your students participate as much as possible in the classroom. As long as you manage participation properly, it should work and bear fruit.
  2. Enjoyment cannot always be present, but the learning experience must be made as enjoyable as possible. This is critical for young learners. Their world is based around play, activity and visual stimulation. If small children find the classroom unenjoyable they will very quickly look for other things to do. Teenager and adult reactions will be different. Teenagers are large children, so watch out for their reactions! Most adults will probably avoid the situation by dropping out of class.
  3. The relevance of what is being learned is another very important factor. The STEM model has shown this by making science, technology, engineering and mathematics more accessible. Pi may well be 22/7 but who cares, why is this useful, what is its relevance? The same has to happen in your English classroom. Who cares about the present perfect? Show me why I need to use it, when I should use it, give me some stimulating material to work with and interesting participative activities. Your students’ age group will determine how you address relevance.
  4. Results are vital. Anyone who learns wants to feel a sense of progression and achievement. If you don’t improve, why on earth should you keep going? Children like praise and gold stars. Older students like to see grades. Everyone likes to see for themselves that they can read, write, speak, listen and, most importantly, communicate and understand better than before.

Innovation, the third “I”

be motivated to learn

As an English teacher, you have to be innovative. You also have to learn.

If you teach at an individual or small group level, your ability to judge the “me” factors for each of your students should be easy.

If you teach large classes in K-18 schools, your ability to judge “me” factors at an individual level will be difficult. You will need to make a generalised judgement based on the age group and the average skill level of your students.

Regardless of either of these cases, you should never forget the “ME” factor and the ways you can encourage and stimulate your students to learn.

You control, manage, design and deliver your classes. Make sure that when you do, you address the “me”, “interest” and “involved” triangle.

IMPORTANT: There are many different cultures and perspectives on life, so when you innovate, you must do it within the norms of where you are. You cannot blindly transpose your own cultural and societal values because they may not be understood or, even worse, may be construed as offensive.

If you succeed, you may well see not only a change in progress, but also a change in attitude. Students who previously where afraid of a challenge, failed to see the need, lacked curiosity or felt doomed to failure; may well make the turn and become better learners.

STEM has shown this to be the case so it is achievable.

There is no magic formula for making any of this “me” influencing happen. Many experts have many ideas.

This article scratches the surface so all input, ideas, experiences, advice, etc. are more than welcome.

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