Motivation: Implications for Practice

Motivation: Implications for Practice

By Chris Richards

Over the last academic year, I’ve been thinking a lot about motivation: the motivation of my students to learn English, the motivation of my team of teachers to teach their lessons and do their administration tasks, and my own motivation for my professional life and decisions. That thinking led me to read widely on the topic, and what I’ve found useful in my reading is understanding different types of motivation and how these can both drive and inhibit action and achievement. This article will look at five types of motivation and suggest implications for our practice.

Achievement Motivation

Firstly, let’s look at achievement motivation, which describes the motivation we might get from the completion of a task. At first glance, this sounds like an excellent motivator and especially so for us as teachers. This is precisely the kind of motivation we would love our learners to be driven by. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our room of exam preparation teenagers was motivated purely by getting a rush from finishing a grammar gap fill task? Or would it?

The key word for us to pay attention to here is ‘completion’. If you are motivated by achievement, this motivation depends on completion. Achievement-motivated learners, therefore, might display avoidance behaviours if they perceive a task as not achievable. If they don’t think they can complete the task or achieve the goal they have been set, they might well not want to attempt it. Others might be more focussed on completion — in order to feel that rush — than on completing the task well. If I’m motivated by achievement, I might be inclined to produce a written task as quickly as possible, counting the words as I go so I know as soon as I have reached the word limit and can stop.

As a result, we need to think very carefully about two things: firstly, how achievable the tasks and objectives are that we set, and secondly the success criteria we share with our students. Regarding the former, we need only recall Vygotsky (1978) and his model of the Zone of Proximal Development: activities should be just beyond the reach of what our students could do alone. Less than that and they are not doing anything new and so the task is not a learning task. More than that and we would be asking them to do something that even with our support is beyond their current ability and, therefore, something which is likely to be very demotivating. We should also think about how we chunk tasks: are we setting a whole essay at once, or paragraph by paragraph? There’s a time and a reason for both, but we should question ourselves to ensure we demand the right amount of independent work at a time - all in order to keep that task achievable.

Regarding success criteria, in Explicit English Teaching (2023), Tom Needham argues for the importance of explicit requirements. If we are not clear that we want three sentence types in a piece of writing or we want to hear five expressions from the list studied in a speaking task, then we cannot be surprised if (some) students take advantage of the loopholes in the way we set tasks. Hitting a target is not the same as hitting the gold, and neither are the same as shooting the arrow in the first place. To get the best from those who are motivated by achievement, we need to set achievable tasks that have clear success criteria.

Competence Motivation

Next, let’s turn our attention to competence, which is an internal form of motivation that can be hugely powerful. It’s a motivating factor that we can see driving many of our students in their areas of interest (the athletes, the mathletes, the musicians, the thespians, the gamers, the debaters etc.).

For me, competence motivation drives me to improve my teaching and my Spanish. It doesn’t drive me to improve my athleticism and that’s not to say that I don’t do exercise: I run, I swim, I go to the gym. I have the basics down and that’s all I’m interested in. I can’t transfer my motivation to be a better teacher to improving my bench press. Thus, it’s likely that the vast majority of us are in some way driven by competence motivation, but the areas in which this drives us are likely to be quite specific and thus the motivation is not transferable. Having said that, we can appeal to those who are driven to improve their English skills by setting achievable tasks (and thus also appealing to those who are motivated by achievement) and giving visibility to their improvement and progress over time.

Incentive Motivation

Incentive motivation can be seen as working in concert with both competence and achievement motivation. We have the same problems as achievement motivation, so we won’t rehearse those points again here. What we can explore, though, is the ways we can use incentives to motivate those who are driven in this way. If achievement is about the end goal, incentive can be about the milestones; what’s necessary is that we reward each step in some way rather than only the overall achievement. This can be through praise, but also through the use of trackers which avoid the ephemerality of verbal praise and can allow students to see their progress towards an outcome accumulate over time. Trackers can also motivate those who are driven by competence and who likewise enjoy seeing their progress. If you want to see a great example of how such tracking works, invest some time in the online learning app Duolingo - if ever there was a model of drip-feed incentive motivation, it’s to be found there.

Affiliation Motivation

Next, affiliation motivation is probably part of the reason you have chosen to sit and read this article. By choosing to read the journal, you expressed a desire to belong to a group of professionals. Again, on the surface this seems like a gift to those of us working in the classroom. We can imagine some utopian classrooms where groups of students feel a sense of belonging and work collaboratively. As a form of social motivation, affiliation motivation can be very powerful because many of us will experience a deep desire to belong to a group. However, if we move from the scientific-sounding ‘affiliation motivation’ and use a more everyday expression like ‘peer pressure’, we can see that this might not be quite the gift we would hope for. Affiliation motivation partly drives populism, belief in conspiracy theory, and fandoms for music and sport stars. So in the classroom, if the general mood of the class is one of despondency, disinterest or boredom, even an otherwise interested and enthusiastic student might start to disconnect if they are driven strongly by affiliation motivation. For them, the desire to participate in the lesson is dampened by their need to belong to the rest of the social group who are opting out. The conflict between your ideas or plans when the ideas and plans of the group don’t align can be very uncomfortable.

One immediate consequence that we can draw here is that of the importance of classroom rapport. It’s beneficial for all students, regardless of how much they might be driven by affiliation motivation, to feel rapport with their teacher and their classmates. Furthermore, taking the example of questioning techniques, if we use a hands-up approach to questioning, we invite students to disengage and discourage some students from participating. As Chiles argues in Powerful Questioning (2022), we need to build a culture of questioning in our classrooms. Approaches like cold calling with no hands up and the use of mini-whiteboards can help with this. Additionally, ‘yes and…’ and ‘no but…’ responses to student answers, where we add a followup question and direct it to someone else, can ensure that everyone is always kept on their toes. If we avoid the IRF (initiation, response, feedback) pattern of questioning and move towards IRE (initiation, response, evaluation), especially if we call on another student to do that evaluation, we keep the dialogue open to the group. To keep affiliation motivated students participating, we need a positive, purposeful classroom environment in which students want to participate.

Power Motivation

Finally, we’ll look at power. I’ve always loved travel, but one aspect of air travel that I thoroughly dislike is the way that I lose my sense of autonomy in the airport procedures. You entrust your suitcase to a complete stranger, who might also ask you about its contents. Then, you proceed to security where you must relinquish any other objects you have with you to be examined by another complete stranger and if, when you walk through the arch there’s a buzz, someone might pat you down. You might have to have your body swabbed by complete strangers. Then you finally reach passport control where your document, identity, and perhaps motivations for travel are scrutinised. All of these other people have control over whether you’re permitted to travel.

Autonomy and control over our bodies and our actions are fundamental to wellbeing. Classrooms, however, usually relieve students of a large part of their power. We might tell them where to sit, who to work with, what work to do, what target language we want them to use, and so on. And to an extent, this is not a bad thing. There are good reasons, sound pedagogical reasons, for teachers taking control of the seating arrangements, among other things.

However, there are two things we can keep in mind: explanation and delegation. Firstly, whenever it is appropriate, we can explain to our students why we do certain things. If you take control of the seating arrangements with a group who are old enough to understand why you are doing this, explain the reasons to them. On the other hand, if they aren’t old enough to understand, perhaps give them a choice when they need to form teams for the end of class game. Ask yourself if all students need to do the same essay question. Perhaps they do, and we can explain the reason to them. But if they don’t, we can give them a choice and in doing so give them a little bit of power. Alternatively, ask yourself if all students need to do all ten present perfect with just/already gap fill questions? If not, tell them they can choose which five to do. It’s a small concession, one of the few we can make in our necessarily tightly-controlled environments, but it can be very motivating.


This article aimed to probe beyond the internal-external binary of motivation and to explore different drivers and how we can make use of them in our classrooms. For reasons of space, the discussion here has been a little reductive, so I would encourage all those who are interested to do further reading on the topic so as to be more aware and be more able to manipulate the drivers of motivation effectively for your students. I’ve discussed achievement, competence, incentive, affiliation, and power motivations. Each of them has given us some considerations for what we do in our classrooms. You might like to look into fear motivation or attitude motivation (Masterclass), which will also offer some food for thought.

As a final note of reflection: we are all motivated in different ways to different extents, and this is likely to change from day to day. Thus, trying to determine what motivates individual students is likely to be an impossible task. I suggest, instead, drawing general principles that can be used in any lesson.


Chiles, M. (2023). Powerful Questioning: Strategies for Improving Learning and Retention in the Classroom. Carmarthen: Crown Publishing.

Masterclass (2022).

Needham, T. (2023) Explicit English Teaching. London: Sage.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Author Biography

Chris started teaching in England in 2010 and then in his native Wales, but has been working in Spain since 2016. After seven years in ELT, he has recently taken up a position teaching English at the British Council school in Madrid. He’s particularly interested in inclusive pedagogies, the teaching of writing, and teacher/action research. He’s an editor for ELT Research and is a Cambridge English speaking examiner.