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Set Goals to Motivate Students

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Training at a gym and learning a foreign language have a number of similarities. The most obvious is probably on the tip of your tongue already: Both take a lot of hard work. Perhaps you also realized that a lot of people give up after a few sessions. In fact, excitement peaks before the first lesson, whether it's aerobics or English or something entirely else. And as imagination and reality collide mental exhaustion follows (in the case of language learning), and with months and months of more work on the horizon, a decline in interest naturally results.

Students offer a variety of reasons for quitting. Some lack the time to study, and others don't have enough money to continue. A few feel that goals aren't being met, or the lessons aren't all that enjoyable. But in many cases, each of these reasons translates exactly the same: The service provided doesn't equal the value required to continue.

In today's busy world, so much vies for our attention. We have work, relationships, and entertainment, just to name a few attention grabbers. We can write the following equation, applicable to most aspects of life: time + money = value. As long as each side balances out, there isn't a problem. For example, fast food serves a quick and cheap meal, and we don't expect to rave or write home about it.  But when an imbalance occurs, specifically when value diminishes on the right side of the equation, this leads to the following question: Is the product or service worth it?

For English lessons, it's rather important to add student interest to the time and money side of things. You could teach at a student's house (thereby saving him time) and charge absolutely nothing (thereby saving him money). Yet if he has no interest in learning the language, he still won't find any value. Let's look at another example:

Hiroshi, a very motivated student, has a class which meets every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. He schedules his day accordingly, making sure not to plan other activities on these nights. What's more, he even puts unfinished work aside for the next day so as to get out of the office at 6:00. The value of the lessons outweighs other factors vying for his attention.

Then there's Takako, an unmotivated student. At the end of the workday, she feels tired and would prefer to space out in front of the TV. She also met a guy recently, and they sometimes meet up for drinks. She missed one lesson, then two, then several more as it became easier and easier to not show up.  The value of the lesson didn't equal time spent in front of the TV or with her new boyfriend.

It's important to set goals at the very start, then. The teacher and student should reassess these targets every few months, which then offers the opportunity to maintain a dialogue specifically about strengths, weaknesses, and expectations. When motivation starts to slide, a conversation has already been scheduled. A reassessment also gives you the chance to determine if the goals seem reasonable, which could also affect motivation. For example, if a beginner starts lessons in January and expects to read the New York Times in March, he'll be sorely disappointed in several months' time. You can also adjust the goals in the middle of the course, such as when the student suddenly finds himself to tackle the weekly homework. Although the goals you both set were reasonable just a short time ago, the change in factors outside the lesson now make those targets largely impossible.

Consider the following:

  • What does the student want to achieve in three months? How about six months? How about nine months? How about one year and beyond?
  • What specific skills will the student need to improve, and thereby achieve his goal? How can he work on these on his own? Be as specific as possible, and offer at least some comment or rating for each skill set. For a student who needs to improve his listening, compare the following comments:

You should listen to podcasts.

-versus-

Listen to Heads Up English Skill Builders. Follow the instructions and complete the exercises. Then listen to the podcast at least several times each day. We can also spend some class time checking comprehension, too. I'll send you the links for several of the audio files.

Measure progress so that you or the student may adjust the goals accordingly. Remember that the student is an equal member in the lesson, and should have the chance for input. This helps the interest part of the equation.

Although there will always be students who quit after several lessons, we shouldn't solely strive for improved motivation via more dynamic and entertaining lessons. While a fun factor proves vital, it's equally important to reconnect and reassess. Keep the student aware of his progress, and how that relates to his short and long term goals.

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