Student Demotivation by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
We have elsewhere concerned ourselves with student motivation and what teachers can do to foster it. In this article, we shall introduce the notion of 'student demotivation', mainly drawing upon Dornyei (2001), among others. Besides, we shall try to establish a connection between teacher expectations and student achievement, thus casting the phenomenon of demotivation in a meaningful framework, within which both teachers and students are salient participants.
Demotivation vs motivation
There is no question that there are motivational influences that exert
a detrimental effect on student motivation. Classroom practitioners can
easily think of a variety of events that can have demotivating effects
on students, such as public humiliation, disheartening test results, or
even conflicts with peers. Reality shows that demotivation is not at all
infrequent in schools and the number of demotivated learners is increasing.
So, in this paper we shall see the "dark side of the moon,"
trying to shed some light on some 'potential motivational pitfalls and
danger zones', as Dornyei (2001) calls them.
1. An attractive alternative action that serves as a powerful distraction
(e.g. watching TV instead of doing one's homework).
According to Dornyei (ibid.: 143), these negative factors differ from what one would call 'demotivating events' in three significant ways:
1. Powerful distractions are not demotives in the same sense as, say,
public humiliation, because they do not carry a negative value: instead
of reducing motivation, their distracting effect consists in presenting
more attractive options.
In light of Dornyei's considerations, 'demotivation' concerns 'specific
forces that reduce or diminish the motivational basis of a bahavioural
intention or an ongoing action' (ibid.: 143).
Researchers have taken an interest in demotivation, as it is considered
to be a frequent phenomenon related to the teacher's interaction with
the students. In L2 studies, in particular, the interest in demotivation
has been aroused by a different reason. The L2 domain is most often characterised
by learning failure, in the sense that merely everyone has failed in the
study of at least one foreign language. So, language learning failure
is directly related to demotivation.
Rebecca Oxford (1998) carried out a content analysis of essays written by 250 American students (in high schools and universities) about their learning experiences over a period of five years. More specifically, they were required to respond to such prompts as 'Describe a situation in which you experienced conflict with a teacher' or 'Talk about a classroom in which you felt uncomfortable'. In this analysis, four broad themes emerged:
1. The teacher's personal relationship with the students, including hypercriticism,
belligerence, a lack of caring, and favouritism
The basic assumption permeating Gary Chambers's (1993) study is the view among language teachers that 'Arguably the biggest problem is posed by those pupils who are quite able but do not want to learn a foreign language and make sure that the teacher knows it!' (ibid.: 43). To find out what goes on inside the heads of students who 'dismantled' L2 lessons, Chambers visited four schools in Leeds, UK, and administered a questionnaire to 191 year nine students enrolled in eight classes. Seven teachers also filled in a questionnaire. According to the latter, the main characteristics of the demotivated pupil are the following; he or she
· makes no effort to learn; shows no interest; demonstrates poor
concentration; produces little or no homework; fails to bring, or claims
to have lost, materials;
Interestingly enough, the participant teachers perceived the causes of demotivation as related to a variety of reasons (which, of course, did not include themselves): psychological, attitudinal, social, geographical, historical. On the other hand, the students' responses were different. Although only 14 % view the modern language component of the curriculum as a 'waste of time', 50 % go on record as not enjoying or even loathing language learning. Some blame their teachers for
· going on and on without realising that they have lost everybody;
Based on his data, Chambers drew only few conclusions about the exact impact of the language-learning experience. At any rate, demotivated learners in the survey appeared to possess very low self-esteem and were in need of extra attention and praise. As Chambers (ibid.: 16) notes, 'pupils identified as demotivated do not want to be ignored or given up as a bad job; in spite of their behaviour, they want to be encouraged'.
Emma Ushioda asked the participants to identify what they found to be demotivating in their L2-related learning experience. According to her, almost without exception, these demotives related to negative aspects of the learning context, such as particular teaching methods and learning tasks. Ushioda also stresses that the learners that took part in the survey managed to sustain or revive their positive motivational disposition in spite of the various negative experiences, by dint of:
· setting themselves short-term goals;
The Dornyei (1998b) study differs from those by Oxford (1998), Chambers (1993) and Ushioda (1998) in that it focused on learners who had been identified as being demotivated, rather than looking at a general cross-section of students and asking them about bad learning experiences (for details about the nature of the research, please see Dornyei, 2001: 150-151). Among other things, Dornyei identified the following demotivating factors:
1. The teacher (personality, commitment, competence, teaching method);
Teacher expectations and student achievement
Although not all demotivating factors relate to teachers' stance and behaviour, it cannot be denied that the latter do have a responsibility in this respect. In particular, teachers' expectations of students' achievement are instrumental in increasing demotivation (or decreasing motivation). Research has shown that teacher expectations affect the students' rate of progress, functioning as a self-fulfilling prophecy (also referred to as the 'Pygmalion effect' after Bernard Shaw's play), with students living up or "down" to their teachers' expectations. These expectations trigger off various events and teacher behaviours which, in turn, influence student performance. On a positive note, these influences are likely to affect the students' self-concept, level of aspiration, achievement strivings, classroom conduct and interaction with the teacher (Dornyei, 2001: 176). On a negative note, though, the Pygmalion effect can reduce student motivation. Brophy (1985: 180) lists eight concrete ways by which negative expectations can make inroads into students' self-efficacy:
1. Giving up easily on low-expectation students
What we can glean from all the above is that demotivation is a salient phenomenon that should concern every classroom practitioner. It goes without saying that it is a complex issue and the present analysis has not done it justice. There are so many factors that affect student motivation, not the least of which is the role of the teacher. Effective teachers are not necessarily those who successfully transfer cognitive information. Rather, the positive impact of "good teachers" consists in their strong commitment towards the subject matter which becomes 'infectious', that is, instils in students a willingness to pursue knowledge and learn how to learn (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). Only motivated teachers can "produce" motivated students.
· Brophy, J. E. (1985). Teachers' expectations, motives and goals
for working with problem students. In Ames, C. and Ames, D. (Eds.), Research
on motivation in education: The classroom milieu. Academic Press, Orlando,
FL, pp. 175-214.
Dimitrios Thanasoulas studied English Literature and Linguistics at Athens University and then did an MA in Applied Linguistics at Sussex University. After that, he earned an MBA from Mooreland University and is currently finishing the second year of my PhD studies in Education at Nottingham University. His academic interests include fostering cultural awareness and learner autonomy, as well as such issues as language and ideology, Critical Discourse Analysis, Pragmatics, Sociolinguistics, and the Psychology of Education. Dimitrios can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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