False Hope & Goal Setting In The ESL/EFL Classroom
by Damian Rivers

Like many other foreign language teachers working within Japan I possess an active interest in what motivates students to study English as a foreign language. One can assume that all students, regardless of demographic origin, have certain motivating factors or antecedents which prompt them to begin an extended period of language study. Within certain demographic populations it can be said that there are patterns to such motivating factors or antecedents. For example, for students enrolled in compulsory education at the pre-tertiary level, studying English may simply reflect a requirement for further educational progression, whilst for those students at the tertiary level the study of English may have been prompted by an active interest in foreign peoples and cultures. In addition and outside of the mainstream educational context, students may attend conversation classes and or conversation schools for more personal reasons including:

* a desire to travel overseas and communicate in English.
* a desire to be able to better communication with a foreign friend.
* for the purpose of work related English language requirements
* for the purpose of group inclusion connected to hobbies or specific interests

The above are certainly familiar to most English language instructors within Japan. However, one motivating factor or antecedent which occurs again and again across a variety of contexts is a desire to watch and understand English language movies without subtitles. Despite hearing this many times during my time in Japan I have always been curious as to why students who are quite often struggling with a basic self-introduction would see the above as a realistic goal within a class which meets once a week for a limited period of three-months. Whilst having goals and personal ambitions is essential for language learning success, this one particular goal has always seemed to create a certain degree of ‘expectation conflict’ between student and teacher. To sincerely believe that the teacher is endowed with a certain set of transferable skills which would allow someone to watch and understand the linguistic, social and cultural content of an English language movie after a minimum period of study is astounding and immediately positions the teacher to fail in regard to student course expectations.
So, from a practical perspective let’s imagine the scene - the first 20-minutes of a new conversation class have now passed in which time all of the students have introduced themselves to you and told you why they have decided to join your class. As a teacher you are now considering how best to meet all of the students’ particular needs during the 3-month course which limits class time to a single hour per week.  You may also be wondering how the assigned or chosen textbook is going to be able to accommodate such varied student interests and how you can come out of the teaching process with students feeling satisfied and rewarded. It is at this point which I would advise any teacher to consider addressing student expectations and constructing manageable and realistic classroom goals - a process which will usually involve grounding student ambitions to reflect a greater degree of realism as many students are unaware of their own linguistic boundaries and need support in drawing a clear line between unrealistic and realistic expectations.  

One possible research based framework to consider is that of Keller (1993) who explored the relationship between language learner motivation and student-teacher expectations across four areas of classroom pedagogy - interest, relevance, expectancy and outcome. Perhaps the most prevalent dimension for the language teacher within Japan in terms of goal setting is that of ‘relevance’. Indeed, in order for students to maintain a consistent level of interest in a course or program, as outlined above, it is necessary for their personal needs to be satisfied. Keller (1993) refers to these personal needs as ‘instrumental needs’ which can only be met when the course content matches what the student perceives they should be learning. In a conversation class of mixed-ability students coming from different backgrounds finding a common goal is an arduous task. At this point a certain degree of ‘professional’ responsibility must fall upon the teacher. What a student should be learning (in terms of being the best material for proficiency advancement) and what a student wants to learn (reflective of personal interests) are usually two very different things. The teacher needs make an acceptable and functional compromise between student ‘needs’ and ‘wants’. However, this compromise is often bias toward student ‘wants’ as for many teachers classroom satisfaction and student feedback is what will achieve a new contract or a new course, not measurable proficiency gains or improvements.

The varying degrees of personal agenda displayed by students also serves to emphasize the need for accurate and consensual goals to be set which are accepted and agreed upon by all class members from the beginning of the course. As documented by Graham (1997), students quite often give the impression of experiencing frustration and disinclination to work to their full capacity when their agenda was felt to be in conflict with the one imposed by the teachers. The author concludes that student motivation depends largely on students sensing that the classroom language activities correspond to what they feel they need to learn, and to the way in which they feel they should learn. Furthermore, the method of teaching which students favour should also be considered as a key part of any goal setting activity. For example, an English conversation class held at a local community centre would perhaps not enjoy the lecture method of knowledge transference. In this respect, a degree of flexibility is required on the part of the teacher if all students are to remain satisfied for the duration of the course. Although the students may lack awareness and knowledge of various teaching methods, it is often the case that all students can identify those methods which they dislike. For the teacher, obtaining such basic information about student preferences is of great assistance when deciding just how to teach a particular class.

So what kind of goals should be set? Setting goals that are easily obtained may temporarily increase self-esteem and satisfaction in students, but such constant under-stimulation will eventually turn to boredom and frustration. On the other hand, if the teacher sets unreachable goals the students will lose interest and frustration will again take over the classroom. Classroom goals should aim to strike a balance between being too easy and too difficult. Biggs & Moore (1993) state that when a teacher comes to the process of setting classroom goals with the students the goals should be clearly defined, hard but achievable accepted by the students and accompanied by feedback from all parties. In those cases where students do not meet the set goals it is important to provide feedback to reinforce the fact that they are still ‘a valid part of the language learning group’ and that failure does not mean exclusion. However, in cases of constant failure the goals of that individual should perhaps be reassessed and shaped to better fit their current ability level. Although the topic of goal setting and false hope is infinitely more complex than this short reflective article suggests, in conclusion I would advise teachers to at least consider the below points when beginning a new class:

* Language goals need to be S.M.A.R.T: (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely)
* Goals must be shaped around the abilities of the students.

* Students need to identify the strategies which they will use to achieve their goals; they should create an objective plan and follow it through.

* Student goals should be dynamic and have the ability to change according to student progression; the goals should be monitored and refined as often as possible.

If a teacher works in tandem with students, always aiming to keep the lines of bidirectional communication open in terms of setting goals, refining goals, overcoming barriers and measuring student achievement, the English language classroom can become a place of satisfaction for all involved no matter what one’s motivation or level of ability is.

Biggs, J.B., & Moore, P.J. (1993). Process of learning (3rd Edition). Sydney: Prentice-Hall.
Graham, S. (1997). Effective language learning. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Keller, J.M. (1993). Motivational design of instruction. In C.M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional Design Theories and Models (pp. 386-433). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.


Damian J. Rivers has been living in Japan a number of years and is interested in social issues connected with language development. <www.eapstudy.com>

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