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Section I: Teaching English in China continued—China TEFL Primer

Psychology of Motivation and Chinese EFL Students

This chapter will provide a brief overview of the psychology of motivation and how it applies to understanding problems you will encounter with Chinese EFL students with suggestions for how you can adapt your teaching methods to foster student motivation in the China EFL classroom.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivators

Psychologists have identified two broad types of motivation to explain how and why students perform well (or not so well) in school: extrinsic and intrinsic.

The real challenge... is that most of your students cannot see a clear association between working hard to learn English and a direct and immediate positive outcome...

Extrinsic motivators are those that come from outside the self and include such things as praise, extra privileges (can stay up later at night), money (extra allowance), and in some cases even extravagant gifts used by desperate parents as bribes, e.g., "Bring me home an "A" average and I'll buy that Mustang for you that you want so much." Conversely, attempting to avoid punishment would also be an extrinsic motivator, e.g., "If you don't bring home at least a "B" average, you'll be grounded for a month and you can forget about your allowance too."

Intrinsic motivators, which are viewed as far more durable, emanate from inside the self and include such things as improved self-esteem, satisfaction of intellectual curiosity, spiritual growth, as well as a heightened sense of self-efficacy and competency, among others. These types of motivators tend to be extremely subjective and, therefore, vary considerably from person to person (Huitt, 2001).

Expectancy Theory

Keeping the two types of motivators in mind, we can consider another very powerful theory of motivation that originally emanated from the field of organizational psychology called Expectancy Theory. Although it was initially developed to explain the relationship between employee performance and work management, it can easily be adapted to understand and explain the relationship between Chinese EFL student performance and classroom management.

Victor Vroom's expectancy theory asserts that performance is the result of deliberate (conscious) choices that individuals make among several possible options where the goal is to increase pleasure and reduce pain. The main principles of this theory are valence, expectancy, and instrumentality, and are described below (Droar, 2006).

  • Valence refers to the degree or strength of a student's emotional investment in obtaining either the extrinsic or intrinsic outcomes (motivators or rewards, above). For the valence to be positive, the student must prefer obtaining the outcome to not attaining it. Effective EFL teachers determine exactly what their students value (and, of course, that varies from student to student).
  • Expectancy refers to the fact that students have different expectations and levels of confidence about what they are capable of doing. An essential part of effectively managing an EFL class is to first ascertain (usually during the first class or two) what the English levels are like for each of one's students and to further determine how confident (or not) each student is about improving his or her language skills.
  • Instrumentality simply refers to the student's belief that good performance, i.e., working hard at something, will in fact lead to obtaining a positive outcome, i.e., reward or benefit. Of the three factors, in regard to extrinsic motivation, this is perhaps the only one that the EFL teacher cannot directly impact upon because, in regard to English as a foreign language in China, instrumentality will be directly related to how useful the student believes good English skills will be in obtaining what he or she values the most from society (as opposed to from the teacher).

Combining what we now know about the types of motivation with expectancy theory, we can apply this to discussing some of the enormous challenges faced by foreign English teachers in China.

Problems of Motivation

Some Chinese EFL students are highly motivated, either intrinsically or extrinsically, to learn English. Among those who are intrinsically motivated are students who may truly enjoy learning English as an academic subject, simply "love the sound of English," or derive enormous satisfaction from exploring new information about cultures other than their own by having the ability to learn from materials presented exclusively in English. However, this group will not constitute the majority of your Chinese EFL students.

EFL teacher tries to warm up her students

Most are, in fact, extrinsically motivated and can be further divided according to whether they are either attempting to achieve a positive outcome or, much more commonly, to avoid a negative one. The minority, the "positive outcome achievers," are those students who perceive a strong association between superior functional English language skills and a better, brighter future, for not only themselves but their parents as well. These students are generally the children of affluent parents who can afford to send them to Western universities and who, in all likelihood, will never return to mainland China once they leave. They have been Western-bound from the time they entered kindergarten and they know that their future success is entirely contingent on how well they can use English.

The real challenge with EFL teaching in China is that most of your students cannot see a clear association between working hard to learn English and a direct and immediate outcome (either positive or negative) other than avoiding parental disapproval, a lost opportunity to attend a key senior middle school or college, and possibly obtaining a better job (assuming the complete absence of parental guanxi or influence). Furthermore, depending on the age of your students, the threat of negative outcomes may be too far in the distant future to have any real strength. Is it reasonable to expect a 12-year old Chinese child to be concerned about how failing to take English seriously might affect his ability to land a better job ten years from now? And how will you answer him when he tells you that his father, who owns a very successful business and is considered wealthy, cannot speak one word of English and, for that matter, neither can virtually anyone of the Party's national political leaders? You might tell him that as China continues to become increasingly more Westernized every day, so too is the importance of English increasing along with it, and that if he doesn't study English now, he will regret it in the future. And when I was young, I remember my parents telling me repeatedly that if I didn't take better care of my teeth, I would live to regret it one day. It turns out they were entirely correct, but that admonishment certainly didn't influence my behavior forty to fifty years ago.

So, if the majority of our Chinese EFL students are not either intrinsically motivated to learn English or, extrinsically motivated such that they cannot see a direct association between acquiring English language skills and a desirable outcome, how then do we motivate this group of students? The answer lies in 1) creating intrinsic motivation and simultaneously 2) increasing expectancy. The next section will suggest ways for achieving these two goals.

How To Motivate Unmotivated Chinese EFL Students

The most direct way to create or induce intrinsic motivation in your students is to make learning English fun for the sake of learning. As it turns out, what is fun for a bunch of seven-year olds will not be entertaining for a class of 22-year old English majors, and vice versa, and it is the rare EFL teacher who is just as effective with the little kids as he is with the young adults. Why is that? The answer is because being effective as an EFL teacher requires what psychologists refer to as a "professional use of self." Those who can relate well to very young children usually have difficulty applying themselves in a way that is just as engaging and genuine to college students, with the opposite being equally true.

For the younger students, a preponderance of games and activities that are age- and level-appropriate is the most effective way to create intrinsic motivation. That is, if the kids have fun, they will look forward to attending the next class and, over time and without deliberately meaning to, they will gradually acquire English language skills. As their acquisition of English increases, so too will their degree of expectancy: that is, the better their skills become, they more confident they will feel and, in turn, the more motivated they will become to continue.

The older students need to be approached in a more adult but no less engaging manner. For starters, the teacher needs to create an atmosphere that is completely safe, i.e., free of criticism, and relaxed. This can take many weeks to achieve. Second, an honest and valid appraisal of each student's abilities needs to be ascertained. Group activities or presentations should be incorporated for at least part of each class. This can be accomplished by organizing the students into small, relatively homogeneous groups of four to five students so that there is some variability between each member's abilities but not too much. Topics for discussion or activities should be of great interest to that age group. And there is no need to guess what those areas of interest might be for anyone particular class. Simply ask each student to write down a list of three topics each would like to discuss or learn about.

The truth of the matter is, if you are a sincere and affable person, genuinely love teaching, and care about the students, you will most likely be able to engage their interest and trust, and that is 99% of the task at hand for a foreign English teacher in China. Over time, the real problem will not be in getting them to speak to you using whatever skills they have acquired up to that point. The real problem for most of them will be the absence of continued opportunities to use whatever language skills they have acquired after they leave college. The reality is, there are a very limited number of positions in China that truly require the daily use of English. Many will need to communicate by e-mail occasionally in English but, at this point in time, most will never need to speak another word of English after they leave the university—and that's the real problem with EFL learning in China today.

As foreign English teachers in China, there is a great deal we can do to facilitate intrinsic motivation (albeit even if it is short-lived), enhance valence (strength of commitment to obtaining the intrinsic benefit), and expectancy (improving self-confidence with English). The problem is that only the Chinese government can affect meaningful changes in instrumentality, i.e., the degree to which increased acquisition of English language skills is, in fact, directly related to achieving greater intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. In a country of 1.3 billion people where Chinese is spoken more than any other language, where a greater number of Western universities are now teaching Chinese than ever before (and engaging Chinese English teachers to do so), where Western industry is increasingly hiring bilingual employees and sending them to China to communicate in Chinese, and especially in those cases where the student has no clear intentions of ever leaving the Middle Kingdom, instrumentality will always be a serious obstacle. In the end, it's really not enough that career foreign English teachers and wishful Chinese parents believe in the direct benefit of superior English language skills in China.


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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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