Eight motivational theories and their implications for the classroom


In a couple of previous posts I briefly touched on theories of motivation and on how they can be tapped into to raise student achievement. In particular I concerned myself with a relatively unknown and yet powerful catalyst of motivation, self-efficacy, or expectancy of success, which, if nurtured regularly and adequately in the classroom can majorly impact learning. In this post I will very concisely outline the main principles underpinning other influential motivational theories and how I deploy them in my every day teaching in an attempt to enhance my students’ motivation.

Here is a very minimalistic overview of 8 of the 20 theories of motivation I brainstormed before writing this article. Please note that their tenets and implications for the classroom have been overly simplified; hence, if you are keen to apply them to your specific teaching context, you may want to find out more about them.

  1. Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance occurs when there is an unresolved conflict in our mind between two beliefs, thoughts or perceptions we hold about a given subject. The level of tension resulting from such conflict will be a function of:

  • How strong the conflict is between the two dissonant thoughts;
  • How important the issue they relate to are to  a specific individual or group;
  • How difficult it is to rationalize (justify through logical or pseudo-logical reasoning) the dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a very powerful motivator which, as I shall discuss in a future post, is often used in transformational change programs both in the business and educational world. The reason why it is so powerful is because, when used effectively, Cognitive dissonance creates a sense of discomfort in an individual which in order to be resolved results in one of two outcomes:

  • The individual changes behavior (possibly replacing the existing behavior with the newly modelled one);
  • The individual does not adopt the new behavior and justifies his/her behaviour by changing the conflicting cognition created by the new information, instead.

Implications for the classroom: Whenever you want to change a student’s attitude, first identify the beliefs at the heart of that attitude; when you have a fairly clear picture induce cognitive dissonance by producing powerful information and arguments which counter those beliefs. The degree of cognitive dissonance should be as high as possible for the attitudinal change we purport to bring about to be effective. For example, when dealing with a misbehaving child, to simply tell them off for what they did will be way less effective than raising their awareness of the ways their conduct affected others negatively and explaining why is morally/ethically wrong. Or, to impose a new methodology to one’s team of teachers by saying it is more effective than the one currently in use by merely providing statistics from a few research studies which point to its greater effectiveness will not be as powerful as explaining to them why the old approach is failing the target students and the new can more effectively address the identified shortcomings. Another example in the realm of language learning: many foreign language students in England hold negative views about the country(i-es) where the target language is spoken. If one wants to change such attitudes one may want to first find out what beliefs are at the root of those attitudes (e.g. are they xenophobic stereotypes?); then in a lesson or series of lesson (at the beginning of the year, maybe?) provide objective and solid reasons to prove that those beliefs are indeed false using supporting evidence which will resonate with the students’ sub-culture, thereby creating cognitive dissonance. Research suggests that over-using statistics may be detrimental and that engaging the target students in a discussion on the issues-in-hand after the new information has been provided, will enhance the chances of attitudinal change to occur. This process may induce the learners to restructure their cognition.

  1. Drive reduction theory

This theory is centred on the notion that we all have needs that we attempt to satisfy in order to reduce the tension or arousal they cause. The internal stimuli these needs produce are our main drives in life. There are Primary drives which refer to basic needs (food, sleep, procreation, etc.) and Secondary drives which refer to social identity and personal fulfillment.

As we act on our needs we are conditioned and acquire habits and subconscious responses. So, for example: when a child needs to feel good about himself, he may recite a poem, sing a song, perform a dance or other ‘feats’ to his parents knowing he is going to get some recognition. Whenever he needs recognition in other contexts, this individual will possibly use the same tactics in order to get the same response from any other figure of authority – including teachers.

When the driven action does not satisfy his needs or the enacting of drives is frustrated, negative emotions (e.g. anxiety) arise. To go back to the previous example: if the boy is looking for a chance to show off to an authority figure his ‘skills’ but he is not given the opportunity to do so, he will feel frustrated, angry and/or unappreciated – a very common scenario in school, often dismissed as the child being ‘naughty’ or ‘unruly’.

Implications for the classroom: find out what drives your students, especially the difficult ones. Instead of approaching the problem by ‘punishing’ them, have a one-on-one chat with them and try to discover what is that they find fulfilling and see if you can find opportunities in your lessons for them to enact their drives. For instance, if you have a student passionate about drama who does not seem to enjoy language learning, ask them to contribute their acting skills by myming vocabulary or sentences in lessons or setting up a mini-production in the target language.

  1. Attribution theory

When we make a mistake or ‘fail’ at something we tend to go through a two-step process. We first experience an automatic response involving internal attribution (i.e. the error is our fault); then a conscious, slower reaction which seeks to find an alternative external attribution (e.g. the error is due to an external factor). This is because we all have a vested interest in ‘looking good’ in our own eyes – a sort of survival mechanism. This type of response, however, is unlikely to lead to self-improvement, as it results in an individual not addressing the real cause of their error/bad performance in the future. Roesch and Amirkham (1997) found that more experienced and successful athletes made more self-serving attributions which lead to identifying and addressing the internal causes of their performance errors.

Implications for the classroom: when dealing with students who complain about not progressing because the subject, skill or task is too hard for them, show them – where applicable – that the reasons why they are not improving is not intrinsic in the nature of that subject, skill or task , but has more to do with other factors under his/her control (e.g. the study habits, such as lack of systematic revision). This will create cognitive dissonance and may have an impact on their attitude, especially if they are shown strategies that may help them improve in the problematic area(s) of their learning. The afore mentioned research by Roesch and Amirkham (1997) and their findings could be drawn upon and discussed with your students to reinforce the point; I often do, citing the example of famous athletes the students admire and pointing out how they learn from their mistakes by watching videos of themselves playing a match over and over again or asking peers/experts for feedback in order to identify and address their shortcomings.

  1. Endowed progress effect

When people feel they have made some progress towards a goal, they will feel more committed towards its achievement. Conversely, people who are making little or no progress are more likely to give up early in the process. In my work with very low achieving ‘difficult’ students when I operated in challenging inner-city-area schools,sitting with them at the beginning of a task and guiding them through open questioning often ‘did the trick’ where threatening them with sanctions had failed miserably.

Implications for the classroom: Whatever the task you engage your students in, ensure that they all experience success in the initial stages. This may call for two approaches which are not mutually exclusive: (1) design any instructional sequence in a ‘stepped’ fashion, with ‘easy’ tasks that become gradually more difficult; (2) provide lots of scaffolding (support) at the initial stages of teaching.

  1. Cognitive Evaluation Theory

When looking at a task, we assess it in terms of how well it meets our need to feel competent and in control. We will be intrinsically motivated by tasks we believe fall in our current level of competency and ‘put off’ by those which we deem we will do poorly at. This issue is often more about self-perception of one’s levels of competency than objective truth.

Implications for the classroom:  we need to ensure that before engaging students in challenging tasks that they may perceive as being beyond their levels of competence we prepare them adequately, cognitively and emotionally. For instance, in language learning, before carrying out a difficult listening comprehension task, students should be exposed several times to any unfamiliar vocabulary or other language item contained in the to-be-heard recording so as to facilitate the task.  Moreover, modelling strategies that may facilitate the tasks and giving them the opportunity to experience some success in similar tasks through those very strategies may increase their sense of self-efficacy; this will give them greater expectancy of success and a feeling of empowerment which will feed into their sense of competency and control.

Another important implications relate to the way we design the curriculum and assessment. For effective progression from a lower level to a higher one to be possible, students must be given plenty of opportunities to consolidate the material processed at the lower level before moving on. This does not often happen in courses which rely heavily on textbooks. For instance, in most of the institutions I have worked in over 25 years of teaching, I was asked to teach a unit of work every six-seven weeks, a totally unrealistic pace when contact time is limited to one or two hours a week. The result: the weaker children are usually left behind. 

  1. Self-determination theory; Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation.

Individuals differ from one another in terms of PLOC (personal locus of causality). Some will feel that their behavior is self-determined; they are the initiators and sustainers of their actions and their PLOC will be internal. Others will see external forces as determinants of their lives; coercing them into actions. These people’s PLOC will be external. The internal locus is connected with intrinsic motivation, whilst the external locus is connected with extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation is when one is motivated by external factors, such as rewards, social recognition or fear of punishment. This kind of motivation focuses people on rewards rather than action.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, refers to the desire to do things because we enjoy doing them, hence it is a stronger motivator than Extrinsic motivation. Three needs lead to intrinsic motivation:

  • Being successful at what we do (i.e. I enjoy French because I am good at it);
  • Being connected with others (i.e. I love my French class because I have bonded well with the rest of the class)
  • Having autonomy (see below)

An important factor leading to Intrinsic Motivation creation is providing learners with the oppportunity to develop effectance. Effectance refers to one of the 3 points made above (being successful at what we do) and is given rise to when the learner accomplishes success at something that they perceive challenging and falling in what Deci (1997)  terms ‘Optimal zone of development’ – i.e.: a task that it is perceived as difficult enough to be challenging but within the stretch of the learner’s ability. Effectance does not arise when we simply give students ‘easy’ work; that is why the ‘easy wins’ strategy often fails with students with poor intrinsic motivation; students are not stupid, they know you are dumbing down the work to make them feel good and the ensuing praise will not affect their self-regard as learners of your subject.

Self-determination theory assumes that there are individuals for whom a feeling of being in control of their life and responsible for their actions is very important for their personal fulfillment and, consequently, for their motivation.

Implications of Self-Determination theory for the classroom: it may be useful to identify which students in your classes have an internal or external PLOC. In my experience this is not difficult. Once identified the internal PLOC of the target individuals, it is very important to cater for their self-determination needs and grant them a degree of autonomy in and ownership over their learning. E.g.: when staging a reading session in the classroom;  carrying out a project; asking students to practise vocabulary online, let them choose how to go about it (whilst setting some guidelines for the sake of consistency). People with high internal PLOC thrive in self-directed learning tasks and contexts; teachers must endeavour to exploit to the fullest this personality trait’s greater potential for autonomy in L2 learning. People with a high external PLOC will need more praise, direction from and a sense of accountability to teachers and caretakers.

Implications of Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation theory: Pretty obvious. The main ones: (1) make lessons as enjoyable as possible and make them experience EFFECTANCE regularly in your lessons, as this may help boost their intrinsic motivation; (2) Plan every single one of your lessons with the following questions in mind: ‘How can I make sure that every student goes out of my lessons feeling they have progressed?; (3) foster connectedness in the class by creating a team spirit and a sense that the whole class is working towards the same goal and that every student feels comfortable working with everyone else (e.g. make sure that people do not work with the same partners all the time when staging group work); give plenty of opportunities for positive peer feedback (e.g. get students’ to celebrate other students’ achievements). (4) Show them the benefits of learning the TL for their future job prospect, personal growth, etc. and of every activity you stage in lessons in terms of learning benefits; use praise as a means to validate their efforts but ensure that you do not over-praise or it will lose its motivational power (most students can sense when you are just trying to bribe them with compliments; this may engender complacency and even loss of motivation in the long-run). 

There is a myth circulating amongst some educators these days (including some of my colleagues) that Extrinsic motivation should not be tapped into  as a strategy to encourage students to improve. However, there is no sufficient credible evidence that Extrinsic Motivation is detrimental to learning to do away with it; on the contrary, research shows consistently  that extrinsic motivation, when not overused and deployed in synergy with some of the other strategies discussed in this post, can eventually bring about Intrinsic motivation. Example: a student that does not enjoy French may, through experiencing a sense of effectance and obtaining consistent (thoroughly deserved and proportionate) praise and rewards become more appreciative of the subject, especially if she is experiencing steady growth in her mastery of the language and feels connected and supported by his peers.

It is self-evident that using Extrinsic motivation will work with certain individuals rather than others; hence, as already mentioned, identifying the orientation of their Personal Locus Of Causality (PLOC) is fundamental, prior to carrying out any intervention.

  1. Valence- Instrumentality- Expectancy (VIE) theory

In this paradigm, motivation refers to three factors

  • Valence: what we think we will get out of a given action/behaviour (what’s in it for me?)
  • Instrumentality: the belief that if I perform a specific course of action I will succeed (clear path?)
  • Expectancy: the belief that I will be definitely able to succeed (self-efficacy)

Implications for the classroom:

(1) make clear to students why a specific outcome is desirable (e.g. getting and A/A* at GCSE speaking exams). Make sure you list as many benefits as possible, especially those that most relevant to their personal preferences, interests and life goals;

(2) provide them with a clear path to get there. This may involve showing them a set of strategies they can use (e.g. autonomously seeking opportunities for practice with native speakers in school) or a clear course of action they can undertake which is within their grasp (e.g. talk to your teacher about how to improve your essay writing; identify with their help the two or three main issues; work out with them some strategies to address those issues; monitor with their help through regular feedback and meetings with them that their are working and if they are not why; etc.). A clear path gives a struggling student a sense of empowerment, especially if they feel that they are being provided with effective tips and support to overcome the obstacles in the way;

(3) support their self-belief that that outcome can be achieved (e.g. by mentioning to them examples of students from previous cohorts of similar ability who did it)  and by reminding them of similar/comparable challenges they successfully undertook in the past. 

  1. Goal-related theory

In order to direct ourselves in our personal, educational and professional life we set ourselves goals. These can be:

  • Clear (so we know what to do and what not to do)
  • Challenging (so we get some stimulation)
  • Achievable (so we do not fail)

If we set goals ourselves, rather than having them imposed on us, we are more likely to work harder in order to achieve them. Moreover, Locke and Kristoff (1996) identified specific and challenging goals as those which are more likely to lead to higher achievement.

Implications for the classroom: instead of setting goals for your students in a top-down fashion, involve them actively in the process of learning. Moreover, help the students narrow down the goals set as much as possible and gauge them as accurately as possible to their existing level of competence. E.g.: instead of simply telling a student to check his next essay more accurately next time around and give them a lengthy error checklist, sit down with them and ask them to choose three challenging error categories that they would like to focus on and to aim to attain 80, 90 or even 100% accuracy in those categories in their essay due the following week. Make sure that  the knowledge required by the learners to prevent or fix the target errors is learnable and that the students are provided with learning strategies which will assist them in achieving the set goals. I did this in my PhD study with excellent results. 

I picked the above theories as they are the ones that I have been using more successfully over 25 years as a classroom teacher and subject leader. It goes without saying that in order to apply them effectively one has to ensure first and foremost that they know and listen to the learners they are dealing with. Cognitive and emotional empathy are a must for the success of any of the above motivational strategies.

These strategies work best in synergy rather than in isolation. In a future post, for instance, I will endeavour to show how attitudinal change may be brought about by using a combination of the above principles to achieve the desired outcomes.


Things learners do not enjoy about their foreign language lessons

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In the last two years or so, I have carried out short interviews with around 150 year 8 and 9 MFL students of various ability which I ranked as very able (38), able (72) and less able (40) based on their (Midyis) test results. I asked them the question: “Which 3 things about your language lessons do you neither enjoy nor find conducive to learning? Why?”. Although there was a high degree of idiosyncrasy and variation across the informants’ answers in terms of individual preferences, seven ‘things’ stood out as being disliked and found ‘not very productive’ by at least 40 % of the students. Here they are:

  1. Tasks they do not feel prepared for – 52 % of the students found demotivating and not very productive to be required to carry out tasks they felt were beyond their linguistic competence level. Unsurprisingly, most of the students in this category included the less able ones. However, some of the more able students complained about this issue, too, possibly because, being perfectionists, they hated not being able to be 100 % accurate.
  2. Long sessions of writing in lessons – 65 % of the students stated they disliked or even ‘hated’ doing writing in class for 15-20 minutes or more, most of them feeling that it was boring and should be done at home when one would have more time and focus to learn from it. Not surprisingly, here, too, the less able students were those with the strongest negative feelings about long writing sessions.
  3. Listening comprehension tasks from course-books– 55 % of the students mentioned this as a motivation inhibitor and as an activity they did not feel they learnt much from because they felt that the actors on the course-book audio-tracks went either too slow (in the lower level activities) or too fast (in the higher level ones). They enjoyed listening to the teacher speaking to them in the target language as they felt it was a more natural context for practising listening.
  4. Target setting / Being given targets – 45 % of the students felt they did not learn much from this process because after the target-setting session they would not look at the targets often enough to do something about them. They found the process tedious and unproductive.
  5. Very long sessions on the iPad – 60 % of my informants reported generally enjoying using the iPad in class but not for the whole lesson. They felt that they needed a mix of activities. 40% mentioned tiredness and/or boredom as the reasons why using it for the whole lesson resulted in less focus and interest.The more able students seemed to be the ones who objected more strongly against the overuse of the iPad. The suggestion made by the students was that each session should not be longer than 15-20 minutes maximum.
  6. Lack of group-work – 45 % of the students reported disliking lessons where they had to work alone from beginning to end. These students (mainly belonging to the able and less able group) said that there had to be some form of group work in every single lesson. 25 % of these students mentioned movement around the classroom as a desirable feature of such group-work activities.
  7. Learning verb conjugations – 40 % of the students reported disliking learning verb conjugations through drills, gap-fills and even online conjugators (this was painful considering that I created one at www.language-gym.com). Most of the students who mentioned this belonged to the less able group and a minority to the more able groups. These learners found learning conjugations challenging and said they learnt them more effectively at home as they felt less under pressure and had more time to focus on them.

The above findings are hardly generalizable, as they are situated in a very specific educational and cultural setting and the sampling was not randomized. Hence, it would be interesting to see if colleagues working in different contexts would obtain similar or divergent findings.

Of course, the fact that students do not dislike something does not entail that we should not do it, if we do believe those things are actually highly conducive to learning. For example, although it is true that learners do not particularly enjoy verb conjugation drills, I have noticed remarkable improvements in terms of verb/tense awareness (not necessarily ‘acquisition’) since I started to regularly use online verb conjugator trainers (5-10 minutes at a time); hence, I will keep using them as short homework and/or warm-up/follow-up activities in the context of grammar learning sessions.

Ultimately, however, I do believe that we should try and heed our students’ preferences as much as possible and be ‘brave’ enough to ask them if they truly enjoyed and learnt from specific activities we stage in class. You will be very suprised at how mistaken some of our assumptions often are.

The least talked-about yet most important attribute of an effective MFL teacher

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MFL teachers are typically involved in CPD events which deal with L2 teaching methodology and techniques, the use of technology in the classroom, motivational theory and practice, learning management and differentiation, AFL , lifelong-learning skills and team building. However, they rarely explicitly focus on enhancing the teacher attribute that is crucial to the success of all of that : Cognitive Empathy.

Cognitive Empathy (henceforth CE) refers to the teacher’s ability to sync every level of their teaching (e.g. planning lessons, classroom delivery, feedback provision, target-setting, setting out-of-the-classroom consolidation work) to their students’ cognition. It is a distinct construct to Emotional Empathy (another crucial attribute of an effective teacher), in that it does not concern itself with socio-affective empathising (reading our students’ emotional states), but rather with the understanding of what goes on through the MFL learner’s mind. CE and EE (emotional empathy) do overlap in some areas, but for CPD purposes they are best kept separate, whilst hammering home to teachers the importance of their mutual synergy : for either of them to effectively impact teaching and learning it needs to be supported by the other.

Someone may object that since a lot of effort is placed, in CPD, on differentiation, CE is not as ‘neglected’ as I claim. However, differentiation usually concerns itself with the implementation of techniques to tackle identified issues in our students’ cognition, but not with the identifications of the root causes of those problems.

And how about AFL strategies? Does formative assessment of the like envisaged by Dylan William not address this issue ? Yes and no. As I reserve to discuss below, it does so only partially and through means which do not delve deep enough into our students’ cognition. And as for Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences research, they are out of the equation as they are invalid constructs based on phony research.

Data obtained through baseline testing (i.e. MiddYS, Yellis, etc.) with alleged high predictive power are indeed useful. However, they provide but a snapshot of our students’ cognition at a specific moment in time. Also, teachers are rarely, if ever, trained in reading what the categories and scores made available to them actually mean and how they relate to our students’ learning.

CE, as I envisage it, requires 5 macro-competences :

(1) An awareness of the cognitive challenges posed by foreign language learning in general and by the specific language items one is teaching  – especially in the planning of a lesson ;

(2) An understanding of how the target learners respond to such challenges. This also involves an awareness of how cognition in an MFL learning context is affected by individual variables (e.g. specific age group, gender, personality types, culture, etc.)

(3) Metacognition – Obviously, effective teachers constantly keep in their focal awareness the importance of syncing their teaching with the cognitive needs of their learners, but they must also :

  • constantly reflect on their practice as cognitively empathetic teachers , both before, during and after their lessons ;
  • use their own past experiences as language learners to enhance their levels of cognitive empathy ;
  • start and maintain an ongoing metacognitive dialogue with their learners (e.g. through feedback or learner reflective journals) ;
  • actively seek ways to further their understanding of learner cognitive needs (which relates to the next point).

(4) Research methodoly knowledge and skills – Teachers need to be able to discern between valid and ‘phony’ theory and research. This is important when one thinks of how some less than reliable research (e.g. the one of Multiple Intelligences and Learning Styles) has affected us over the decades – with hardly any positive result – in terms of educational policies and prescribed pedagogical approaches. The ability to understand how reliable a piece of research is can prevent teachers from adopting teaching approaches or techniques acritically. Moreover, teachers need a degree of expertise on how to obtain and analyze useful data that may inform their curricular and methodological choices. For example, in my own practice, my mastery of the use of think-aloud protocols, interviews and retrospective verbal reports (acquired during my Ph.D and MA ) has helped me a great deal in terms of developing my understanding of students’ problems. On the other hand, lack of expertise in this domain often leads to an overliance on questionnaires (not valid research tools) which are not always well crafted (e.g. rarely include measures to reinforce their internal validity) or to other less than valid research practices. This overliance on questionnaires can be highly detrimental to teaching and learning, especially when the quantitative data obtained through such procedures are used as determinant of educational policies.

(5) Metadigital awareness – this is of crucial importance at this time of revolutionary technological advances as digital assisted learning is playing an important role in many MFL classrooms around the world. Teachers need to become increasingly aware of the impact of the specific digital medium (or media) they use in the classrom and internet based resources on learner cognition (see my article on the ‘Five central psychological challenges of mobile learning’). Knowing how a given technological device -and related apps – works and knowing how to use it effectively to enhance learning are two very different things. That is why, ICT integration coaches should not only be teachers with high levels of digital knowledge ; but, also, and most importantly, ought to be highly metacognizant outstanding practitioners deeply aware of how the internet and digital media affect students’ thinking and learning processes.

What are the implications for teacher professional development ?

Firstly, CPD should focus much more than it currently does on rendering MFL teachers highly conversant with current theory and research on language acquisition and on how they can inform effective classroom practice. The current practice of providing teachers with behavioural templates (e.g. tasks or sequence of tasks to use in class) disjointed from a solid reference framework is insufficient in generating high level of teaching competence.

Secondly, professional development should aim at expanding teacher understanding of how individual variables affect learning. For instance, psychological research  has generated lots of useful taxonomies for the classification of personality types which can be very useful for teachers in understanding learner attitudes and behaviour. Such taxonomies (e.g. Myers and Briggs, see: http://www.personalitypage.com/high-level.html )  are used on a daily basis in the corporate world to assess and cater for staff, but rarely imparted on teachers. Moreover, there is quite a fairly solid body of research on how individual factors (e.g. aptitude, gender and age) interact with L2 language acquisition that teachers may benefit greatly from.

Thirdly, in the realm of metacognitive and teacher-skills enhancement, CPD should focus teachers on the importance of CE and scaffold self-reflection in this area whilst equipping them with the tools which can enhance it (e.g. the ones discussed in the previous two paragraphs.). Teachers should also be made conversant with effective approaches that can foster an ongloing metacognitive dialogue with the students vis-à-vis their learning needs. Some approaches and techniques useful in starting such dialogue, drawn from AFL practice (e.g. questionnaire/student voice and reflective journals), are quite common in many MFL classrooms ; others, like think-aloud, concurrent introspection and retrospective verbal reports (see my article on ‘Think-aloud’) are less frequently used but are more valuable in getting into our students’ thinking processes and identifying their learning problems.

Fourthly, for teachers to be able to effectively understand their learners’ thinking processes they must be conversant with some of the fundamentals of research methodology. CPD should focus on this important set of skills more than it is currently done and foster an environment conducive to classroom-based research (N.B. I am not envisaging PhD level research, here, but a much smaller scale and less formal kind). Schools often base their educational policies on data obtained from studies often geographically and culturally distant ; classroom-based research carried out within their walls, on the other hand, may be more relevant and therefore impact learning more effectively. Ultimately, an effective MFL classroom-based teacher-researcher will be a more cognitively empathetic instructor.

The fifth component of Cognitive Empathy, Metadigital learning awareness, is the most difficult to address in CPD in view of the lack of a solid body of research which can inform teacher training in this area. This is the domain in which, in my opinion being a self-reflective practitioner and an effective classroom-based researcher can be extremely useful. Hence, at this moment in time at least, CPD that attempts to address this metacomponent of Cognitive Empathy should focus less on making teachers conversant with relevant research and more on enhancing their reflective and research skills.

In conclusion, this article advocates the need for CPD in MFL teaching to focus much more than it currently does on the development of Cognitive Empathy. I have argued that simply training teachers in the deployment of AFL and differentiation strategies may not be sufficient. Moreover, using baseline testing may form assumptions about students that are skewed and not very useful when the teachers do not possess the specialised knowledge necessary to effectively interpret psychological test scores. The approach I advocate in my model of CE is laborious and relative expensive in terms of training, but CE being central to effective teaching and learning, it may be worth the effort and the cost.

In over 25 years of secondary school and university teaching career and more than that as a foreign language learner, the best teachers and educational managers I have come across were those who exhibited high levels of emotional and cognitive empathy. An old friend of mine once said that the worst line manager an MFL head of department can have is one who has never learnt a foreign language ; what he was actually referring to, indirectly, was to someone with low levels of cognitive empathy (how can you truly understand a foreign language student or teacher when you have never been through the process of learning a foreign language ?).

One the most important reasons why high levels of teacher cognitive empathy correlate with effective learning refers to student motivation. There is often a mismatch between how teachers expect students’ cognition to work and the way it actually does. In a survey I carried out with 150 of my students (the results of which I will publish in a future post), the activities that most impacted their motivation were those they did not feel they were ‘linguistically’ ready for. In second place they put listening tasks where speakers ‘go’ too fast. In third place doing long writing tasks in lessons. Another one of their pet hates was corrections they did not understand. All of these motivation inhibitors refer to low levels of cognitive empathy.

Another example of teacher-student cognitive mismatch refers to a widely used App: Padlet. Padlet is often praised by ‘ed tech’ MFL educators because it allows students to see what their class mates write on the wall, thereby promoting learning from that input. This presumes that all or most learners actively process their fellow students’ output and internalize it  – which, even as a highly motivated and gifted language learner I am not sure I would have done in my teen-age years. So I put this assumption to the test. I asked students from four of my classes, immediately after creating a padlet wall to which all of them had contributed to note down in their books or iPads three language items they found in their classmates’ writing which they found interesting or useful. Two weeks later I asked them to recall the items they had noted down. Guess what ? Only two of the 68 students involved in this experiment actually remembered something (one item each).

Finallly, CE can be enhanced by attempting to learn a new language every so often. A great Cognittive empathy enhancement CPD activity which I was involved in as a PGCE trainee was to attend three Swahili classes. It was a much needed reminder of how hard it is to learn a language. To this day, whenever I teach a less able group, I cast my mind back to those three sessions and this helps me approach that group with more humility, patience and understanding.

Self-efficacy – the most neglected motivational factor in foreign language instruction


In secondary schools, in England, it is common to hear teachers complain about the motivational levels of their students. The reasons commonly put forward for the low levels of student interest are usually that English adolescents (a) do not see the relevance of foreign language learning to their future careers ; (b) since most people around the world speak English, they do not feel the urgency to learn it; (c) see foreign languages as some kind of hobby, that you do in your free time or before a trip to get by in the country you are travelling to; (d) do not feel culturally close to the target language civilizations.

In order to enhance students’ motivation UK teachers put considerable effort into ‘making lessons ‘more fun’ through games and latest technologies. They attempt to arouse their extrinsic motivation through morale-boosting reward systems or by enhancing their understanding of the career-related benefits of learning a language. They set up exchanges with target-language speakers in order to give rise to cultural empathy. In some cases they even go to the extent of choosing examination boards that are perceived as more accessible to their learners and of lowering their academic expectations. Many of the above initiatives do work. I will never forget, for instance how, in my current school, we trebled – in one year – the numbers of students who took French GCSE by staging an MFL awards evening at the end of the last term, tied with overall performance throughout the year.

However, what has become more and more evident to me over the years is how one important component of motivation is often NOT addressed by educational establishments when attempting to enhance student interest, intentionality and resilience in MFL learning: Self-efficacy, a construct first elaborated by psychologist Albert Bandura. This ‘gap’ has always baffled me, as a substantial body of research shows that self-efficacy beliefs can influence one’s decisions, expended effort and perseverance, resilience to adversity, thought processes, affective states, and, most importantly, accomplishments. Schunk (1991) even contends that self-efficacy beliefs may better forecast success than prior achievements, skills, or knowledge! In other words, the higher a learner’s levels of self-efficacy, the higher his/her likelihood to succeed in the accomplishment of a task seems to be.

One of the reasons why this construct is not widely known or tapped into by language educators is that the concept of Self-efficacy is relatively new and in foreign language research is almost exclusively associated with Learner training (Learning-to-learn) research and instruction. But what is Self-efficacy?

Self-efficacy is defined as the “beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments” (Bandura, 1997: 3). In other words, Self-efficacy refers to expectancy of success: the extent to which, for instance, one believes one is going to win a tennis match, pass a driving test, get an A* at an exam. Bandura (1997: 19) claims that self-efficacy beliefs “affect almost everything [people] do; how they think, motivate themselves, feel, and behave”. What is remarkable is that, as already hinted above, a solid body of research shows that people with high levels of expectancy of success do better at tasks, evidently with very positive consequences for their motivation.

The implication for foreign language teaching and learning is obvious: if we focus our efforts consciously and consistently on enhancing MFL students’ self-efficacy across the four language skills we may be able to increase their motivation, too. But how do we raise learner self-efficacy? Well, it is no easy task, obviously.

In my experience, the following tactics help:

1. At the early stages of learning teachers should emphasize ‘horizontal’ progression in their lessons

What I mean by this is that often teachers believe that they have to get – to use the old National Curriculum Levels as benchmarks – from level 3 to 5 in a given lesson, for example. I remember being told off by one of my supervisors as a teacher trainee for ‘lingering’ at level 4 ‘way too long’ in a Year 9 lesson on the environment, because I wanted to make sure my students had consolidated the vocabulary as much as possible before engaging in more linguistically demanding tasks.

Progression is not only measured in terms of easier to complex; but also in terms of (a) the extent to which the target vocabulary / grammar / pronunciation is being practised  (what I call ‘horizontal progression) and (b) depth of processing (how strongly the target stimuli are being associated with pre-existing foreign language items in Long-term memory).

Far too often, in British schools I have seen and still see lessons and schemes of work in which teachers, for the sake of vertical progression at all costs do not plan for sufficient consolidation of the target material – sometimes due to lack of resources or because of time constraints dictated by the syllabus (the two-chapters-per-term syndrome, as I call it). Consolidation through short-, medium- and long-term recycling is crucial considering that 60% of the materials taught in any given lesson is lost within the next 48 hours.

2. Teachers should plan carefully for self-efficacy, especially at the early stages of instructions and with less able learners.

Planning for self-efficacy means scaffolding success, that is providing as many opportunities for the learners to do well at the tasks they engage in. This not only requires pitching the learning materials/activities to the right level of the class and of individual students (through effective differentiation), but also ‘gearing up’ the students adequately before each task whose outcome is graded. Before a reading comprehension activity, for example, one should ensure that students are familiar with the words in the target text (e.g. by playing vocab games or quizzes) until one is sure that they will be able to identify the vast majority of the key words necessary to get the answers right.

While I do not believe in using the ‘easy wins’ tactic, too often, it does not do any harm to deploy it every now and then when we feel students’ sense of self-efficacy is on the low.

Ultimately, the greatest challenge in planning for self-efficacy is to strike a balance between providing sufficient opportunities for success whilst not lowering the expectations too much. It is not easy; it requires great cognitive and affective empathy with the students, being strategic in one’s input and learning expectations and, finally, choosing the right summative tasks, not simply the ones available in the textbook.

3. From the very early stages of instruction model effective learning strategies.

Research indicates that equipping struggling learners with more effective learning strategies seems to enhance their perceived self-efficacy. The rationale is obvious; if a student perceives memorizing new words challenging, training them in effective memory techniques and showing them tangibly that they work will reduce their anxiety and enhance their self-confidence (which will feed into their sense of self-efficacy).

I have witnessed this phenomenon first hand during my own PhD research: by modelling and providing extensive practice to my subjects in editing strategies all of them reported higher level of self-confidence and expectancy of success in L2-Italian essay-writing. In another study carried out in Oxford Comprehensive schools (Macaro, 2001) I imparted metacognitive and cognitive strategy training to year 10 students of French aimed at improving writing accuracy; the results in terms of self-efficacy and engagement were impressive.

However, simple forms of strategic instruction, such as modelling basic memory strategies, do not require a lot of specialized knowledge and if the activities staged to practise them are stimulating, enjoyable and productive, they will have a positive impact on the students’ sense of self-efficacy. Macaro’s (2001) book describes a wide range of such strategies and activities some of which have been successfully trialled in a number of secondary school settings. Some strategies will be imparted to the class as a whole, where the teacher feels that every student will benefit from adopting them; others will be taught to small groups or individual students where specific learning deficits have been identified.

4. Give the learners a sense of ownership over the learning process through formative feedback.

The students should have a say as to the pace teachers are going at in delivering the curriculum. I have often heard students go to teacher Y to complain about teacher X going too fast. Why is it that they do not feel comfortable enough to tell teacher X in the first place? Every single student in the class should feel listened to and able to ask the teacher to go over a specific point whether individually or in small groups. A feeling of not having enough time to learn the target material will engender learner anxiety, which in turn will undermine self-efficacy.

By the same token, one should, where possible, consult with the students as to their readiness to sit the traditional summative test, if there is one, at the end of a unit.

5. Assess students using tasks they are familiar with

Teachers should ensure that whatever assessment they carry out involves tasks the students have had previous practice with. This must be categorically the case with beginners and less able learners. Lack of task familiarity can seriously hinder performance. An example: a colleague of mine found that on a Level 3 reading task his pre-intermediate students performed less well than on a level 5 one containing more difficult vocabulary. The reason? The level 3 task consisted of a split-sentences matching task where the vocabulary was easy but ‘small’ grammar subtleties (to do with prepositions, agreement, word-order etc.), that many pre-intermediate students are not highly conversant with, made some of the seemingly plausible matches impossible. The students were not familiar with that type of task, consequently they did not focus sufficiently on grammatical/syntactic details and based their matches solely on perceived meaning.

When we test students on tasks they are not familiar with, we increase their risk of failing. This threat to self-efficacy must be controlled. I personally make sure that students, a week prior each end-of-unit assessment receive intensive practice with task similar to the ones they are going to grapple with in the exam. It requires a little extra work, but it really pays off in the end.

6. Assessments’ construct validity

A test is valid when it measures what it purports to measure. The fact that a student knows most of the key vocabulary in a test, does not mean that s/he has learnt how to deploy the reading comprehension strategies necessary to infer the ones s/he does NOT know. A test requiring effective inference strategies is fair when the teacher has explicitly modelled and provided sufficient practice in those strategies prior to the test. In other words, we need to ensure that we are testing the students only on skills and linguistic items we have prepared them to cope effectively with.

7. Attitude to error

At the early stages of instruction, teachers should only correct the most serious mistakes, i.e. the ones that are made before the whole class and the ones that seriously impede meaning. Moreover, corrections should not be perceived as judgemental by the student, in order to prevent learner anxiety.

8. Structure tasks vs unstructured tasks

At the early stages of foreign language learning students should not be involved in unstructured tasks that make them work beyond their existing level of competence, as this usually leads to numerous grammatical/lexical ‘glitches’. Although this seems self-evident, often beginner/pre-intermediate students are asked to produce artifacts, posters, power points, iMovies, etc, in which they are encouraged to be as ‘creative’ as possible. If we do not correct the mistakes in the students’ output, there is no harm done. However, if we do decide to correct all or most of the errors we may risk impacting their levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy.

In conclusion, self-efficacy is a powerful catalyst of learner motivation and resilience and high levels of it are usually predictors of success. I have outlined above some of the tactics that teachers can deploy in MFL instruction to enhance self-efficacy or to control for the factors that may undermine it. Teachers, in my view, should reflect long and hard on their practice vis-à-vis this crucial component of motivation and I strongly advise them to familiarize themselves with Bandura’s research on self-efficacy as it has important implication not only for their students’ learning but also for their own professional and personal development.