Common Factors of Motivated Individuals

Joshua McMillen, Koka Board of Education, Japan

McMillen, J. (2019). Common factors of motivated individuals. Relay Journal, 2(1), 27-41.

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This is a report that I wrote documenting a study that I conducted while working for my Master’s degree at Anaheim University.  I was curious as to what the common factors between my motivated students are.  To get a sense of their study habits and interest level in English, I produced a survey for them to answer one day in class.  The survey was composed of 10 multiple choice questions and 5 questions where the students indicated on a scale how they feel towards English.  Three classes were given this survey to fill out.  The outcomes to their surveys are reported and analyzed within this report.


In my classroom experience in America, China, and Japan I have been able to see a stark contrast between two different kinds of students; motivated and unmotivated. Through my studies, I have come to find that if students are motivated, they will be more willing to learn than if they are not motivated. What is the best way to find out if my students are motivated or not? How can I help my students become motivated, or maintain motivation? I conducted a study in which I surveyed junior high school students about their study practices, interest, and outlook on English in order to find common factors in motivated individuals.

Keywords: student motivation, study practices, learner autonomy


For students to be receptive to the content that they are being taught, according to Gardner and Lambert (1972) “Ultimately students should become self-motivated.” In other words, the students should want to learn the content in which they are being taught.

According to Gardner and Lambert (1972), there are two types of motivation. The first type being instrumental, which “drives the learner to acquire another language for money, career, or power.” (1972) The second type of motivation is integrative, which “arises out of a desire to identify with the culture or community that speaks the language.” (1972) Integrative motivation is seen as the stronger of the two due to it being more internally driven.

Task Objective

In taking my first foreign language class, I had no interest in learning the language. My only motivation was to take two years of a foreign language in high school so I would not have to take one in college. This poor attitude towards the subject saw to it that I did not learn anything. I did pass the class, but it was not done honestly. My motivation propelled me to get good grades, but my lack of desire was an obstacle that stopped me from actually learning.

Ironically, through my travels and a renewed outlook on life, I became interested in learning Japanese, so I enrolled in language courses during my college career. The grades were harder for me to achieve, but I was learning the content. I was able to notice a huge difference in how receptive I was to the content because of my motivation for the subject.

According to Nunan and Lamb (1996),

“If the learners are seriously interested in becoming proficient in the language, then they are going to have to do most of the learning on their own.”

By conducting this survey, I want to find out if my students are motivated to learn English in the classroom, and if that motivation extends outside of the classroom. If the students are not motivated either internally or externally, the instruction will be lost on them. Furthermore, I would like to identify tendencies of highly achieving learners.

Test Subjects

The students that had been chosen for this study on motivation to learn English is made of 15 boys (39%) and 23 girls (61%). These students are third year junior high school students between 13 and 14 years old who will be going to high school next year. Their native language is Japanese. The purpose for them to learn English ranges from getting into a good high school, and subsequently college, to getting a job to do business in English. These students have had English instruction since they were fifth graders in elementary school. They have been my students for three years. Being from a rural area, these students have had little exposure to English other than English instruction in school. Class time varies each day. I will have this class twice a week on Monday and Thursday. Some of the students attend after school programs to assist them in their studies.

Before the Lesson Procedures

Questions for the survey were chosen and modified slightly from Gardner 1985: 180-184. Questions were selected that pertained to students’ thoughts towards English, actively seeking English, or their enjoyment of English. These questions were chosen to target students’ internal motivation. Because of the timing of this paper, the responses come after they have finished their studies at the middle school. I would be interested in conducting this survey again at the beginning of the next semester, and then a follow up at the end. By conducting a survey at the beginning and end, I will be able to measure how much the students’ motivation increased or decreased over the course of the class.

During the Lesson Data Collection

The questionnaire in Appendix A is made up of two sections. The first section is made up of ten multiple choice items. Each item is made up of a scenario where the students much complete the sentence. Items 1, 4, 5, and 10 pertain to the student’s thoughts towards English. Items 2, 3, 6, and 7 all deal with students taking initiative and broadening their English ability. Finally, questions 8 and 9 are directed at the enjoyment the student gets from English.

Section two is made up of five items. Similar to section one, the students must complete the sentence with the selection of their response. Their responses will be recorded on a sliding scale where they indicate how strongly they feel towards one end of the given spectrum.

Once collected, responses will be analyzed by utilizing methods from a Response Frequency Distribution (RFD). As seen in Bailey and Curtis, though an RFD is shows, “which distractors are functioning for which groups of test takers” (p. 209), I will just be using the methods of recording the frequency of the responses. The function of the distractors will not be measured because this is a survey, there are no distractors or right/ wrong responses.

Because of the timing of this survey and students needing to concentrate on preparation for exams, the survey will be translated into the students’ main language of Japanese, as found in Appendix B.

Analysis and Reflection

Section I

Item one is concerned with how often students think about what they have learned in English class. The smallest percentage of the students surveyed (18%) think a lot about what they have learned while the majority (61%) think about it sometimes and the rest (21%) think about it a little. Because the percentages are higher between students that think sometimes and a little about what they learn in English, it can be concluded that the vast majority of students surveyed (82%) don’t give much thought to what is learned in class.

Item two inquiries about the students seeking other means of learning English if the opportunity was not afforded to them in school. It was encouraging to learn that 34% of students surveyed would try to learn English by themselves. The least amount (18%) stated that they would try to find an English class, while a little less than half of students surveyed (47%) indicated that they would not learn English. With these numbers, one can see that over half (52%) of students surveyed would seek English other means of learning English if not provided.

Item three pertains to if, and whom the student inquires when he or she does not understand a question. The majority of the survey group (47%) ask the teacher, while slightly less students (37%) ask their peers. The rest of the survey group (16%) forget about their question altogether. These numbers show that 84% of students are willing to seek the answer to their question.

Item four deals with how much effort students give when doing homework. Of the 38 students that were questioned, 45% expressed that they try their best. 47% admitted to trying a little and 8% simply do not care. These numbers reveal that an overwhelming majority of students (92%) care about the English homework that they have.

On item five, students were asked if they self-assess. The majority of students surveyed (66%) like to at least occasionally self-assess. 34% of students surveyed are not interested in self-assessment.

Item six inquires if the students’ take an active role in doing extra assignments that their teacher assigns to them. Half of the students surveyed indicate that they volunteer in doing extra work, while 18% do not volunteer. The remaining 32% will take on an extra assignment if the teacher told them to do it directly. Item six shows that half of those surveyed take an active role in volunteering, while 50% take an inactive role. However, from the inactive crowed, 32% will reluctantly do the extra work.

Item seven pertains to the student’s zeal for correcting their mistakes. Half of the students surveyed indicated that they rewrite and correct mistakes on assignments when they are given back. 8 % of students surveyed merely put the assignment away and forgot about it, while yet 42% look over the assignment but did not correct it. According to these numbers, 92% of students surveyed appear to care enough to at least look at their mistakes, while 8% do not seem to care.

Item eight inquires of students’ interest in English outside of school. When watching TV or listening to the radio, 26% of students surveyed indicated that if the media were in English, they would always watch or listen. The majority (61%) said they would sometimes watch or listen, while 13% said they would never watch or listen. It appears from these numbers that 87% of students surveyed are interested in English media.

For item nine, students were asked about their English teachers having English dialogue in front of them at the start of English class. The majority of students surveyed (74%) indicated that they enjoy the listening practice, while the remaining 26% wish that the teachers would just start the lesson.

Item ten of section one, like item eight, pertains to the students’ interest level of English outside of the classroom. However, unlike item eight, 47% of students surveyed indicated that they and not interested in English outside of the classroom. 53% of students surveyed indicated that they try to practice English outside of the classroom.

Section II

The second section of the survey deals more about how strongly the student feels toward certain aspects of English. Section II was composed of five scales. The scales consisted of one word on each side, separated by five blanks in the middle. Students then would put a circle on the blank that corresponded to their feeling towards the prompt.

On the first scale, one side said “meaningful” and the opposite side said “meaningless.” The majority of the students surveyed indicated that they feel that English is meaningful (71%). 18% of students surveyed marked the middle of the scale, and 11% marked that English is meaningless.

Scale two dealt with the students’ enjoyment level. 53% of students surveyed feel that English is enjoyable, while 13% feel that English is unenjoyable. The remaining 34% of students surveyed were undecided, and marked in the middle of the scale.

Scale three asked about the difficulty of English for the student. A surprising 16% of students surveyed indicated that English is effortless for them. Half of students surveyed indicated that English is difficult. The remaining 34% were undecided and marked the middle of the spectrum.

Scale four was to see if students surveyed think English is interesting or boring. 39% of students surveyed see English as interesting. 18% of students see English as boring and 45% marked in the middle of the scale.

Finally, scale five inquired if the students feel that English is clear or confusing. 32% of students surveyed see English as clear. 8% see English as confusing. The remaining 61% of students rated the middle of the scale.

When conducting this survey next term, in the section two survey, I will leave only four spaces for students to indicate their feelings. On this survey, students had five spaces, which left them a middle option. The middle option tells me that the students sit on the fence concerning the matter and do not have strong feeling toward one particular side. With four spaces, students will be forced to pick a side. When a side is indicated, analysis of the chart is much easier.

Further Analysis and Reflection

According to Nunan and Lamb,

“It may be superior achievement that enhances motivation rather than high motivation leading to superior performance.” (1996)

Taking this into consideration, perhaps in many cases, the “bar” for achievement should be set lower in order for students to start to feel as though they can be superior achievers. When looking at the survey group, there were six students that indicated that English is “effortless” or “near effortless.” Indicating this, leads one to believe that they possess superior achievement. Of those six students, everyone is highly motivated and is a model student in class. Amongst the 16% of students that indicated this, I was able to find common threads with all of these individuals. First, all of these students give extra thought about what they learn in English class. Second, every one of these students ask for help with what they do not understand. Third, all of these students indicated that they give effort in their studies. Finally, all of these students have taken an interest in English speaking media, be it television, music, or any other source.

Knowing the common practices of students that have superior achievement can help me structure my teaching for next semester. Even though the students who participated in this survey will go to high school next year, conducting this survey gave me a deeper understanding of their needs. Having future students do this survey will help guide my lesson preparation. If the students described in this study were to continue at the junior high school, perhaps I could require students who understand the given assignment to repeat the instructions back to the class to help the students that don’t ask for help. To help students think more about English outside of class, I could ask them to write journals, read books, listen to music or watch English speaking media. As far as effort, I cannot make students exert more effort, but I can give them a larger incentive to do the required work. Possibly I could make homework more visually appealing, by including pictures of celebrities in America, England, New Zealand or Australia. This could help students become more interested in doing English homework, and perhaps spark an interest in English in media.

Notes on the contributor

Josh McMillen is an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) in Shiga, Japan.  He holds a Master’s of Arts in TESOL from Anaheim University in Anaheim, California.  His research interests are student motivation, assessment, learner autonomy and learner identity and advisor discourse. Josh is also enjoying raising his son in a bilingual environment with his wife, Maki.


Bailey, K. M., & Curtis, A. (2015).  Learning about language assessment:  Dilemmas, decisions, and directions.  Boston, MA:  National Geographic Learning.

Gardner, R. C. (1985). Social psychology and second language learning: The role of attitudes and motivation. London, UK: Edward Arnold.

Gardner, R. C., & Lambert, W. E. (1972). Attitudes and motivation in second language Learning. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Nunan, D., & Lamb, C. (1996). The self-directed teacher: Managing the learning process. Cambridge University Press.


2 thoughts on “Common Factors of Motivated Individuals”

  1. Dear Joshua,

    It was interesting to read how asking your students to reflect on their language learning allowed you to make the connection between their motivation level and a strong sense of achievement, which led you back to the proposition made by Nunan and Lamb (1996). This study also illustrated the benefits of finding out students’ study habits and perceptions towards learning, which can help teachers make changes to classroom practices that can benefit students’ learning and motivation. It also helps learners think more deeply about their learning (metacognition), an important aspect for increasing learner autonomy.

    Your consideration that lowering the bar to help learners feel they can be superior achievers would be supported by Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis (Krashen, 1982), in which creating a classroom setting that promotes low anxiety among students encourages a low affective filter and is conducive to better language acquisition. In addition, among the many components of Dornyei’s (2001) framework of motivational teaching practice in the L2 classroom, increasing learners’ expectancy of success is noted as one way to generate initial motivation among students.

    Krashen, S. D. (1982). Principles and practices in second language acquisition. New York, NY: Prentice Hall. (
    Dornyei, Z. (2001). Motivational strategies in the language classroom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Of course there are a variety of affective variables that can affect learners’ motivation, so you may also find the following book chapters interesting:

    Dornyei, Z., & Ushioda, E. (2011) Teaching and researching motivation (2nd ed.). Harlow, UK: Pearson Education. (Chapter 5 – Motivation in Practice: Strategies and Approaches)
    Oxford, R. L. (2011). Teaching and researching language learning strategies. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education. (Chapter 3 – Dimension 2 (affective): Strategies linked with emotions, beliefs, attitudes, and motivation)
    Ushioda, E. (2013). Foreign language motivation research in Japan: An ‘insider’ perspective from outside Japan. In M. T. Apple, D. Da Silva & T. Fellner (Eds.) Language learning motivation in Japan (pp. 1-14). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

    From your questionnaire results, it appears that most of your students see English as both enjoyable and meaningful, which is a positive sign. At the same time, the majority indicated they only ‘sometimes’ think about what they have learnt in class. Therefore, I wondered what opportunities your students have to self-reflect on their learning? Of course there are a wide range of classroom-based approaches for this (which you may already do) such as learning diaries, action logs (Murphey, 1993), or evaluating learning through self-assessment tools such as can-do statements or self-rating scales. Getting students to consider more deeply what they have learnt or improved on could lead to a greater feeling of achievement. You also mentioned about making homework more visually appealing, but I wondered if you had considered asking your students about the homework they would like to do themselves, or making them aware of appropriate resources available to them outside the classroom.

    Murphey, T. (1993), Why don’t teachers learn what learners learn? Taking the guesswork out with action logging. English Teaching Forum, 31(1), 6-10.

    In regard to the five-point scale that you used, Tang (2012) examined the literature on this and suggests a scale with a midpoint to be appropriate for educational research. While unrelated to education, Garland (1991) suggests eliminating the mid-point category from a Likert scale can reduce social desirability bias.

    Tsang, K. K. (2012). The use of midpoint on Likert scale: The implications for educational research. Hong Kong Teachers’ Centre Journal, 11, 121-130.
    Garland, R. (1991). The mid-point on a rating scale: Is it desirable? Marketing Bulletin, 2, 66-70.

    In addition, you describe how your reflection would influence your teaching in the following semester. I presume that some time has passed since you conducted this survey as you mention it was done when undertaking your MA, so I am curious as to how the findings have influenced your teaching practices or guided your lesson preparation since then?

    Regarding Question 5 on the questionnaire, I wondered if having only two choices may limit students’ responses and this is something you may want to revise when conducting the survey again. The first choice also refers to the frequency of assessing their progress, while the second choice refers to the student’s interest level, so they are measuring different things.

    If I could make some suggestions to your paper, the verb tense is inconsistent in your description of the study. As you did this study in the past, the description of the test subjects, research methodology and findings should be in the past tense. There are a couple of incorrect citations and block quotations are only for those 40 words or more. I feel some more references to the large body of literature on affect and motivation would also strengthen your paper.

    I am looking forward to hearing more about this study you conducted and its influence on your teaching practices in helping increase and sustain students’ motivation!


  2. Dear Ewen,

    Thank you so much for all of your advice! It was eye opening to see how my students felt about English. I really believe that if students are properly motivated, their outlook on education would change dramatically.

    For future classes, I would like to have them fill out this survey at both the beginning, and end of the semester to observe how their responses change. Unfortunately, this class did not have much time left until graduation, so I could not make such observations with this class. However, after seeing that students enjoyed listening to foreign music and listening to myself and my co-worker speaking in English in front of the class, we did increase these activities. We even let the students pick some of the English music that we listened to in class.

    I look forward to conducting this study with my future classes. It gives a lot of insight into your students study habits and views on English.


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