Adult Learners: How to Retain and Motivate Them
Engagement & Motivation

Adult Learners: How to Retain and Motivate Them

They stop doing their homework. They skip classes. They may even drop out altogether. Are you wondering how to motivate your adult learners of English?

Here are three suggested strategies.

How to motivate adult learners: Work on expectations

Sara Cotterall investigated her students’ goals at the beginning of a 10-hour reading course. In an article published in the ELT Journal, she wrote:

“While working with one learner—a surgeon who had recently emigrated to New Zealand—I discovered that his goal for the reading course was to acquire the ability to read scientific articles in English. While this goal was relevant and important, it was highly unrealistic given the size of his English vocabulary, his limited experience of dealing with authentic texts, and the duration of the course.”

Some adult students expect too much. And when they realise their expectations can’t be fulfilled, they lose motivation.

How can we avoid this?

One way is to do what Cotterall did: give them a questionnaire at the beginning of the course to explore their expectations and goals.

5 questions you could ask…

  • What are 3 things you expect to be able to do by the end of this course?
  • What goals do you think this course will help you achieve?
  • On a 1-to-10 scale, how motivated are you to do this course? Why?
  • What could potentially (de)motivate you?
  • How will you know this course is helping you achieve your goals?

Open a conversation about these topics on day 1. 

Then use your expertise to help your adult learners adjust.

How to motivate adult learners: Work on beliefs

I’m Italian. English is my second language. When I first started studying English in my early 20s, I believed the only real way to learn it was to move to the UK. I did study in Italy, but I thought nothing would help me learn better than a ticket to London. 

This unhelpful idea made me devalue the potential of any language work I was doing in my country. It demotivated me.

What about your adult students?

What language-learning beliefs do they hold that may demotivate them? Do they believe they’re too old to learn? Too busy? Too lazy? 

Do they think they need to have at least one hour a day to study English otherwise they wouldn’t commit to it? Do they believe they’ll never improve their speaking unless they have a native speaker as a conversation partner?

Research shows that some beliefs can harm students’ learning strategies as well as the language learning process.

Investigating and working on those counterproductive ideas may help.

You could do this by discussing agree/disagree statements. Here are some examples:

  • It’s extremely hard to become fluent in English.
  • There's not much I can do to improve my English outside the classroom.
  • It's never too late to be able to learn a new language.
  • To speak English well, you have to live in an English-speaking country for a few years.
  • I should avoid making mistakes as much as possible when I speak.

How to motivate adult learners: Bring them back to their WHY

Psychologists have spent considerable effort trying to construct theories of motivation. 

But let’s keep it simple.

Motivation is connected to the desire to achieve a goal. Usually, the more emotionally attached we are to our goals, the more motivated we are to achieve them.

When I was learning English, I had a clear goal I was strongly attached to: I wanted to teach English professionally. 

Why are your adult students in your classroom? What’s their bigger goal? And how attached do they feel to it?

When they’re demotivated, remind them of why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Three activities you could do: 

  1. Role-play — Have your students act as themselves as if they’ve achieved their big goal. Who are they now? How is their life better? How did learning English help them become who they wanted to become?
  2. Journal prompt — Describe in detail what your future version of yourself will look like once you’ve accomplished your language learning goals. Draw it, too. Then share it with your group.
  3. Peer interview — Have your adult students interview each other about their language learning goals and the motivations behind them. Ask them to present what they learned about their peers to the class.

Final thoughts on motivating adult learning

The key to keeping adult students motivated may be to understand what goes on in their minds. 

What are their expectations?

What are their beliefs?

What are their dreams?

How do these affect their motivation?

You don’t need to become a motivational speaker to find the answers to these questions. All you need, perhaps, is a couple of questionnaires and the willingness to open an honest conversation with your class.

And then act on what emerges from it.


About the author:

Fabio Cerpelloni is a non-native English teacher and a writer. His credentials include a Cambridge CELTA and a Delta, and he is currently working on his MA thesis in Language Education.

Beyond the classroom, Fabio is a freelance writer, author, blogger, and podcaster. Currently based in Cogliate, Italy, Fabio is also the author of the book 'Any Language You Want,' which is heading towards a second edition.

Written by Fabio Cerpelloni
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