Motivating international students

One issue all teachers struggle with is student motivation, or rather lack of it. This article addresses the unique motivational challenges that International Schools face.

One issue all teachers struggle with is student motivation, or rather lack of it. In international schools we may not struggle with the deep aversion to learning or disinterest that can pervade large classes in state schools but there are some unique motivational challenges.

Self-control
Successful study requires judicious allocation of effort: perseverance with pauses, you might say. But students in international schools face particular emotional pressures that can impair decision-making. For a start, there is the hefty price-tag their parents are paying, with accompanying high expectations, and a lot of our students find failure difficult to contemplate. Stress is known to reduce both intrinsic interest in learning and behaviour-regulation, which seems to lead to almost compulsive and exhausting study habits in some (undermining exploratory, creative thought) and distraction in others. Distraction may be greater for students studying away from home, who face a sudden increase in autonomy, a novel, stimulating environment – a heady mix for impulsive teens.

Acknowledging and discussing issues with students in tutor time, or even writing about them, can help promote self-distancing, and help students plan for undesired outcomes, preventing emotions from consuming them.

Motivational style
We all love it when students happily get on with project work or self-directed study. The opportunities it affords for choice, autonomy and reinforcement of identity can be important motivators, and are valued in western cultures. But this isn’t so everywhere. In some other cultures study choices may be dictated by external factors, like parental expectation or career ambitions. The resulting deficit in intrinsic motivation may be exacerbated by the fact that some L2 students, doubting their English abilities, opt for subjects that require little writing, like maths or art, rather than subjects that inspire them. Consequently, autonomous learning can seem anathema to many students, and western teachers may not know how to motivate learners driven by external sources of regulation.

Teachers may have to adopt more structured teaching approaches initially and gradually encourage autonomy (if preparing students for western higher education). Modelling curiosity and interest may also help cultivate intrinsic motivation.

Level of challenge
Finally, fulfilling learners’ need for competence and achievement requires study programmes to be set at an optimum level of challenge. Yet striking this balance is notoriously difficult in international schools. International syllabuses and assessments, linked to IB or CIE qualifications for instance, have to maintain a level of challenge that makes them comparable to qualifications in national systems. This may be ideal for the ex-pat intake, but places huge cognitive demands on many L2 users, whose ability to work through English may vary. Furthermore, some international schools may enrol students who have struggled to thrive in local educational settings and who may have learning difficulties that may not have been recognised, sometimes dues to stigma. The risk then is that cognitive load or speed of learning may be too great for some and inadequate for others, eroding motivation.

Properly resourced ‘gifted & talented’ programmes, support classes, thorough teacher training in classroom differentiation, and flipped learning (individual access to input material) are all essential means of mitigating this problem.

To conclude, motivational challenges in international schools are as varied as the students who attend them. They are not insurmountable but require sensitivity to a wide range of needs.
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About Nick Thorner
Nick Thorner is an English and humanities teacher at Kings Education, Oxford, where he helps train students for entry into the UK university system. Nick has also co-authored two IELTS coursebooks and is author of the professional development title Motivational Teaching.