How to make your teens do things? Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

Last September I took a teenage group from the teacher they had been with for some years. 10 amazing guys, Upper-Intermediate level, ready to participate, always involved. After a month or so, we were about to finish the unit on money. As part of homework, I asked them to record a short video with money tips for teens. I was so proud of this task: creative, exciting, digital, useful – real 21st century one. We agreed on the deadline – of course, they had their say, as I was aware of how busy they are with school and exam preparation. By November, I got 2 videos out of 10 and a wonderful list of excuses, starting from ‘unfavourable lighting’ and ‘skin problems’ and ending with ‘I just don’t feel motivated’. This got me thinking.

What we define as motivation is our inner need to act, some kind of a driving force. There has been a number of definitions, but one thing is certain: we do something because doing it will get us something that we want.

I bet, you meet unmotivated teenagers quite often. But…there is, actually, no such thing. They are not unmotivated 24/7. The sad truth is that they feel discouraged about what they find at the lessons and, as a result, choose not to invest themselves in the classroom.

If you have ever asked your students a question ‘Why have you decided to learn English?’, you probably know a number of typical answers. Among them is ‘Because my parents want it’, ‘Cause I need to take my exams and pass them’, ‘I just like it’, ‘I’d love to travel the world’ and many others. Look at them a bit closer and you’ll notice how different they are in terms of motivation types. Two main kinds of motivation are defined:  there is intrinsic one, which is our inner drive, compared to extrinsic motivation, which happens as a result of external factors, be it demands made by parents or school requirements. As intrinsic motivation is about self-determination, curiosity, challenge, and effort, it is believed to work better than extrinsic. So, let’s try to think of some tricks which will help us instill this particular type in our teens.

Group dynamics

Relationships within a group are crucial, as well as the atmosphere in your classroom. Try to promote group dynamics and create safe and enjoyable environment. Bear in mind not only psychological but also physical issues. Being forced to spend a lesson on an uncomfortable chair in a stuffy room, your teens are unlikely to participate in even the most exciting language activity. Some other tips here are:

  • play some music to set a mood
  • teach your teens mindfulness
  • employ various getting-to-know-you activities and icebreakers, even – and especially! – with long-established groups
  • learn something about your teens as people with lives outside the classroom. And let them know something personal about you.

Obviously, your students will get more motivated when positive relationships exist in the classroom. But there is  one more reason to invest in maintaining healthy group dynamics. Quite simply, you’ll just enjoy teaching more!


Skills should match the challenge in a classroom. Neither too easy, nor too difficult has alway been the golden rule. Cater for fast finishers, provide assistance and personalised homework to those who are struggling. Organise pair work thoughtfully: sometimes it’s a good idea to pair a strong learner with a weaker one to promote cooperation. At other times, fast finishers working together might benefit from that and dig deeper.


…but not too much. Just joking 🙂 There is nothing wrong with letting your adolescents decide on the deadline for bigger projects or choose a partner for a speaking activity. They can also pick a particular topic for an essay or even the format of the homework. I sometimes ask my students to prepare worksheets for the others when we work with songs or videos. The more choices teens make, the more intrinsically motivated they usually become. Of course, except that one whose forever choice is ‘I don’t care’ 🙂


I’m a big fan of Chaz Pugliese and his idea that creative teaching leads to surprises which, in their turn, can increase learners’ motivation. Motivated learners tend to demonstrate higher results, and that cannot but motivate the teacher to put more effort into designing better lessons. Kind of virtuous circle.

Change the routines from time to time, vary feedback techniques, rearrange seats. If your lesson alway starts with checking the homework, why don’t you opt for something different? You might want to try out some activities from Chaz’s Creating Motivation: Activities to make learning happen.

Video metaphors

Many of teenagers prefer to keep themselves to themselves, but where a discussion doesn’t work out, the right video can help you deliver some positive message. YouTube, video blogs and TED talks are part of our life and learning process.  Stories of people from all walks of life will bring the world to your classroom and help your teens realize the benefits of learning a language, doing a 30-day challenge, volunteering, or taking an exam.


In proper, personalised feedback we trust. If our young learners are happy to get a ‘Well done!’ stamp and a sticker into their diary, teenagers are more demanding. Don’t give them just the test percentage. Try to accompany that with at least some brief listing of their strong points and areas to work on. While checking a piece of writing, praise your teens for good choice of vocabulary, recommend a dictionary to improve the knowledge of synonyms, draw attention to grammar…you know better.

Cognitive curiosity

Teenagers don’t usually aim at pleasing the teacher or getting an ‘A’. One of the ways to activate intrinsic motivation is to stimulate their desire to learn. And…who said that it should be just grammar or new words?

  • ask them to watch a video about something they are really good at and give a comment or spot the mistakes
  • let them teach a lesson. Some of your teens are learning Japanese, can make cool videos, are great at dancing, or love astronomy. Why don’t they tell others about that, using English as a medium?
  • invite them to prepare general knowledge quizzes
  • exploit logic puzzles
  • pose questions as puzzles to be solved
  • encourage googling and sharing information

With the help of these tricks we can help our learners see that what we teach is relevant to

their lives. By offering demanding challenges and creating proper environment, it is more than possible to create classrooms where every student can be an expert and quench their thirst for knowledge. Do you already feel motivated enough? 😉

P.S. I never received 8 more videos with money tips. But what I got after that story was much more precious. I got motivation to know my teens better. And it surely paid off.

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