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How can teachers deal with demotivation in multilevel classes?

Diary submitted by Lisa L, Barcelona, 2020

One thing I realised while observing classes is that student demotivation is a common occurrence, and although it can stem from various reasons, the creation of multilevel groups is usually the big one. Most schools try to sort their students depending on their levels, but doing so can be a bit tricky due to how individuals learn at different speeds and develop certain language skills faster than others. The resulting lack of motivation coming from students with very different learning profiles is something I have witnessed in some of the classes I attended, which is why this diary is going to focus on the ways teachers dealt with those situations. 

On the one hand, I’ve seen students who struggled to keep up with the rest of the class, and I must admit that those were the ones I expected to see demotivated. In fact, “failure to make sufficient progress” to “catch up with their peers due to large knowledge gaps” (Chong et al 2019, 68) seems to be the main cause for demotivation, especially because students in this situation are usually in the minority. Due to them feeling outnumbered by students who understand the lesson, those who struggle tend to keep to themselves and not ask for help. I observed this problem in various classes during my internship, and one day the teacher explained that her way to deal with it was to go around the class and ask everyone if they needed some guidance. Struggling students are more likely to voice their difficulties if the rest of the class is not paying attention to them, so she told me that this was the occasion for her to clarify exercises when students needed it, and to make sure they had at least one or two correct answers for each activity. This approach helped in the lack of confidence also contributing to demotivation, since students felt better speaking up and participating knowing their answer was right. The advice she gave me that day proved useful the day I taught a class of young adults. Even though it was a small group, a couple of students felt exposed when it was time to go over an exercise together. Following the teacher’s advice, I walked around the room, which gave me the opportunity to make sure those in difficulty had at least one correct answer that they would share with the rest of the class. After a few times of following the same pattern, the students took to it and ended up volunteering more, at least for that lesson. 

On the other hand, in some classes I observed students who had a better level that their classmates were the ones lacking motivation. While in rare cases they kept an enthusiastic approach and could keep busy with extra handouts, most of the time they tended to keep quiet and lose focus. The most striking examples I’ve seen of such behaviours were in an already advanced class, where two or three students were actually fluent while the rest of class was not. They would just glance at their handout, write one or two sentences (even when there were at least 6) and then open a book. I found dealing with this was harder than trying to help a student who struggled, since they didn’t think the classes were challenging enough. It proved even harder when one day we did an exercise on idioms, which I thought would be a bit more challenging due to the cultural aspect of knowing such phrases, but they showed their grasp of the language went even further that mere grammar and pronunciation. From what I observed, read, and did myself, these students tended to focus more in speaking classes, especially debates since topics were broader. They also had more freedom to express themselves and could follow an argument without any problem. Their teacher and I tried to always have them go further than what the rest of the class were doing, mainly by allowing them to develop their critical skills rather than their grammar.

Overall, multilevel classes are a challenge for teachers because they require a lot of thought and preparation. It can be hard because motivating struggling students means finding the time to help them while still delivering the class to the rest of their classmates, and motivating excellent students requires extra activities and an awareness of the skills they could still need to improve. However, no matter how difficult multilevel classes appear, I found that working on a solution goes hand in hand with the relationship between students and their teacher. Indeed, a teacher will be more likely to find adequate solutions if they take the time to learn about their students, who will probably be more comfortable and more likely to voice their struggles.

Sources

Dixon, Graham. “Perpetual Motion: 14 Ways to Motivate and Challenge Advanced ESL Students”. BusyTeacher. https://busyteacher.org/23406-advanced-esl-student-motivate-challenge.html

Chong, Miao Yee Clare., Renandya, Willy A., and Ng, Qiu Rong. July 2019. Demotivation in L2 classrooms: Teacher and Learner Factors. LEARN Journal: Language Education and Acquisition Research Network Journal 12, Issue 2, 64-75. (online)

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