Posts Tagged ‘motivation’


In the last post, I looked at issues concerning self-pacing in personalized language learning programmes. This time, I turn to personalized goal-setting. Most definitions of personalized learning, such as that offered by Next Generation Learning Challenges (a non-profit supported by Educause, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, among others), argue that ‘the default perspective [should be] the student’s—not the curriculum, or the teacher, and that schools need to adjust to accommodate not only students’ academic strengths and weaknesses, but also their interests, and what motivates them to succeed.’ It’s a perspective shared by the United States National Education Technology Plan 2017 , which promotes the idea that learning objectives should vary based on learner needs, and should often be self-initiated. It’s shared by the massively funded Facebook initiative that is developing software that ‘puts students in charge of their lesson plans’, as the New York Times put it. How, precisely, personalized goal-setting can be squared with standardized, high-stakes testing is less than clear. Are they incompatible by any chance?

In language learning, the idea that learners should have some say in what they are learning is not new, going back, at least, to the humanistic turn in the 1970s. Wilga Rivers advocated ‘giving the students opportunity to choose what they want to learn’ (Rivers, 1971: 165). A few years later, Renee Disick argued that the extent to which a learning programme can be called personalized (although she used the term ‘individualized’) depends on the extent to which learners have a say in the choice of learning objectives and the content of learning (Disick, 1975). Coming more up to date, Penny Ur advocated giving learners ‘a measure of freedom to choose how and what to learn’ (Ur, 1996: 233).

The benefits of personalized goal-setting

Personalized goal-setting is closely related to learner autonomy and learner agency. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any meaningful sense of learner autonomy or agency without some control of learning objectives. Without this control, it will be harder for learners to develop an L2 self. This matters because ‘ultimate attainment in second-language learning relies on one’s agency … [it] is crucial at the point where the individuals must not just start memorizing a dozen new words and expressions but have to decide on whether to initiate a long, painful, inexhaustive, and, for some, never-ending process of self-translation. (Pavlenko & Lantolf, 2000: 169 – 170). Put bluntly, if learners ‘have some responsibility for their own learning, they are more likely to be engaged than if they are just doing what the teacher tells them to’ (Harmer, 2012: 90). A degree of autonomy should lead to increased motivation which, in turn, should lead to increased achievement (Dickinson, 1987: 32; Cordova & Lepper, 1996: 726).

Strong evidence for these claims is not easy to provide, not least since autonomy and agency cannot be measured. However, ‘negative evidence clearly shows that a lack of agency can stifle learning by denying learners control over aspects of the language-learning process’ (Vandergriff, 2016: 91). Most language teachers (especially in compulsory education) have witnessed the negative effects that a lack of agency can generate in some students. Irrespective of the extent to which students are allowed to influence learning objectives, the desirability of agency / autonomy appears to be ‘deeply embedded in the professional consciousness of the ELT community’ (Borg and Al-Busaidi, 2012; Benson, 2016: 341). Personalized goal-setting may not, for a host of reasons, be possible in a particular learning / teaching context, but in principle it would seem to be a ‘good thing’.

Goal-setting and technology

The idea that learners might learn more and better if allowed to set their own learning objectives is hardly new, dating back at least one hundred years to the establishment of Montessori’s first Casa dei Bambini. In language teaching, the interest in personalized learning that developed in the 1970s (see my previous post) led to numerous classroom experiments in personalized goal-setting. These did not result in lasting changes, not least because the workload of teachers became ‘overwhelming’ (Disick, 1975: 128).

Closely related was the establishment of ‘self-access centres’. It was clear to anyone, like myself, who was involved in the setting-up and maintenance of a self-access centre, that they cost a lot, in terms of both money and work (Ur, 2012: 236). But there were also nagging questions about how effective they were (Morrison, 2005). Even more problematic was a bigger question: did they actually promote the learner autonomy that was their main goal?

Post-2000, online technology rendered self-access centres redundant: who needs the ‘walled garden’ of a self-access centre when ‘learners are able to connect with multiple resources and communities via the World Wide Web in entirely individual ways’ (Reinders, 2012)? The cost problem of self-access centres was solved by the web. Readily available now were ‘myriad digital devices, software, and learning platforms offering educators a once-unimaginable array of options for tailoring lessons to students’ needs’ (Cavanagh, 2014). Not only that … online technology promised to grant agency, to ‘empower language learners to take charge of their own learning’ and ‘to provide opportunities for learners to develop their L2 voice’ (Vandergriff, 2016: 32). The dream of personalized learning has become inseparable from the affordances of educational technologies.

It is, however, striking just how few online modes of language learning offer any degree of personalized goal-setting. Take a look at some of the big providers – Voxy, Busuu, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone or Babbel, for example – and you will find only the most token nods to personalized learning objectives. Course providers appear to be more interested in claiming their products are personalized (‘You decide what you want to learn and when!’) than in developing a sufficient amount of content to permit personalized goal-setting. We are left with the ELT equivalent of personalized cans of Coke: a marketing tool.


The problems with personalized goal-setting

Would language learning products, such as those mentioned above, be measurably any better if they did facilitate the personalization of learning objectives in a significant way? Would they be able to promote learner autonomy and agency in a way that self-access centres apparently failed to achieve? It’s time to consider the square quotes that I put around ‘good thing’.

Researchers have identified a number of potential problems with goal-setting. I have already mentioned the problem of reconciling personalized goals and standardized testing. In most learning contexts, educational authorities (usually the state) regulate the curriculum and determine assessment practices. It is difficult to see, as Campbell et al. (Campbell et al., 2007: 138) point out, how such regulation ‘could allow individual interpretations of the goals and values of education’. Most assessment systems ‘aim at convergent outcomes and homogeneity’ (Benson, 2016: 345) and this is especially true of online platforms, irrespective of their claims to ‘personalization’. In weak (typically internal) assessment systems, the potential for autonomy is strongest, but these are rare.

In all contexts, it is likely that personalized goal-setting will only lead to learning gains when a number of conditions are met. The goals that are chosen need to be both specific, measurable, challenging and non-conflicting (Ordóñez et al. 2009: 2-3). They need to be realistic: if not, it is unlikely that self-efficacy (a person’s belief about their own capability to achieve or perform to a certain level) will be promoted (Koda-Dallow & Hobbs, 2005), and without self-efficacy, improved performance is also unlikely (Bandura, 1997). The problem is that many learners lack self-efficacy and are poor self-regulators. These things are teachable / learnable, but require time and support. Many learners need help in ‘becoming aware of themselves and their own understandings’ (McMahon & Oliver, 2001: 1304). If they do not get it, the potential advantages of personalized goal-setting will be negated. As learners become better self-regulators, they will want and need to redefine their learning goals: goal-setting should be an iterative process (Hussey & Smith, 2003: 358). Again, support will be needed. In online learning, such support is not common.

A further problem that has been identified is that goal-setting can discourage a focus on non-goal areas (Ordóñez et al. 2009: 2) and can lead to ‘a focus on reaching the goal rather than on acquiring the skills required to reach it’ (Locke & Latham, 2006: 266). We know that much language learning is messy and incidental. Students do not only learn the particular thing that they are studying at the time (the belief that they do was described by Dewey as ‘the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies’). Goal-setting, even when personalized, runs the risk of promoting tunnel-vision.

The incorporation of personalized goal-setting in online language learning programmes is, in so many ways, a far from straightforward matter. Simply tacking it onto existing programmes is unlikely to result in anything positive: it is not an ‘over-the-counter treatment for motivation’ (Ordóñez et al.:2). Course developers will need to look at ‘the complex interplay between goal-setting and organizational contexts’ (Ordóñez et al. 2009: 16). Motivating students is not simply ‘a matter of the teacher deploying the correct strategies […] it is an intensely interactive process’ (Lamb, M. 2017). More generally, developers need to move away from a positivist and linear view of learning as a technical process where teaching interventions (such as the incorporation of goal-setting, the deployment of gamification elements or the use of a particular algorithm) will lead to predictable student outcomes. As Larry Cuban reminds us, ‘no persuasive body of evidence exists yet to confirm that belief (Cuban, 1986: 88). The most recent research into personalized learning has failed to identify any single element of personalization that can be clearly correlated with improved outcomes (Pane et al., 2015: 28).

In previous posts, I considered learning styles and self-pacing, two aspects of personalized learning that are highly problematic. Personalized goal-setting is no less so.


Bandura, A. 1997. Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company

Benson, P. 2016. ‘Learner Autonomy’ in Hall, G. (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of English Language Teaching. Abingdon: Routledge. pp.339 – 352

Borg, S. & Al-Busaidi, S. 2012. ‘Teachers’ beliefs and practices regarding learner autonomy’ ELT Journal 66 / 3: 283 – 292

Cavanagh, S. 2014. ‘What Is ‘Personalized Learning’? Educators Seek Clarity’ Education Week

Cordova, D. I. & Lepper, M. R. 1996. ‘Intrinsic Motivation and the Process of Learning: Beneficial Effects of Contextualization, Personalization, and Choice’ Journal of Educational Psychology 88 / 4: 715 -739

Cuban, L. 1986. Teachers and Machines. New York: Teachers College Press

Dickinson, L. 1987. Self-instruction in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Disick, R.S. 1975 Individualizing Language Instruction: Strategies and Methods. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Harmer, J. 2012. Essential Teacher Knowledge. Harlow: Pearson Education

Hussey, T. & Smith, P. 2003. ‘The Uses of Learning Outcomes’ Teaching in Higher Education 8 / 3: 357 – 368

Lamb, M. 2017 (in press) ‘The motivational dimension of language teaching’ Language Teaching 50 / 3

Locke, E. A. & Latham, G. P. 2006. ‘New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory’ Current Directions in Psychological Science 15 / 5: 265 – 268

McMahon, M. & Oliver, R. (2001). Promoting self-regulated learning in an on-line environment. In C. Montgomerie & J. Viteli (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2001 (pp. 1299-1305). Chesapeake, VA: AACE

Morrison, B. 2005. ‘Evaluating learning gain in a self-access learning centre’ Language Teaching Research 9 / 3: 267 – 293

Ordóñez, L. D., Schweitzer, M. E., Galinsky, A. D. & Bazerman, M. H. 2009. Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting. Harvard Business School Working Paper 09-083

Pane, J. F., Steiner, E. D., Baird, M. D. & Hamilton, L. S. 2015. Continued Progress: Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning. Seattle: Rand Corporation

Pavlenko, A. & Lantolf, J. P. 2000. ‘Second language learning as participation and the (re)construction of selves’ In J.P. Lantolf (ed.), Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 155 – 177

Reinders, H. 2012. ‘The end of self-access? From walled garden to public park’ ELT World Online 4: 1 – 5

Rivers, W. M. 1971. ‘Techniques for Developing Proficiency in the Spoken Language in an Individualized Foreign Language program’ in Altman, H.B. & Politzer, R.L. (eds.) 1971. Individualizing Foreign Language Instruction: Proceedings of the Stanford Conference, May 6 – 8, 1971. Washington, D.C.: Office of Education, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. pp. 165 – 169

Ur, P. 1996. A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Ur, P. 2012. A Course in English Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Vandergriff, I. Second-language Discourse in the Digital World. 2016. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

I have been putting in a lot of time studying German vocabulary with Memrise lately, but this is not a review of the Memrise app. For that, I recommend you read Marek Kiczkowiak’s second post on this app. Like me, he’s largely positive, although I am less enthusiastic about Memrise’s USP, the use of mnemonics. It’s not that mnemonics don’t work – there’s a lot of evidence that they do: it’s just that there is little or no evidence that they’re worth the investment of time.

Time … as I say, I have been putting in the hours. Every day, for over a month, averaging a couple of hours a day, it’s enough to get me very near the top of the leader board (which I keep a very close eye on) and it means that I am doing more work than 99% of other users. And, yes, my German is improving.

Putting in the time is the sine qua non of any language learning and a well-designed app must motivate users to do this. Relevant content will be crucial, as will satisfactory design, both visual and interactive. But here I’d like to focus on the two other key elements: task design / variety and gamification.

Memrise offers a limited range of task types: presentation cards (with word, phrase or sentence with translation and audio recording), multiple choice (target item with four choices), unscrambling letters or words, and dictation (see below).


As Marek writes, it does get a bit repetitive after a while (although less so than thumbing through a pack of cardboard flashcards). The real problem, though, is that there are only so many things an app designer can do with standard flashcards, if they are to contribute to learning. True, there could be a few more game-like tasks (as with Quizlet), races against the clock as you pop word balloons or something of the sort, but, while these might, just might, help with motivation, these games rarely, if ever, contribute much to learning.

What’s more, you’ll get fed up with the games sooner or later if you’re putting in serious study hours. Even if Memrise were to double the number of activity types, I’d have got bored with them by now, in the same way I got bored with the Quizlet games. Bear in mind, too, that I’ve only done a month: I have at least another two months to go before I finish the level I’m working on. There’s another issue with ‘fun’ activities / games which I’ll come on to later.

The options for task variety in vocabulary / memory apps are therefore limited. Let’s look at gamification. Memrise has leader boards (weekly, monthly, ‘all time’), streak badges, daily goals, email reminders and (in the laptop and premium versions) a variety of graphs that allow you to analyse your study patterns. Your degree of mastery of learning items is represented by a growing flower that grows leaves, flowers and withers. None of this is especially original or different from similar apps.

Screenshot_2016-05-24-19-17-14The trouble with all of this is that it can only work for a certain time and, for some people, never. There’s always going to be someone like me who can put in a couple of hours a day more than you can. Or someone, in my case, like ‘Nguyenduyha’, who must be doing about four hours a day, and who, I know, is out of my league. I can’t compete and the realisation slowly dawns that my life would be immeasurably sadder if I tried to.

Having said that, I have tried to compete and the way to do so is by putting in the time on the ‘speed review’. This is the closest that Memrise comes to a game. One hundred items are flashed up with four multiple choices and these are against the clock. The quicker you are, the more points you get, and if you’re too slow, or you make a mistake, you lose a life. That’s how you gain lots of points with Memrise. The problem is that, at best, this task only promotes receptive knowledge of the items, which is not what I need by this stage. At worst, it serves no useful learning function at all because I have learnt ways of doing this well which do not really involve me processing meaning at all. As Marek says in his post (in reference to Quizlet), ‘I had the feeling that sometimes I was paying more attention to ‘winning’ the game and scoring points, rather than to the words on the screen.’ In my case, it is not just a feeling: it’s an absolute certainty.


Sadly, the gamification is working against me. The more time I spend on the U-Bahn doing Memrise, the less time I spend reading the free German-language newspapers, the less time I spend eavesdropping on conversations. Two hours a day is all I have time for for my German study, and Memrise is eating it all up. I know that there are other, and better, ways of learning. In order to do what I know I should be doing, I need to ignore the gamification. For those, more reasonable, students, who can regularly do their fifteen minutes a day, day in – day out, the points and leader boards serve no real function at all.

Cheating at gamification, or gaming the system, is common in app-land. A few years ago, Memrise had to take down their leader board when they realised that cheating was taking place. There’s an inexorable logic to this: gamification is an attempt to motivate by rewarding through points, rather than the reward coming from the learning experience. The logic of the game overtakes itself. Is ‘Nguyenduyha’ cheating, or do they simply have nothing else to do all day? Am I cheating by finding time to do pointless ‘speed reviews’ that earn me lots of points?

For users like myself, then, gamification design needs to be a delicate balancing act. For others, it may be largely an irrelevance. I’ve been working recently on a general model of vocabulary app design that looks at two very different kinds of user. On the one hand, there are the self-motivated learners like myself or the millions of other who have chosen to use self-study apps. On the other, there are the millions of students in schools and colleges, studying English among other subjects, some of whom are now being told to use the vocabulary apps that are beginning to appear packaged with their coursebooks (or other learning material). We’ve never found entirely satisfactory ways of making these students do their homework, and the fact that this homework is now digital will change nothing (except, perhaps, in the very, very short term). The incorporation of games and gamification is unlikely to change much either: there will always be something more interesting and motivating (and unconnected with language learning) elsewhere.

Teachers and college principals may like the idea of gamification (without having really experienced it themselves) for their students. But more important for most of them is likely to be the teacher dashboard: the means by which they can check that their students are putting the time in. Likewise, they will see the utility of automated email reminders that a student is not working hard enough to meet their learning objectives, more and more regular tests that contribute to overall course evaluation, comparisons with college, regional or national benchmarks. Technology won’t solve the motivation issue, but it does offer efficient means of control.

An integral part of adaptive learning programs, both the simple models already described and the much more complex systems that are currently under development, is an element of gamification. The term refers to the incorporation of points, levels (analogous to the levels in a typical computer game) and badges into the learning experience. In Duolingo, for example, users have a certain number of ‘lives’ that they can afford to lose without failing an exercise. In addition, they can compare their performance with that of other users, and they can win ‘lingots’, a kind of in-game currency which allows them to ‘buy’ lost ‘lives or to compensate for a day of inactivity.

duolingo lingots

Gamification and adaptive learning go together like hand in glove because of the data that is generated by the adaptive software (see the next post: Big data, analytics and adaptive learning). The whole thing is premised on comparing the performance of different students, so score cards and leader boards and so on are hardly surprising.

The idea behind this, in case it needs pointing out, is that it can make learning fun and, so, students will be more motivated to do the work, which seems more like play. It is a much hyped idea in education: eltjam referred to the ‘snowballing sexiness’ of the term. In an ELT context, most references to gamification are very positive. See, for example, eltjam’s blog post on the subject or Graham Stanley’s conference presentation on the subject. An excellent infographic summary of and advertisement for the benefits of gamification can be found at the Knewton website.

Not everyone, however, is so positive. Gamification has been described by some writers and researchers as the ‘pointsification’ of everything – the reductionist process of regarding all actions with points and increased personal scores (see, for example, Neil Selwyn, 2013, Distrusting Educational Technology, p.101). The motivation it may generate is clearly extrinsic, and this may not be a good long-term bet. Adults (myself included) get bored of gamification elements very quickly. For both adults and younger learners, once you’ve figured out how to play the system and get extra points (and there’s always a way of finding shortcuts to do this), interest can wane quickly. And once gamification becomes a standard feature of educational experiences (and not just English language learning), its novelty value will disappear.