Motivating your students to go beyond the intermediate plateau

Every teacher recognises the concept of the intermediate plateau.

Students at intermediate, or upper intermediate level start to feel that they aren’t making real progress anymore. They just don’t feel as if they’re getting significantly better, despite putting in plenty of hard work.

Feeling this way can be pretty de-motivating and it’s one of the key reasons why learners often give up at this stage.

When we first start learning a language we see very quick progress, as we go from barely being able to communicate to being able to function at least adequately in most situations. That’s a huge achievement, and the kind of progress we make after that won’t ever feel quite as exciting.

And it’s the excitement, or at least stimulation, that got us that far and that we have to try and maintain if we want to get past the intermediate plateau.

Recent findings in neuroscience tell us that a large part of motivation is tied up with the production of a chemical called dopamine. Some people naturally produce more dopamine than others in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, and those people are likely to be more hard-working and intrinsically motivated, but we all produce this chemical, which motivates us to act by making us feel good.

Dopamine spikes not just when we have achieved something, but also when we are getting ready to achieve something, as a way of encouraging us to act.

To get lots of bursts of encouraging dopamine, we need to break down what we are doing into lots of little accomplishments. This is what some online language learning apps are aiming to do. They send you a reminder email to get the dopamine flowing, so you go back to the app. Then as you complete each task you get a little musical ‘Ta-dah!’ that triggers more dopamine.

Part of the problem with reaching the intermediate plateau is that you realise just how far you still have to go to become truly fluent. Rather than focusing on how big a task lies ahead, encourage your students to make ‘to-do’ lists, to chip away at their goals, and reward themselves for each goal accomplished.

Another thing which online language learning apps use to great effect is the concept of maintaining a ‘streak’, where you try and do something every day for as many days in a row as possible. (If your learners are teenagers they may well already be doing this with social media apps.) Keeping the streak triggers dopamine, and makes maintaining the streak almost addictive. Think about what you could get your students to do every day, and how you could measure and record the streak.

Something new also triggers dopamine, so try and mix-up the way you present language and get students to practise it. After the several years of study it usually takes learners to get to intermediate level, they will be very familiar with certain task types, so taking a different approach can help to activate the reward centres in the brain.

And finally, being in a state of ‘flow’ is also good for dopamine production. Flow is when you are completely absorbed in what you are doing. Csíkszentmihályi, the originator of the term, explains that flow is most likely to occur when we are engaged in a task with clear and very specific goals at exactly the right level of challenge- where we need to focus to overcome the challenges, but we aren’t overwhelmed. Of course, this is what we, as teachers, are always aiming to provide, but it is worth discussing the concept of ‘flow’ with your learners, so that they can try to consciously utilise this state outside the classroom, as well as inside.

Motivation is a complex thing, and, of course, there’s more to it than dopamine rewards. However, a basic understanding of how this mechanism works in the brain can definitely help you, and your students, to gain and maintain the motivation to break through the intermediate plateau.

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