Motivating EAP students through feedback

By Dominic Mahon & Rachel Niklas

Dominic Mahon & Rachel Niklas teach at a private university in Turkey. Previously they have taught academic literacies at universities in the UK and Vietnam

Why are you reading this? The chances are there is something you hope to gain from doing so. Information, entertainment, perhaps just passing time.  Whatever the case, unless someone made you read it, you have ended up here through some sort of internal motivation. This is good for us as it means that you might take something away from the experience. If you had been forced to read this, your motivation would be external and we might as well start writing about Ukrainian military bathroom cleaning techniques for the amount of value that could be taken away (it occurs to me that there is probably a journal on that topic so apologies to anyone who might genuinely be interested in such things).

According to the seminal work of Deci and Ryan, there are, broadly speaking, two types of motivation: Intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation happens when you do something for the joy of doing that thing. In terms of achievement, intrinsic motivation provides the best results but unfortunately intrinsic motivation is quite rare in the adult world, unless you are a footballer or a rock star. Some students are intrinsically motivated, and these students enjoy the activity of study and learning. However, the reality is that for most students, study is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. In other words, most students are extrinsically motivated.

Extrinsic motivation has a scale of effectiveness within it. At one end you have external extrinsic motivation. This is when you are motivated solely by forces outside you (your parents or a grade or merely passing a course and so on). It is the least effective in terms of achievement. At the other end of the scale you have internal extrinsic motivation. This occurs when you realize that something has value in the long run and this value motivates you to do something you may not enjoy in and of itself, so healthy eating or going to the gym regularly might fall into this category . It is important to note that it is possible to shift motivation. People who have a sense of mastery and ownership tend to have more internalized motivation.  We’ll return to this point later.

Both anecdotally and in the literature, it is clear that motivation is a problem with EAP students. Required courses are seen as hurdles by those students required to do them and voluntary courses tend to only get the already well motivated students. But when the nature and purpose of EAP courses is considered, this seems rather strange. EAP courses are designed to foster skills, and those skills are transferrable. The skills help students not only in their university study but also in the world of post university study employment. The skills correspond to generic university graduate attributes which are largely decided by what industry wants. So, if EAP courses are a means to both the end of succeeding at university and getting a job, why are students not motivated in the EAP classroom?

In order to get some understanding of this issue, we conducted focus groups with students on a compulsory in-sessional EAP course. These were the questions we asked.

  • What are the skills you get from the EAP course?
  • What skills do you need to succeed at university?
  • What skills are employers looking for in graduates?

The results revealed that the students knew what skills they needed for success at university and knew what skills employers were looking for, but didn’t make any association between those skills and the EAP course. It was clear that the students had an external extrinsic motivation. Put another way, the students’ primary concern was with passing the course and getting the best possible grade and if they picked up some skills along the way, well, fair enough.

So the problem then is how to shift students’ motivation so that it becomes more internal. You may remember that earlier we mentioned that students with a sense of mastery and ownership have more internalized motivation. But how do you equip students with these?

To answer this question, we looked to feedback. Feedback is one of the most significant factors in learning. John Hattie synthesized the results from somewhere in the region of 500 studies which covered between 20 and 30 million students. He found that feedback was consistently one of the top factors in learning (up there with more difficult things to impact on such as students’ prior cognitive ability and home factors). But not any old type of feedback of course. Certain types of feedback improve performance while others have no or even negative impacts. Poor feedback includes that which focuses on the character of the student (you’re a great learner) punishments (detention) and rewards (chocolate bars). Also, feedback which focuses purely on the task at hand is not so effective because it reinforces a short term and surface approach. Good feedback starts with students’ strengths. It is understandably common for teachers to focus on their students weaknesses, but more can be achieved if a moment is taken to reflect on the strengths and abilities that have got the student to the point where they are taking a compulsory EAP course at a university. There is a frequent contradiction in teachers’ rooms that we comment on the one hand that students will never be able to cope with such and such a text, while on the other hand, we believe that students will defy the laws of physics to cheat when exams come around (a particularly good example of this is the idea that students can’t work in teams, apart from when they are devising a cheating strategy that involves them communicating with clicks of a pen in multiple choice exams).

In addition to focusing on strengths (not as easy to do as it is to write we are aware), feedback is effective when it is peer to peer, focused on processes rather than specific tasks, one to one and targeted. Now that may sound like a lot to roll into one tutorial or when marking a stack of 30 papers, but we believe there is a way to do this quickly and efficiently through a cycle of feedback.

  • In the first instance feedback is given peer to peer. Students exchange papers with each other. Criteria can be developed in class focusing on the outcomes of the particular course and this then constitutes a scaffold for peer to peer feedback. This also gives students a sense of ownership and competence in their ability to advise peers (both important as mentioned above in terms of contributing to internalized motivation), exposes them to other students’ work and encourages a focus on processes (if the criteria is appropriately guided).
  • The second activity is reflection on the comments from the peer review. This activity encourages students to focus on strengths and weaknesses and should result in the student having a series of questions for the teacher and once again encourages a sense of responsibility for their own learning and ownership.
  • The third activity involves the teacher giving feedback to the student. This should address the student’s questions (and as it has been requested it is more likely to be acted on) and any other process related issues apparent from the work.

An example form is given below, but this would change according to the outcomes of the course in question. In the second cycle of feedback, changes can be made. If, for example, students had performed well in the peer to peer section, the scaffolding in that section could be reduced or removed altogether.

To sum up, it seems that the problem of motivating students on EAP courses may be addressed by giving students a sense of competence and ownership. This can be done through effective feedback and the proposed cycle may constitute such an example of effective feedback.

Dominic & Rachel’s Reflective Feedback Form

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6 responses to “Motivating EAP students through feedback”

  1. Ian says :

    Dunno how I missed this article, but great work guys. I’m teaching an intensive EAP course right now and found that my was head nodding all the way through this.

    An extra benefit in the peer feedback process is the marker’s requirement to engage another student’s assignment critically – there’s some much potential learning in that.

    Many thanks – for the Reflective Feedback Form, especially. i.

    • dominicmahon says :

      cheers Ian – hope it is of use. Would be great to hear how it works out for you. It would be interesting to see if the effects are similar in different groups of students

  2. Richard Warner says :

    I really enjoyed reading this article, especially as my colleague and I are in the early stages of a research project which focuses on the cultural dimensions of feedback processes- with groups of EAP students at an Australian university.

    At our university, in relation to getting EAP students to look beyond the immediacy of a particular pre-semester intensive course (which I co-coordinate and teach) and its relevance to the future, we map out each element of the course against the university’s stated graduate attributes. This is made transparent at the beginning of the course and we have discursive activities relevant to these connections. Moreover, more immediate motivation lies in input from faculty academics into the course, who provide core readings for the students, so they (the students) are already working in their subject areas as they develop their skills. We too incorporate (chocolate free) peer feedback as intrinsic to this process, as not only is it empowering for the students themselves, but it also mirrors learning strategies and practices that are highly valued in Australian higher education.

    From my experience, one of the problems that many EAP courses face is their perceived disjunction from students’ future degree programs. We appreciate that our particular EAP environment is one where students already have chosen their future degree programs. This situation is different from many EAP courses which are delivered in institutions external to where students intend to study.What we have tried to do, in our particular instance, is to create a model which:

    1)Allows students to begin work in their own study area from the very beginning.

    2) Provides them with specific understandings of how the course relates to their immediate academic futures and beyond.

    Student feedback has been consistently high both at the time of course delivery, and in later focus group sessions held several weeks into the semester. These focus groups are also a chance for students to have input into the development of the curriculum. The input from students at such sessions has resulted in substantial changes being made to the course over the years.

    Bars of chocolate are not used as an inducement at any time (well, maybe occasionally!).

  3. Dominic mahon says :

    Hi. Thanks for the comment and apologies for the late response. Your project sounds very interesting and it would be good hear more. We are planning to measure the effectiveness of the feedback at the end of next semester. Focus groups or perhaps a survey. If you would be interested in sharing ideas, that would be grand. My email is

    All the best,


  4. Mark Hershey says :

    Sorry I missed this article the first time through. Very good work, guys. On peer feedback: I haven’t always found it to be a very successful endeavor for students as I often have seen them giving either inappropriate feedback or missing out on important features to notice. But maybe this is because I’m not having them focus narrowly enough on certain features? Hmmm, I’ll have to rethink it. Oh, I had one other thought. You mention that one reason students lack motivation is that they do not see the connection between their courses and their academic programs or later employment. This should give us pause to examine the content and skills we are teaching the students. I’ve long thought that a content EAP course should not be focused on one-off topic readings, listenings, and tasks, but should build knowledge and skills that are foundational and transferable. Genetic engineering is of course very interesting, but how much do students at their age see it as relevant to building knowledge that leads towards further competence in a university setting. Wouldn’t an EAP program that gives a foundation in key academic subjects (graded to the students level), with skills and an academic vocabulary that underpins all academic courses, be more relevant and thus more motivating to students than the one-off topic approach?

    • Rachel Niklas says :

      Hi Mark- I agree that sometimes peer feedback can be faulty but I think it is a matter of giving the students the proper guidance and tools to learn this skill. We shall see this semester how effective the feedback cycle is in this area. I also agree with you about the topics although I think it is really difficult to find topics that interest students. I think one problem with EAP courses is trying to fit in too many topics and therefore becoming very repetitive throughout courses and levels.

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