A Working Formula for Motivational Teaching

I looked in the Oxford dictionary and found that motivation and motivating are defined as “that which induces a person to act.” Adults are volunteer learners. They are not required to be in school, as children are. How can we in adult literacy “induce them to act”?

We find that motivation in adult teaching and tutoring has two-sides. On one side, the learners’ side, Wlodkowski gives us an extremely important set of principles: “Adult learners feel much better when they have successfully learned something that:

1) They really want to learn, and

2) Something they value.”

This might seem obvious. But to elaborate on these first two learner principles, we can add what Malcolm Knowles has said: Adult learners “need to feel that what they are learning will be actually useful, that it will solve problems, not create new ones” (cited in Quigley, 2006, p. 123).

Malcolm KnowlesIf we are to “induce a person to act” we need to be cognizant of—and be willing to enhance—the “want” and the “value” that learners bring with them. If a learner does not bring a strong sense of value and desire into our learning programs, it may be because the timing is not right for them to enter, or they are just not ready. Or they may have been pressured into coming for some reason. By an employer or maybe their family is pressuring them to come. In these cases it is hard to make much headway. As Freud once said: “One cannot explain things to unfriendly people” (cited in Wlodkowski, 1999, p. 6).

So how do we go about motivating a learner to learn?

Clearly, motivational teaching needs a degree of internal volition and value on the learner’s part, as noted. However, these internal feelings that learners normally bring need to be, and often can be, enhanced by the teacher from the very first meeting. How? By helping the learner set realistic goals, by helping the learner get an early sense of success, by helping the learner experience a sense of enjoyment in the learning process. This is the other side—the teachers’ side.

Here is the formula of the two sides of motivation in adult teaching and tutoring I have extrapolated from Wlodkowski and Knowles.

V+V-S+E Formula

  • As depicted in this formula, we have to hope learners bring a degree of volition (desire) to learn as well as a degree of belief in literacy’s value. We have to hope they enter our program saying: “I really hope this is the way forward for me.”

  • Then, as teachers/tutors, we need to try to enhance these internal qualities by providing an ongoing sense of success through a process that gives enjoyment to the learners. We should be saying: “I believe this is what this learner wants and what they need. Let’s see, but let’s stay flexible.”

Here is an easy-to-remember thumbnail formula when thinking about a learner and motivation.


Let’s see some ways this formula can be applied, beginning in those first few critical days—the opening days that can mean success or drop out.