Student Demotivation


 We have elsewhere concerned ourselves with student motivation and what teachers can do to foster it. In this article, we shall introduce the notion of ‘student demotivation’, mainly drawing upon Dornyei (2001), among others. Besides, we shall try to establish a connection between teacher expectations and student achievement, thus casting the phenomenon of demotivation in a meaningful framework, within which both teachers and students are salient participants.

 Demotivation vs motivation

There is no question that there are motivational influences that exert a detrimental effect on student motivation. Classroom practitioners can easily think of a variety of events that can have demotivating effects on students, such as public humiliation, disheartening test results, or even conflicts with peers. Reality shows that demotivation is not at all infrequent in schools and the number of demotivated learners is increasing. So, in this paper we shall see the “dark side of the moon,” trying to shed some light on some ‘potential motivational pitfalls and danger zones’, as Dornyei (2001) calls them.

Generally speaking, a ‘demotivated’ learner is someone who was once motivated but has lost his or her interest for some reason. In the same vein, we can speak of ‘demotives’, which are the negative counterparts of ‘motives’. While a motive can be said to increase an action tendency, a demotive decreases it. However, it is not necessary to tack the label ‘demotivation’ or ‘demotive’ onto every type of negative influence. Dornyei (ibid.: 142) identifies three negative factors that he would not refer to as instances of demotivation:

 An attractive alternative action that serves as a powerful distraction (e.g. watching TV instead of doing one’s homework).

  1. The gradual loss of interest in a long-lasting, ongoing activity.

  2. The sudden realisation that the costs of pursuing a goal are too high (e.g. when someone recognises how demanding it is to attend an evening course while working during the day).

 According to Dornyei (ibid.: 143), these negative factors differ from what one would call ‘demotivating events’ in three significant ways:

 Powerful distractions are not demotives in the same sense as, say, public humiliation, because they do not carry a negative value: instead of reducing motivation, their distracting effect consists in presenting more attractive options.

  1. The gradual loss of interest is also different from a demotivating event because—using a racing metaphor, whereby a runner is doing very well yet does not win the race because there is someone who is doing even better—it reflects the runner’s losing speed caused by, for example, ageing, rather than by a particular incident in the particular “race.”

  2. As regards the sudden recognition of the costs of an activity, this is the result of an internal process of deliberation, without any specific external trigger. Conversely, if something triggered the termination of action (e.g. the persuasion of an influential friend), that would be a case of demotivation.

 In light of Dornyei’s considerations, ‘demotivation’ concerns ‘specific forces that reduce or diminish the motivational basis of a behavioural intention or an ongoing action’ (ibid.: 143).

Furthermore, Dornyei (ibid.) makes the distinction between ‘demotivation’ and ‘amotivation’ (a term used by Deci and Ryan (1985)). For him, ‘amotivation’ refers to a lack of motivation brought about by the realisation that ‘there is no point…’ or ‘it’s beyond my ken…’ Thus, ‘amotivation’ is inextricably related to general outcome expectations that are deemed to be unrealistic, whereas ‘demotivation’ is related to specific external causes. Of course, some demotives can lead to amotivation (e.g. a series of horrendous classroom experiences can put paid to the learner’s self-efficacy), but with some other demotives, as soon as the detrimental external influence ceases to exist, other positive motives may again surface (e.g. if it turns out that someone who dissuaded the individual from doing something was not telling the truth).


 L2 (de)motivation research

 Researchers have taken an interest in demotivation, as it is considered to be a frequent phenomenon related to the teacher’s interaction with the students. In L2 studies, in particular, the interest in demotivation has been aroused by a different reason. The L2 domain is most often characterised by learning failure, in the sense that merely everyone has failed in the study of at least one foreign language. So, language learning failure is directly related to demotivation.

Among others, Oxford (1998), Chambers (1993), Ushioda (1998) and Dornyei (1998b) have investigated demotivation in relation to language learning. Let us briefly review their findings.

 Oxford’s investigation

 Rebecca Oxford (1998) carried out a content analysis of essays written by 250 American students (in high schools and universities) about their learning experiences over a period of five years. More specifically, they were required to respond to such prompts as ‘Describe a situation in which you experienced conflict with a teacher’ or ‘Talk about a classroom in which you felt uncomfortable’. In this analysis, four broad themes emerged:

 The teacher’s personal relationship with the students, including hypercriticism, belligerence, a lack of caring, and favouritism

  1. The teacher’s attitude towards the course or the material, including lack of enthusiasm, sloppy management and close-mindedness

  2. Style conflicts between teachers and students, including multiple style conflicts, conflicts about the amount of structure or detail, and conflicts about the degree of closure or ‘seriousness’ of the class

  3. The nature of the classroom activities, including overload, repetitiveness, and irrelevance.

 Chambers’s investigation

 The basic assumption permeating Gary Chambers’s (1993) study is the view among language teachers that ‘Arguably the biggest problem is posed by those pupils who are quite able but do not want to learn a foreign language and make sure that the teacher knows it!’ (ibid.: 43). To find out what goes on inside the heads of students who ‘dismantled’ L2 lessons, Chambers visited four schools in Leeds, UK, and administered a questionnaire to 191 year nine students enrolled in eight classes. Seven teachers also filled in a questionnaire. According to the latter, the main characteristics of the demotivated pupil are the following; he or she

 makes no effort to learn; shows no interest; demonstrates poor concentration; produces little or no homework; fails to bring, or claims to have lost, materials;

  • lacks a belief in own capabilities;

  • demonstrates lethargy, ‘what’s the use?’ syndrome, and gives negative or nil response to praise;

  • is unwilling to cooperate, distracts other students, throws things, shouts out.

 Interestingly enough, the participant teachers perceived the causes of demotivation as related to a variety of reasons (which, of course, did not include themselves): psychological, attitudinal, social, geographical, historical. On the other hand, the students’ responses were different. Although only 14 % view the modern language component of the curriculum as a ‘waste of time’, 50 % go on record as not enjoying or even loathing language learning. Some blame their teachers for

 going on and on without realising that they have lost everybody;

  • not giving clear enough instructions;

  • using inferior equipment;

  • not giving sufficient explanations;

  • criticising students;

  • shouting at them when they don’t understand;

  • using old-fashioned teaching materials, etc.

 Based on his data, Chambers drew only few conclusions about the exact impact of the language-learning experience. At any rate, demotivated learners in the survey appeared to possess very low self-esteem and were in need of extra attention and praise. As Chambers (ibid.: 16) notes, ‘pupils identified as demotivated do not want to be ignored or given up as a bad job; in spite of their behaviour, they want to be encouraged’.

 Ushioda’s investigation

Emma Ushioda asked the participants to identify what they found to be demotivating in their L2-related learning experience. According to her, almost without exception, these demotives related to negative aspects of the learning context, such as particular teaching methods and learning tasks. Ushioda also stresses that the learners that took part in the survey managed to sustain or revive their positive motivational disposition in spite of the various negative experiences, by dint of:

 setting themselves short-term goals;

  • positive self-talk;

  • indulging in an enjoyable L2 activity that is ‘not monitored in any way by the teacher or by essays or exams’ (Ushioda, 1998: 86), such as watching a film or even eavesdropping on the conversations of L2-speaking tourists in the shops.

 Dornyei’s investigation

 The Dornyei (1998b) study differs from those by Oxford (1998), Chambers (1993) and Ushioda (1998) in that it focused on learners who had been identified as being demotivated, rather than looking at a general cross-section of students and asking them about bad learning experiences (for details about the nature of the research, please see Dornyei, 2001: 150-151). Among other things, Dornyei identified the following demotivating factors:

 The teacher (personality, commitment, competence, teaching method);

  1. Inadequate school facilities (group is too big or not the right level, frequent change of teachers);

  2. Reduced self-confidence (experience of failure or lack of success);

  3. Negative attitude towards the L2;

  4. Compulsory nature of L2 study;

  5. Interference of another foreign language being studied;

  6. Negative attitude towards L2 community;

  7. Attitudes of group members;

  8. Coursebook


 Teacher expectations and student achievement

 Although not all demotivating factors relate to teachers’ stance and behaviour, it cannot be denied that the latter do have a responsibility in this respect. In particular, teachers’ expectations of students’ achievement are instrumental in increasing demotivation (or decreasing motivation). Research has shown that teacher expectations affect the students’ rate of progress, functioning as a self-fulfilling prophecy (also referred to as the ‘Pygmalion effect’ after Bernard Shaw’s play), with students living up or “down” to their teachers’ expectations. These expectations trigger off various events and teacher behaviours which, in turn, influence student performance. On a positive note, these influences are likely to affect the students’ self-concept, level of aspiration, achievement strivings, classroom conduct and interaction with the teacher (Dornyei, 2001: 176). On a negative note, though, the Pygmalion effect can reduce student motivation. Brophy (1985: 180) lists eight concrete ways by which negative expectations can make inroads into students’ self-efficacy:

 Giving up easily on low-expectation students

  1. Criticising them more often for failure

  2. Praising them less often for success

  3. Praising them inappropriately

  4. Neglecting to give them any feedback

  5. Seating them in the back of the room

  6. Paying less attention to them or interacting with them less frequently

  7. Expressing less warmth towards them or less interest in them as individuals.


 What we can glean from all the above is that demotivation is a salient phenomenon that should concern every classroom practitioner. It goes without saying that it is a complex issue and the present analysis has not done it justice. There are so many factors that affect student motivation, not the least of which is the role of the teacher. Effective teachers are not necessarily those who successfully transfer cognitive information. Rather, the positive impact of “good teachers” consists in their strong commitment towards the subject matter which becomes ‘infectious’, that is, instils in students a willingness to pursue knowledge and learn how to learn (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). Only motivated teachers can “produce” motivated students. 


  •  Brophy, J. E. (1985). Teachers’ expectations, motives and goals for working with problem students. In Ames, C. and Ames, D. (Eds.), Research on motivation in education: The classroom milieu. Academic Press, Orlando, FL, pp. 175-214.

  • Chambers, G. N. (1993). Talking the ‘de’ out of demotivation. Language Learning Journal. 7: 13-16.

  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Intrinsic motivation and effective teaching: A flow analysis. In Bes, J. L. (Ed.), Teaching well and liking it: Motivating faculty to teach effectively. Baltimore: Hopkins University Press.

  • Deci, E. L. and Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

  • Dornyei, Z. (1998b). Demotivation in foreign language learning. Paper presented at the TESOL’98 Congress, Seattle,WA, March.

  • Dornyei, Z. (2001). Teaching and Researching Motivation. England: Pearson Education Limited.

  • Oxford, R. L. (1998). The unravelling tapestry: Teacher and course characteristics associated with demotivation in the language classroom. Demotivation in foreign language learning. Paper presented at the TESOL’98 Congress, Seattle, WA, March.

  • Ushioda, E. (1998). Effective motivational thinking: A cognitive theoretical approach to the study of language learning motivation. In Soler, E. A. and Espurz, V. C. Current issues in English language methodology. Universitat Jaume I, Castello de la Plana, Spain, pp. 77-89.


Source: Dr. Dimitris Thanasoulas