EAP and Student Motivation

I have spent most of my life teaching ESP, especially EAP and in talks that I have given and courses that I have run, I’ve always given three strong reasons for teaching ESP or ESAP as opposed to general English or EGAP. The first is linguistic – different subjects use different language. There is a large amount of research evidence for this – see, for example, Hyland (2011, 2012).  The second is to do with knowledge transfer: the nearer you can get to the student’s ultimate reason for learning English, the more likely it will be that the student will be able to make use of what you are teaching in the new context (see, for example, Dias, Freedman, Medway & Paré, 1999; Willingham, 2007; James, 2014, Bharuthram & Clarence, 2015). The third is motivation. This is something that everyone seems to agree with (see, for example, Stevick, 1976; Krashen, 1982; Wenden, 1981). – that students will be more motivated when the English course is directly related to their main subject course or professional needs (intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985) or ideal self compared to ought-to self (Dornyei, 2009, 2010)  –  so I’ve never felt the need to justify it. Students do not see the learning of a subject separately from the learning of the language of that subject: Learning the content of a subject means learning the language of that subject. As Ushioda (1998) points out:

…the language learner, unlike the researcher, seems unlikely to perceive the motivation for language learning to be wholly independent of the motivation (or lack of motivation) for other areas of learning (p. 83).

Introductory books to ESP – for example, Robinson (1980, pp. 26-31) and Kennedy & Bolitho (1984, pp. 26-31) and Dudley-Evans & St John (1998, p. 10) – seem to agree. So as long as a careful needs analysis has been carried out, motivation will take care of itself:

…a programme  which appears to meet the student’s own expressed needs (or whatever their supervisors/teachers believe to be their needs) will be more motivating, more efficient, and thus more successful (Crookes & Schmidt, 1991, p. 492).

And then, as Pit Corder explains:

…given motivation, it is inevitable that a human being will learn a second language if he is exposed to the language data (1981, p. 8)

However, as Hutchinson & Waters (1987, p. 48) point out, motivation is a complex and highly individual matter, and:

there can be no simple answer to the question: “What motivates my students?” Unfortunately the ESP world, while recognising the need to ask this question, has apparently assumed that there is a simple answer: relevance to target needs.  In practice this has been interpreted as meaning medical texts for the students of medicine, engineering English for the engineers and so on. But, as we shall see when we deal with needs analysis, there is more to motivation than simple relevance to perceived needs.

So is there any research that might suggest that students who like a subject are motivated to study it and therefore succeed?

I suppose the broad question here is:  is there research evidence that shows that students studying a subject they are interested in are more motivated to study and therefore to succeed. Related to this is the narrower, more specific question: what evidence exists that an optional ESP or EAP course is perceived as useful (and worth spending time on) because it is closely linked to the degree subject?

It is easy to find anecdotal evidence here.  Several people in the past 30 years have mentioned things to me that have strengthened this believe. I was having lunch with a law professor many years ago and she pointed out to me that most law students at our institution would not become lawyers. But they liked law, so the course basically provided them with a good all round critical education through the medium of law. Again assuming that the subject of law – which they liked – would motivate them to study. At a pre-masters meeting several years ago, a bio-scientist said that the main purpose of a university education was to develop students’ criticality, through, in his case, the medium of biology – which they liked. Just before I left my previous institution, I attended the annual learning & teaching conference and the opening speaker was someone from a business organisation. I did not know what he was doing as an opening speaker, but he was good. He talked about passion and how important it is in student success.  I know of many people  who have done subjects such as business studies and given up in the first year because it was boring!  They weren’t interested in the subject, they just wanted to make money. It is easy to find little anecdotes like these to support my belief that interest in a subject promotes motivation and success and therefore it is what we should be doing in EAP, but is there any real evidence?

We do need to remember here, though, that motivation is only indirectly related to success. Highly motivated students will not succeed if they do not work hard (see Csizér & Dörnyei, 2005 or Darvin & Norton, 2015) and the process is complicated:

Thus, in a general sense, motivation can be defined as “the dynamically changing cumulative arousal in a person that initiates, directs, coordinates, amplifies, terminates, and evaluates the cognitive and motor processes whereby initial wishes and desires are selected, prioritised, operationalised, and (successfully or unsuccessfully) acted out (Dörnyei & Ottó, 1998, p. 65).

At a very general level,  there is a great deal of serious research evidence to show that strong intrinsic motivation (such as personal interest in a subject) correlates highly with success in learning. When students are intrinsically motivated to do something, they typically want to do it well because the feeling of doing well is one of the affective rewards that fuels intrinsic motivation – see, for example constructive alignment (Biggs, 2013) and disciplinary identity (Hyland, 2012). One body of theory and research associated with this is self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985). calvinOr, the reverse side of this, as pointed out by Barrie, Hughes & Smith. (2009, p. 14), in relation to graduate attributes:

The system can only be judged to be effective if students are meaningfully engaged in the development of what they understand to be worthwhile outcomes.

This is also strongly related to the learner’s identity. If the learner identifies, either academically or professionally, with, say, accounting or civil engineering, both currently and in the future, then they are likely to take more interest in the language when it is seen as a component of that subject (Bliuc, et al, 2011; Smyth, et al, 2015; Ushioda, 2011). Or:

People interpret situations and difficulties in ways that are congruent with currently active identities and prefer identity-congruent to identity-incongruent actions. When action feels identity-congruent, experienced difficulty highlights that the behavior is important and meaningful.When action feels identity-incongruent, the same difficulty suggests that the behavior is pointless and “not for people like me.” (Oyserman, 2015, p. 1)

With regard to the more specific question about motivation for ESP or ESAP,  as far back as 1971, Strevens (1971) and Wingard (1971) draw attention to the frustrations felt by science students when studying inappropriate English. Wingard – at the University of Zambia –  reports that talks on scientific topics by both students and staff were ranked highly on student questionnaires. A few years later Jordan (1978) noted that on a pre-sessional course in Manchester in 1976, attention to the students’ subjects did seem to be motivating.

The ESP sessions were generally popular as the students felt they were “coming to grips” with their reason for being in Manchester at all, viz, their own subject (p. 13).

Other early reports by Gerry Abbott (1978), Diane Adams-Smith (1980), Ken James (1984) and Bob Jordan (1984) suggest that this is the case. James, for example, investigates subject specific in-sessional courses for bio-science students and Jordan with economics students.  Adams-Smith describes a series of team-teaching situations in the faculty of medicine at the University of Kuwait which aim to motivate students – as well as lecturers – from a range of disciplines. In his 1988 state of the art article, Strevens (1988, p. 2) summarises the main claims for ESP:

  • ESP, being focussed on the learner’s needs, wastes no time;
  • ESP teaching is perceived as relevant by the learners;
  • ESP in successful in imparting learning;
  • ESP is more cost-effective than General English.

and argues that the experience of the previous 20 years suggests that it can be more motivating and successful.

From the vocabulary point of view, also, Sökmen (1997, p. 241) has pointed out that when students can draw on their existing background knowledge, they can connect a new word with words they already know, and make strong associations which enables learning to take place (see also Baddeley, 1990). It is also related to Piaget’s assimilation and accommodation (Piaget, 1952). Assimilation and accommodation are two processes through which knowledge of the outside world is internalised. In assimilation, what is perceived in the outside world is incorporated into the internal world – existing subject knowledge, without changing the structure of that internal world. In accommodation, the internal world has to accommodate itself to the external evidence with which it is confronted and adapt to it. Vygotsky’s ZPD (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 86)  is similar. The zone of proximal development refers to the potential range of development for any given learner. It is determined in relation to the learner’s current knowledge and abilities and is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help (or scaffolding).

More recently, Helen Basturkmen (2010) cites two studies that try to answer the question whether or not ESP programmes are more effective than general language courses. Kasper (1977) found that content-based instruction  had a positive effect on students’ academic progress and success. Similarly, Song (2006) reported that students who received content based ESL instruction achieved more success in their ESL and subsequent academic courses. From an EO/PP point of view, González-Lloret & Nielson (2015) reported that in a  task-based Spanish course, students did well and responded positively to the subject specificity of the course.

Related to this is the concept of ‘relevance’ in motivation. As Chambers has pointed out (1999):

if pupils fail to see the relationship between the activity and the world in which they live, then the point of the activity is likely to be lost on them (p. 37).

This has been  dealt with recently by, for example Kember, Ho & Hong (2008), Bryson & Hand (2007) and Woodrow (2013). Kember, Ho & Hong (2008) report findings from a study with 36 undergraduate students and found that students were motivated by a teaching environment that was felt to be relevant to their future career. Bryson & Hand (2007, p. 349)  conclude that “Learners … are more likely to engage if they in turn are supported by teaching staff who engage with: students, with the subject, and with the teaching process”. From an EAP point of view, Woodrow (2013) concludes that in the case of pre-sessional EAP students, perceived relevance was a motivating force. Furthermore the research suggests that foundation programmes should have a closer alignment with the university programmes. In dealing with her students’ motivational problems in the Arabian Gulf, Malcolm (2013) concludes that, for her medical students, course materials focus on the language of science, medical terminology as well as assignments that require the reading of medical texts.

This is supported by more recent research. For example, Altalib (2019) investigated the L2 motivation of Saudi university students in ESP and EGP courses and found a significant relationship between learners’ motivation and their attended English course:

The ESP group had higher ideal L2 selves and more positive attitudes towards the L2 learning experience than the EGP group (p. 1).

Bobkina, Gómez-Ortiz, Núñez del Río & Sastre-Merino (2021) explored the motivational profiles of Spanish sports science university students from the second language (L2) motivation self system perspective. The data revealed that in the ESP course, the ideal L2 self construct stands out as the most salient and powerful factor.

Kálmán (2020) investigated adult L2 learners in a corporate context in Hungary. The study compared the strength of ESP exerting its influence on L2 motivation with that of nine other dimensions related to the language teacher. Results showed that ESP plays a significant role in motivating adult learners of English in Hungarian corporate contexts.

Overall, it does seem that there is some research evidence that students will be more motivated when the English course is directly related to their main subject course or professional needs. This is certainly something that EAP lecturers need to be concerned with. As Woodrow (2013) concludes:

Both pre-sessional institutions and universities have the responsibility to develop and maintain student motivation. To do this English teachers need to establish a closer link between language learning activities and content learning activities and tasks that are on university academic courses (p. 130).

See also: Porter Ladousse (1982) on needs and wants, Krashen (1985) on the affective filter and Hertzberg’s distinction between satisfiers (motivators) and dissatisfiers (hygiene factors) (Herzberg, Mausner  & Synderman, 1959).


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(Thank you to Ema Ushioda for pointing me in the right direction here.)

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