Chasing motivation: Action research in a university ESL setting

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by Henno Kotzé and Ceara McManus

As teachers of ESL and EAP in a university language centre in Australia, we often find that many of our students are not motivated to use English beyond the classroom. Because many are in nearly monocultural classes, they often revert to their first language with their classmates as soon as they leave school and miss out on valuable opportunities to be involved with their local English-speaking communities and to practice and apply the English from the classroom further. Ceara had previously done research on the benefits of goal-setting to improve motivation and using English within the local community (McManus, 2015), while Henno had done research on the benefits of game-based learning on motivation (see, for example, Burguillo, 2010, Dickey, 2011, and Harris & Reid, 2005).  We therefore decided to combine our research interests and efforts to conduct action research into student motivation and treatments teachers could apply to encourage their students to do more in English in their respective communities.

We were aware that motivation played a significant role in driving students to use English and engage with their different communities beyond the classroom. Thus, Ryan and Deci’s (2000) Self-Determination Theory (SDT) informed our research. SDT (2019) states that if you (the teacher) can facilitate the conditions of autonomy, competency, and relatedness, it will promote the highest levels of creativity, motivation, and performance. In our ESL context, autonomy meant giving students opportunities to set their own language learning goals and expectations. As most of our students are tech-savvy (and often glued to their mobiles), competency, for the purpose of our research, was fostered through using game-based learning, mobile technology and apps. Finally, we wanted to relate the students’ goals to the language being developed in their courses and also their own life experiences; in particular, their Australian experiences.

Against this backdrop, we wanted to explore and test the hypothesis that gamifying their goals would boost our students’ motivation to engage in English outside the classroom.


We selected four upper-intermediate (CEFR B2) classes for this project, with a total of 61 students. These students were at the beginning of a 20-week, intensive English pathways program with the objective of entering an undergraduate or postgraduate course at the University of Queensland.


Our research project was run for three weeks and followed the process below:

  1. We conducted a pre-survey (described in the Research Instruments section below).
  2. We took some time at the beginning of Week 1 and discussed the following with the students:
    1. the importance of student engagement (concepts of community and motivation),
    2. how to set SMART goals (Doran, 1981), and
    3. the objectives of our project.
  3. In the same session, students then set English language learning goals and Australian experiences goals in class and negotiated how many points should be awarded for achieving each goal.
  4. We “gamified” these student-set goals and added some teacher-set goals based on their course book topics to demonstrate that these topics and language are related to the “outside world”. We gamified these goals using an App called GooseChase and built them into an online scavenger hunt by converting each goal into a “mission” (or task), although you could also do this with Padlet, FlipGrid, or other game-based learning tools (see Research Instruments section below).
  5. We checked in with each class once a week for 10 minutes to remind them of their goals, show them the leaderboard and celebrate achievements to date.
  6. At the end of the project, we surveyed the students again to determine whether they felt that the goal-setting activity and the game(s) motivated them to use English more outside the classroom.

Our research instruments

1. Goal-setting posters

Aussie Goals
English Goals

2. Tech tools to gamify*

GooseChase (

Student-Set Missions (Goals)
Student-Set Missions (Goals)
Student-Set Missions (Goals)
Teacher-set Missions (Goals)
GooseChase Leaderboard Example
Missions submissions page example

Padlet (

Padlet class example

FlipGrid (

Flipgrid Activity example

*Note that paper-based gamification can also work with goal-setting – see Image 11 below for an example of a student-made paper board-game for achieving goals.

Paper-based game example

3. Pre- & post-surveys

Through conducting pre-treatment surveys, we wanted to gauge our students’ perceptions of the concepts of community, engagement, and motivation, as well as their English-speaking habits outside the classroom.  At the end of the research period, we ran post-surveys to measure the impact of our treatment.

Research findings

The results of our pre- and post-surveys confirmed our hypothesis that using a gamified goal-setting model to facilitate student engagement in English outside the classroom would boost their motivation to achieve these goals.

Through reflection tasks, students told us they mostly prefer the student-set goals to the teacher-set goals (confirming SDT’s belief in supporting learner autonomy) but enjoyed having the teachers change these into “missions” (i.e. gamifying them). Also, that the various “missions”, whilst challenging, made students feel “braver”, “more confident” and “proud”.

Lessons Learned / Tips

  • It is important to discuss the objectives of the project with students. This includes the importance of student engagement, the concept of community as well as where and why they should use English outside the class.  
  • Make sure student goals are SMART, mostly free (for equity), and varied in terms of difficulty and evidence to measure “mission completion” (e.g. photo, video, text, realia, GPS check-in, etc).
  • Ensure goals set by the teacher are related to the language and topics studied in class but require students to do tasks in English outside the classroom to complete missions.
  • Students like to be reminded on a regular basis to be involved in the game and to keep each other accountable.


The results of this project support our original hypothesis that turning goals into games supports the three motivational factors of SDT (autonomy, competency, and relatedness). We would also urge other teachers to try gamifying goal-setting in their own class and please contact us if you would like more information or take a look at our project Padlet ( with all the links and resources you might need to try something similar in your classroom.


Ceara and Henno

Henno Kotzé has been a TESOL Language teacher at UQ-ICTE since 2009 and is currently Senior Teacher – Technology & Independent Learning. Having previously taught in Vietnam and South Africa, his key interests lie in using educational technology to enhance the student experience, supporting teachers in embracing technology in their teaching and the future of learning, including immersive technologies. He has presented on ed-tech, augmented reality, digital learning and MOOCs at conferences.

Ceara McManus has been a TESOL teacher and teacher trainer at
UQ-ICTE since 2013. Originally a drama and French teacher, Ceara qualified in ESL with a CELTA Young Learners in London and a Post-graduate Diploma in Applied Linguistics at UQ. Ceara’s MA in Applied Linguistics from Hong Kong University specialised in teaching English through a language arts program. Ceara’s passion for languages and drama led to her range of innovative programs written in TESOL teaching and teacher development.

Update (January 2020): Henno and Ceara have a feature chapter in our new research book, ‘Digital Innovations and Research in Language Learning’, out on Amazon and sent for free to LTSIG members.

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