Student Motivation: A New (or very old) Perspective

In this blog piece I'm going to introduce two key theories that led me to a new understanding on student motivation and behaviour and how they, for me, intersect to help me better understand why individual students do what they do.

Part 1: Motivation and Student Behaviour

During my years teaching and DoSing in China, it struck me as odd that so many students would buy and pay for expensive language courses and then very rarely attend. There are other behaviours I found confusing, like why insist on teaching methodology that has consistently failed a student over many years?

Theories on motivation such as Social Determination Theory seemed to offer some insight, maybe a student was lacking confidence, or the ability to understand the schools approach. Maybe that student didn't feel a part of the community of the school, or had some issues outside of school impacting on their performance in the classroom? These ideas were sometimes clearly accurate, and the school acted fully on them with an array of support personnel, materials and initiatives and yet actual attendance remained stubbornly low. I decided a new perspective may be required.

Part 2: Intentionality

The attempt to explain the relationship between human intentions and action has been explored for many years, however Searle (1980) refreshed the theory of ‘intentionality’ more recently. One key aspect of the theory are intentional states, “Intentional states are directed at or about objects and states of affairs in the world” (p.48). Examples of intentional states are “beliefs, hopes, fears, desires and intentions” (p.48). For instance, a belief must be a belief about something, a hope must be a hope for something.

To understand this, it’s useful to see that intentional states are made up of two basic components, psychological modes (S) and representational content (r) giving us a formula of S(r) (p.48). Let’s take a look at some examples.

1) I believe that (learning English will help me get a promotion.)
2) I want (to start learning English.)
3) I intend (to start learning English.)

Although all intentional states may be fulfilled or unfulfilled, example three seems the closest to motivating actions. An action which aims to fulfil an intentional state can be called an intentional action (pp.49-50). Searle’s description of intentionality can help us to link intentions to action and clarify how humans’ beliefs, hopes, desires and so on are realised though clear intentional actions which in turn can be examined to explain intentions and actions.

The intentional stance was put forward by Daniel Dennet in his 1987 book of the same name and working from Brentano (1874) and Searle's (1980) definition of intentionality, saw that through the concepts of beliefs, desires and so on, folk psychology provides a "reason-giving explanation" for behaviour, reasons for the behaviour and a history of the origins of that action, based on the assumption that the agent's action was rational and reasonable, and that the agent held certain beliefs and desires (pp.48-49).

With this 'new' perspective, I realised that by striving to uncover and understand the goals, as well as the beliefs and hopes etc of individual students, I might hope to better understand how individual students act upon opportunities afforded by their school. This also uncovered a new level of thought for me. From an ecological perspective, humans also form social groups which allows intentionality to be described at the group level. Certainly groups can have shared goals and beliefs for instance, which means that we can consider the influence of other individual and group intentionalities on any one individual's action

This way of thinking is very focused on individual students, how they are different and behave differently to other students around them. It is also focused on how these individuals behave in and perceive; the school, the classes, the materials, the teachers... In short how they interact with all of the components that go together to form the language course they sign up to.

Part 3: Complex Systems Theory

Complex systems theory aims to conceptualise systems, such as schools, in order to find a new perspective on phenomena which can not readily be explained by causal factors or existing thinking, such as student behaviour in a school.

Kostoulas and Stelma (2016) describe a system as “a collection of entities that exhibit certain behaviours on account of their system membership” (p.8). They further identify three characteristics of complex systems, firstly that the components are influenced by agents outside of the system boundaries, secondly that they allow for the emergence of unexpected patterns of behaviour, and finally that they often include or are nested within larger systems (p.9). A system can be loosely described by detailing its components, but can also be recognised by activity such as classes etc. 

On top of the obvious physical description including walls, rooms, chairs etc, a language school can be described as complex system composed of intentional agents including students, teachers and staff, as well as entities with embedded intentionality such as course materials and classrooms. The students are also influenced by external intentionality such as those inherent in family and peer expectations and are subject to social norms and national policy. As a complex system we need to keep in mind that emergent properties should be expected and that 'normal' routines and behaviours in a school, come about because of the interaction of all of the components of the system.

Complex systems are seen as resilient to change, but also dynamic, formed and shaped by activity, with both constraining influences of society and other external influences shaping the system AND ALSO leading to unplanned generation of new structures.

Part 4: Putting It All Together

As 'individual rational agents' students themselves can be conceptualised as complex systems in their own right. All individuals which participate in a school therefore bring their own complex psychology into the overall course system and their perceptions of, and behaviour within the system can be seen as a product of this 'coming together' or relationship. Each student therefore has some impact on the system and contributes to its development. Theoretically, this should hold true for both small scale interactions like conversations with other students, the development of any individual class and also on a larger scale through the emergence of normal routines and attitudes within the course which in turn impact how the course is developed over time.

I feel that this perspective could lead us to a better understanding of how and why a course/school runs in the way it does, how students contribute to the patterns of behaviour that emerge in a school and why, given our best efforts, some change is so difficult to affect within a school environment. These are some of the areas we'll cover in follow up blogs on this topic.

Check out the references below for more content on these ideas and thanks for reading!


Dennet, D. 1987. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dennet, D. 2009. Intentional Systems Theory. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Mind. Oxford Handbooks Online.

Kim, T,Y. 2006. Motivations and attitude toward foreign language learning as socio-politically mediated constructs: The case of Korean high school students. The Journal of Asia TEFL, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer. Pp.165-192.

Kostoulas, A., & Stelma, J. 2016. Intentionality and Complex Systems Theory: A New Direction for Language Learning Psychology. in New Directions in Language Learning Psychology, Second Language Learning and Teaching. pp7-23 Springer International Publishing Switzerland.

Searle, J.R, 1980. The Intentionality of Intention and Action. Cognitive Science, 4, p.47-70.

Stelma, J. 2011. An ecological model of developing researcher competence: The case of software technology in doctoral research. Instructional Science, 39(3), pp.367-385.

Stelma, J., Onat-Stelma, Z., Lee, W., & Kostoulas, A. 2015. Intentional Dynamics in TESOL: An Ecological Perspective. Teachers college, Columbia University Working Papers in TESOL & Applied Linguistics, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 14-32.

Young, M.F, DePalma, A., & Garrett, S. 2002. Situations, interaction, processes and affordances: An ecological psychology perspective. Instructional Science, 30, p.47-63.