How to stay motivated during the pandemic: What you told us, and why it matters


By Dr Heike Krüsemann


Motivation for language learning has changed during the pandemic – mainly because a lot of it has moved online. But how do students feel about the changes – and what is motivation anyway?

There are about as many definitions of motivation as there are English language learners. However, whatever way you look at it, there are certain key elements that make people engage in motivated behaviour – whether it is learning a language, or even getting out of bed in the morning.

The best conditions for learning English are fulfilled when we feel competent, autonomous, and connected with others. It also helps if we feel that what we’re learning is relevant to us personally, we’re curious about finding out more, and most of all: we enjoy what we’re doing.

For many learners and teachers, the global pandemic has meant a shift from face-to-face to online learning. We at the Cambridge Dictionary asked English language learners from all around the world what effect the new ways of learning have had on their motivation, and more than one thousand of you got back to us.

Together with time management and communication, learners felt that keeping up their motivation under the new conditions was among their top three challenges. Rather unsurprisingly, they found speaking by far the hardest skill to practise at home.

But it’s not all bad news! Although students were less motivated than before the pandemic, most of them felt their motivation had only dropped by ‘a little’. They appreciated being able to study when they wanted to, and having access to a wide range of resources from the internet. This ties in with the theory of the motivating effects of a sense of autonomy (making choices about your own learning) and relevance (the perceived usefulness of what you study).

Students liked activities which gave them instant feedback on tasks, since this allowed them to see their results and progress more clearly than they were able to previously. This aligns with our inbuilt need to feel competent at what we’re doing, or at least to feel that we’re getting somewhere.

A popular video-sharing website and an online conferencing platform were the most commonly used online tools, and the most helpful ones for learners. Unlike video-sharing sites, conferencing platforms  are content-free – they are purely digital tools that allow learners and teachers to meet and interact online. The fact that learners rate a content-free conferencing tool so highly supports the idea that connection with others is helpful for staying motivated. 

So if you feel your motivation levels are dropping when learning remotely, what should you do?

  • Use the insights from motivation theory as well as the very good and practical advice from our survey participants.
  • In choosing your platforms and materials, be guided by your natural interest and curiosity, making sure that what you’re learning is actually useful to you.
  • Structure your learning, setting yourself small and achievable goals, so that you feel a sense of satisfaction and progress (and hopefully a desire to go on!) when you’ve ticked them off your list.
  • Don’t forget, you’re in charge! You choose when, where, and even what you’re learning, exercising agency and control.
  • Don’t struggle on your own – connect with your friends and your teacher for some support as well as for some much-needed laughs.
  • Pick activities and content you enjoy – this may include playing games, but not necessarily so: in our survey the motivating effects of games and competitions declined with age.
  • You know yourself best, so you do you, and most of all: enjoy! 

11 thoughts on “How to stay motivated during the pandemic: What you told us, and why it matters

  1. Maryem Salama

    I am motivated by something which I don’t know precisely. Although I am a teacher, not a student, I act as if I have a series of urgent examinations, and I have to be ready at any time. What is it? Is it a fear of being a teacher under the level? Is it an ambition looking forward to having the level of a competent? Is it a wish that works as a flame keeps my motivation ignited? I don’t know. I work hard, and fast as if I have a race with time and a date with a position or a task demands me to be an excellent user of the language. I am a teacher of English. But out of the class, I am only a lifelong learner of the language. For me, that is enough enthusiasm, which makes the learner inside me devoted to this goal.

  2. Lucas Thamsanqa Somtseu

    I am impressed with the three factors constituting sources of motivation to an individual namely, competency, autonomy and connection. To me these are non financial and intrinsic factors of motivation , which should usher us into a mode of performance which exceeds our own expectations.

  3. Oscar Ibarra

    I just want to say that I found your article very helpful and worth giving it a shot when I have the chance to go back to teaching here in Nicaragua.

  4. asif

    i am interested to learn english but no body help me because i am fresh and i have no capacity to spoke english frequently. please i need yor support .

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