IH Journal of Education and Development

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Student Motivation: The Key to Educational and Economic Reform in Saudi Arabia

by Sulaiman Jenkins

As a result of accumulating tremendous wealth from oil exports, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has been able to undergo massive development in infrastructure and in its economy. Moreover, government officials have been keen to use the country’s resources to maintain its development as they strive to be competitive in an international market. Saudi officials have understood that while oil has been the source of enormous wealth for decades, it is a finite source and in the future will not be able to maintain its position as the primary source of income. That said, members of the government have investigated other ways of diversifying its sources of national income and have quickly realized that, in order to do that, Saudi nationals themselves need to be invested in as the future producers of products and services that compete in a global market.

Most recently, King Abdullah has initiated a number of economic and educational reforms that he envisions will prepare today’s Saudis to be the national and global market leaders of tomorrow. Many supporters have welcomed the initiatives and have welcomed the government’s acknowledgement that quality education is the only true driving force that will sustain and develop the country and the economy. I think the equation is a logical one: qualified professionals that have been the product of a strong educational system will equal long-term economic stability. However, one factor of the equation that is critical but has been neglected heavily has been the issue of motivation and Saudi students. How effective will these reforms be, realistically, if certain negative attitudes to learning among students prevail? How easy will it be to get Saudi youth to attach value and importance to education?

These questions, among others, are going to be investigated in this short paper that calls for educators and administrators in Saudi and government officials alike to devote considerable efforts and resources to the root of a potentially very big obstacle to the country’s reform efforts: Saudi student motivation. The frame of reference in this paper is an EFL context because the English language is the linguistic key to unlocking many of the technological, medical, or business doors that are essential for development here in the Kingdom.

Ever since King Abdullah ascended the throne in 2005, he has been a king on a mission to transform KSA into a ‘knowledge based’ society. In a recent forum on building knowledge economies, ‘lack of knowledge’ was identified as the primary reason why business projects fail and that ‘innovation [was] the engine for economic growth in [a] knowledge economy’ (Al-Saadi, S., Ramkumar, K.S. 2008). At present, Saudi has formed a number of international business partnerships, which are designed to transfer practical knowledge about computer software development, aluminum smelting, and information technology, among other things, to the country (Cousins, 2007). The hope is that Saudis would be able to gain the knowledge, disseminate it, and reapply it across industries throughout the Kingdom. Sceptics are concerned that mere transfer of knowledge is not sufficient ‘without an educated work force to use and develop it further’ (Cousins, 2007).

A recent project, endorsed by King Abdullah, that will take a major step in not simply importing beneficial knowledge but actually in producing it is the KAUST project. KAUST, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, has been designed to be a top-notch research center in KSA. The SR10 billion university is set to open its doors in September 2009 and has been regarded as “a catalyst in transforming Saudi Arabia into a knowledge economy by directly integrating research produced at the university into [the] economy” (Wahab, 2007b). Another similar privately funded project is King Faisal University’s Preparatory Program (UPP) in Riyadh. Having opened its doors in September 2007, this new preparatory program “marks a radical departure from…traditional teaching methods that employ rote memorization…[and develops] student communication skills and problem-solving abilities [that] will motivate young Saudis to learn more and foster the curiosity that is at the heart of research – and progress” (Fatany, 2007).

All of these initiatives, whether international partnerships, KAUST, or the UPP embody one common goal: to transform Saudi Arabia into a knowledge economy based on the principles of a knowledge-based society which will ultimately lead to progress and prosperity for the nation. The King has provided the initiatives and has begun building the institutions that will help facilitate those initiatives. The question remains however, how willing, ready, and able are students to capitalize on these great opportunities provided to them? How successful will these initiatives be without the full participation of the most essential part of the process: the young Saudi student?

If I were to judge the potential efficacy of the initiatives based on the experiences I’ve had in my English classroom for the past four years here in Saudi, I would say it would take a long time before those initiatives came to any substantial and immediate fruition. Having taught a range of levels from the 1st grade level up to the college level, I have witnessed a common trend amongst many of my students: a lack of motivation. I find it strange that I would be experiencing this phenomenon as an English teacher simply because of the great value that KSA has attached to learning English; English is a well-sought commodity. It is the only widely spoken second language in the country and has been regarded as the key to the economic, medical, and technological body of knowledge that is necessary for development. In keeping with the self-determination theory, these perceptions of English suggest that there may be strong extrinsic motivational factors at play in learning the language (Brown, 2000). But does extrinsic motivation necessarily translate into success in the classroom? This is a critical question that needs to be understood in understanding the student motivation dynamic here in KSA.

Although the English language is held in high regard as an instrument of change and development in the country, that has not meant that students are any more compelled to attend more English classes, do extra English homework assignments, or participate more often in class using English. Doing the aforementioned would arguably contribute to greater (and quicker) proficiency in the language. However, this has not been the case. Many teachers at our college have complained of attendance issues (in spite of a very strict attendance policy), repeated failure on the part of students to complete assignments, continually missing deadlines, or failing the same course repeatedly. Curious to get a better understanding of the scope of the problems, I have also discussed the issues with many professionals across the country, and they have expressed dealing with many of the same issues, which leads me to believe that the problem of student motivation is quite possibly a national issue. However, more empirical research would be necessary to substantiate that claim further. If students here recognize the importance of English in their lives, then why aren’t the proper steps taken to assure that the language is acquired? Why aren’t the extrinsic motivational factors translating into student success in the classroom? Perhaps Jeremy Harmer (2001) offers some insight when he states:

“Most researchers and methodologists have come to the view that intrinsic motivation is especially important for encouraging success. Even where the original reason for taking up a language course, for example, is extrinsic, the chances of success will be greatly enhanced if the students come to love the learning process.” (p.51)

As he has mentioned, ‘extrinsic motivation’ is often times not sufficient, in and of itself, for the student to achieve in the classroom. In the case of Saudi students, the demand for English in the Kingdom is very high, as the language is perceived by many to be the golden key to opportunities; so, why does it seem as though a large number of students aren’t motivated to learn it? Although many students understand the importance of English in society, some have not developed the internal mechanisms that would help them achieve proficiency in the language. In this case, the ‘extrinsic motivators’ are not enough for motivating students to achieve in the classroom. Consequently, ‘intrinsic motivation’ might seem to be more durable and may yield consistent positive results from students.

Regarding the implications, if students are not internally motivated to exert the effort necessary to learn the language, how equipped will they be to function in labor markets where proficiency in the language is a must? How will precious information from the fields of medicine, technology, or business, which are central to many of King Abdullah’s initiatives, be transferred accurately and successfully? Without lighting the fire in students to want to learn and capitalize on the tremendous learning opportunities that will be available to them, these initiatives will not be able to realize the full potential or vision for which they were created. Therefore, I suggest tremendous focus needs to be placed on effective strategies to build and foster ‘intrinsic motivation’ in Saudi students so that the students become the full participants that are necessary to realize the goals of Saudi educational reforms.

What are the steps necessary to implement this strategy? Firstly, I would begin organizing meetings with school/college administrators and senior officials from the Ministry of Education/Higher Education to make the case that considerable efforts and resources need to be invested in building student motivation at the same time the government is designing these initiatives. A basic assessment (a variety of data collection methods may be used) of Saudi student motivation would then need to be made. Once patterns of weak intrinsic motivation amongst students emerged, the case could be made that the success of these reforms would be contingent on students’ ability and willingness to take advantage of them. The case can easily be made that if generally, at this point, motivation is not strong then the long-term success of these initiatives may be at risk. Frankly, the success of these initiatives is contingent upon students’ desire to learn and achieve.

After holding these initial meetings, a campaign to extensively train Saudi and non-Saudi educators in incorporating motivational strategies in the classroom would need to begin. For a contemporary discussion on motivational strategies from an ELT perspective, Saudi and non-Saudi educators might be interested in the works of Zoltan Dornyei to form the basis of these pre-service and in-service training programs. However, I think the Saudi Ministry of Education would do better to research general motivational strategies that stretch across disciplines and that are perhaps most culturally relevant: not necessarily just from an English language learning perspective. Once these training programs are in place, there would need to be periodic and systematic follow up to ensure that 1) the strategies are being implemented correctly in the classroom, and 2) where certain strategies may prove to be unbeneficial or impractical, other effective strategies are developed in accordance with students’ needs. In this way, consistency across the board is assured and administrators would be able to quickly identify any weaknesses and take the necessary steps to remedy them.

Essentially, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has done very well for itself to identify education as the most important driving force of development and in building a knowledge economy. These initiatives that have been created are representative of the high hopes, expectations, and vision that King Abdullah and his officials have for the Saudi population. In keeping with pragmatism and realism however, the most important factor in all of this cannot be overlooked. The long-term success of these initiatives can only be carried on the backs of a motivated student population.


Brown, H.D. (2000) Principles of language learning and teaching (4th ed.). Pearson Education Ltd.

Cousins, M. (2007) Education vital to sustain Kingdom ‘look East’ policy. Arab News. Retrieved December 18, 2007, from http://www.arabnews.com/?page=15&section=0&article=104646&d=23&m=5&y=2008

Fatany, S. (2007) Education reform is the pathway to the future. Arab News. Retrieved October 4, 2007, from http://www.arabnews.com/?page=7&section=0&article=101957&d=2&m=10&y=2007

Harmer, J. (2001) The practice of English language teaching (3rd ed.). Pearson Education Limited.

Wahab, S. (2007a) KAUST a dream come true: King. Arab News. Retrieved October 26, 2007, from http://www.arabnews.com/?page=1&section=0&article=102693&d=22&m=10&y=2007

Wahab, S. (2007b) ‘We want KAUST to reach MIT level’. Arab News. Retrieved October 28, 2007, from http://www.arabnews.com/?page=1&section=0&article=102682&d=21&m=10&y=2007

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