Helping Students Stay Motivated in Online Courses

One of the realities of teaching online is that students have to be highly motivated to succeed. Drop-out rates at public colleges are an injustice that reflects broader inequities in American society, but they are even higher in online programs.  What that means for Fall 2020, when many otherwise traditional students will be online students, is unclear, especially given the likelihood that COVID will remain a significant public health threat.

How can we keep students motivated to learn and to complete their courses (if doing so is the best choice for them–which we aren’t able to decide for them)?k

We can begin by recognizing that a connection to a physical campus keeps many students engaged in their classes, and with that connection gone, motivation can dry up. This may be especially true for students who were motivated to attend college for family, social, or athletic reasons. People select their colleges for all kinds of reasons other than their classes–like the fact that their parents attended there or their high school boyfriend or girlfriend goes there, they like fraternity and sorority options, or they were recruited to play a sport. When those social connections dry up–or when there is no more basketball season and it’s not clear how recruitment to play professional sports is going to play out–then motivation can sink.

Don’t take this personally, but do recognize its importance in the lives of students. While academics often choose to move from place to place, far from family and important friendships, in pursuit of a life of the mind, most students don’t. Sure, they attend a college that offers their major (or they pick a major from among those offered at the college they choose) and they may feel very connected to their professors, but if their primary connection to school is other people or activities other than classes, that’s okay too. We can’t meet them where they are if they don’t recognize their motivations, whether they were ours as undergraduates or not.

Even so, we can do a lot to help students find motivation. Here are some ways:

Get attention. Bring in concrete examples–or, rather, digitized ones. Begin lessons with an object, pop culture or historical example, counterfactual, or humorous example.

Arouse interest. Challenging questions, authentic problems, and engaging puzzles abound! You’re probably already good at being interested. You might have a hundred ideas you’d like to explore in your own work. Maybe you bookmark more conference presentations in the program than you can attend. Maybe you have to set Marie Kondo-like limits on your scholarly project: you can’t take on another one until the current one is out the door. Point is, you are good at being interested, which is exactly what you want for your students. Model that for students by showing enthusiasm in lectures (Yes, this is performative! As is all of teaching! It doesn’t make you a dancing monkey.). Ask fruitful questions. Push students to say more. (Yes, they will say a lot of filler to get to something good, but that’s how we all get to good ideas–but drafting through the obvious ones.) Engage them; more importantly, teach them to engage each other.

Connect what students are learning to what is relevant to them. I do NOT mean “job readiness,” though in some cases (like an internship), that might be appropriate. I mean that you help students identify what they value and help them see how what they are accomplishing in the course allows them to grow in the direction of what they value. We learn for all kinds of reasons: to experience pleasure, to build stamina, to solve a problem, to develop a skill, to insert ourselves into a history, to make our parents proud. This is true in any course. Be explicit when you are teaching something immediately helpful or that will be helpful in the future. (My last unit in Intro to Soc is on gender, and I do a mini-lecture on the division of labor in heterosexual relationships that I tell students may save some of their relationships. And I regularly get feedback from men who go home, apply what they learned, and report back that their relationships are already improving. Yes, the link can be that practical, fast, and beneficial.)

Help students identify that for themselves through self-reflective assignments and meta-assignments in which they comment on their own learning. Even the common first discussion post question “Introduce yourself and tell us why you are here and what you hope to get out of this class” begins that work. Later, questions like, “What was one thing you learned in this class that will make you a better learner, professional, friend, family member, or community member?” or “What is one text you engaged in this class that helped you change your mind about something?” keep them thinking about why they are learning.  Give them options of assignments so that they can choose which ones align with their values.

Build confidence through success. Frequent feedback is necessary in online courses since students don’t have the opportunity to receive feedback in the moment of engagement. A significant portion of this feedback should be positive, which is one reason to make it low-stakes. Encourage, encourage, encourage! Again, ample options allow students to choose how they will be successful. Avoid assigning topics for papers, for example, and instead work with students to identify topics they care about (are relevant to them) so that when they are successful, the success is theirs–not merely a measure of how well they answered your question of them but how well they posed and answered their own questions. In the process, you teach them how to arouse their own interests!

Use external rewards to help students achieve satisfaction. After each major assignment, send an individual email to the top performers to tell them what a great job they did. If someone made a big jump in their performance–say, earning a C on the first exam and an A on the second–tell them you noticed. In each module, select one discussion board post that was outstanding and say so. My friend Kevin gives a “Curious Student” award in his F2F classes. Even if you don’t go that far, tell students you see them succeeding. And give them opportunities for others to reward them, too. Consider how gamifying your classroom or online exercises that are autoscored can motivate students to practice skills that might need repeated practice before they are mastered.

When students succeed in connecting their work to what they value, then will experience intrinsic satisfactory, something we can’t create but we can promote by helping them identify why they want to learn and recognizing what is required of them to be successful at it.

These are just some of the ways that educational and psychological theories on motivation (in this case, John Keller’s work on motivation) can inform how we teach.

Joy of Life (Bonheur de Vivre), 1905 by Henri Matisse

Above, Henri Matisse’s Joy of Life (1905) shows more than a dozen people enjoying life. The figures are all nude, many of them laying down on the bright yellow grass. Two seem to play a flute-like instruments. Others embrace. One stands tall, stretching. In the background, five dance in a circle. Pleasure and joy are expressed in the bright colors. May your own students learn for the love of it!

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