Motivation in Online Courses

  • Image by Kevin Spear


Image by Kevin Spear

There have been a variety of studies in recent years looking at student motivation in online courses. The primary challenge, most agree, is building a sense of community that engages students in the learning experience. As well, and equally important, are the delivery methods and the creativity of the instructor. As more and more students take classes on line, they become bored with the same old online text lectures, the stiff PowerPoints, and the “read-the-chapter-take-the-multiple-choice-quiz” assessment.

So how can an instructor get creative to motivate students in an online course? There’s lots of advice out there. “Experts” (meaning the students, usually, who take the courses) agree that if a professor puts in the extra energy to make the course creative and interesting (which is different from “fun”), student motivation to try hard, to learn the material, and to develop relationships within the class will increase.

First, let’s look at some of the ways NOT to motivate students in an online course. These are some of my major PET PEEVES:

1. Put up a text lecture that has problems with organization and spelling.

2. Post a 30-slide PowerPoint with no explanation or supporting information.

3. Never or rarely appear in the course to interact with students.

4. Give a multiple-choice quiz on the chapters, especially if it’s based on obscure and picky material.

5. Put discussion questions like, “What did you find interesting in the chapter?”

You know, I can read the textbook and do quizzes by myself. What I want in a course is to have the opportunity to experience and apply what I am learning. I want to be challenged, but in a way that requires me to “step up to the plate,” so to speak, and exhibit not only what I know (verbal information) but how I can creatively use what I’ve learned.

So here are some things I’ve experienced in online courses that have been exciting, invigorating, and motivating: 

  1. The professor makes a real effort to build a community. Having everyone create or post a little profile, talk about what their interests are, finding points of connection…these things made me feel like part of a purposeful group. The professor has a “presence” in the course and interacts frequently with students – prodding, questioning, engaging, supporting.
  2. Interesting presentation of content:
  • Yes, I can read the chapter. But then I’d like to reflect on it, discuss it with other students, and put the material to work in some way. An instructor can post thought-provoking discussion topics, things that don’t necessarily have one right answer, that students can wrestle with in order to get at the deeper issues than just the surface-level content.
  • Audio or video lectures instead of just a written lecture. Keep the lectures to the point, however, not droning on for endless PowerPoint slides. Video lectures are nice, because then the professor is a real person on screen.
  • Links to other related web-based resources that will enrich my experience of the content.
  • Make the materials printable so I don’t have to read everything onscreen.
  • Small goals before big goals (in other words, break up big concepts into manageable chunks).
  1. Creative assessments:
  • Projects that put the content into real contexts.
  • CHOICE of projects or activities that allow me to creatively demonstrate what I’m learning.
  • Papers and research are fine, but if I have to find and read scholarly articles, I prefer interpretation, critique, or analysis rather than just summaries.

It should never be assumed that all motivation is intrinsic or entirely the student’s responsibility. For an online course to be motivating, the instructor needs to be proactive to find ways that will engage students’ interest in the material.


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