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How to motivate your students

By Errol Craig Sull / April 2008

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We as educators, of course, are looking for students to take an immediate interest in what we are teaching; we want students to absorb what we teach and have our efforts last far beyond a final grade. In the ideal world of online learning, all students are motivated-each is excited, enthusiastic, and focused on the class material, your every announcement and postings, and all feedback and discussion with other students. But the reality of distance learning is that this rarely, if ever, happens across the board. You will, in fact, always find one or more students whose motivation is just lacking. Without motivation in an online class that student will do poorly, and you'll feel pretty bad about it as well.

You can't be a cheerleader every moment, but you can present your course so that the material becomes understandable, real, and exciting! Once this happens, students will suddenly take notice because they have discovered that the subject of your course talks to and about them.

Here's how:

Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm. If you are ho-hum and lackadaisical about your course, expect the same from your students. They internalize and project the emotions you put out, and the more "into" the course you are, the more excited the students will become. Unlike a brick-and-mortar school where students have the physical presence of the instructor to help lead the class, here all you have is the written word to enthuse, arouse, and motivate the students' involvement in your course. Don't neglect choosing your words carefully, remember exclamation marks indicate a great energy behind those words (But be forewarned, use an exclamation mark at the end of every sentence and it will quickly lose its vibrancy).

Be honest. Sure it seems obvious, but in an online class where students depend almost wholly on the written word many instructors rationalize that what the students can't see or don't know won't hurt them. Perhaps not on a personal level, but in terms of motivation and their rapport with you it can hurt quite a bit. Recently, I slipped on some ice in my backyard and broke three ribs. The first three days of dealing with this made using a computer nearly impossible. But I couldn't just disappear for three or more days; just like my students, my motivational efforts must also be constant. So I typed a very brief note to the class, letting them know what happened and why I'd be absent for a few days. That little bit of honesty was all it took to keep the students active in my class. Things happen we don't anticipate, by keeping your students informed you prevent their motivation from fading.

Always address students by name when sending individualized emails and feedback. Your student looks at a computer screen, sees a course layout, knows there are several others students in the course, has class materials, and skims your bio, but no link yet exists between you and the student to help build a bridge between the two of you-a bridge that is crucial in fostering that student's motivation. One simple and surefire way to do this is to always mention the student by name each time you send him or her any individualized materials. The student knows you are speaking to or teaching him or her, not the rest of the class. We all want to feel wanted, and this is especially true in an online course: Using the student's name will go a long way in making that student feel connected. P.S. always respond to students' emails and postings in a timely manner, ideally within 24 hours.

Don't hesitate to reach out to students with whom there is a motivation problem.You may find a student who has a real problem getting involved in your course. The reasons could range from anxiety over taking an online course to a personal problem to not having the course material to feeling underprepared-there are many. Most times the students will drop you a line about this, be sure to respond immediately. But if the student does not write you, initiate the conversation. Knowing that you are genuinely concerned can go a long way in raising that student's motivational level. (Phone calls are helpful, but the more you can document your correspondence with a student, the better for you.)

Prior to starting your course, gather as many examples as possible of how daily life is affected by the subject with which your students can relate. Because it is your field, you will know where to begin. But also go beyond what you know, and look especially into areas of life in which your students may be involved. For example, I often use the lyrics of current rap and other popular songs, language from ads (touting products that I know my students buy), and typos or poor writing samples that I find in the magazines that they read to highlight the importance of good, effective writing. This makes an immediate impact, my students can identify with these real-life illustrations of writing better than me merely talking about the art of writing without making any personal connection to them.

Immediately get your students involved by asking them to send you examples or situations where their lives or others' lives were, or could be, affected by the subject. This activity helps with student ownership of the course material, which is so important in learning. First, they are sharing with you what it will be impossible for you to know otherwise-how each student can relate best to your subject. This personalizes the experience for everyone. Second, by doing this each student has created just a bit more ownership in the course.

Send the students fillers from various subject-related journals, websites, newsletters, etc. to add some fizz to their interest. We've all seen them in our professional publications, taking up just a few lines. They hold our attention for a bit and then we move on, but these "lite bites" of subject-related material are refreshing. Collect them and throughout the length of course occasionally send them to your students. It's just another way of showing the not-so-lofty side of what otherwise is a very serious subject, and you can teach while reinforcing your subject matter.

Offer your students a challenge or puzzle that involves the course material. This could be something you found from another source (colleague, book, Internet, etc.) or that you develop. Whatever you choose, it should force your students to take a subject that was not initially connected to them-at least not in a personal sense-and use their own skills, interests, and experience to solve the puzzle or meet the challenge. It becomes fun; the students are learning and they are motivated.

Give a "casting call" for all websites, great and small, related to the topic. This is a favorite of mine! At least once per course, I'll ask my students to send me X number of websites related to a specific aspect of writing, to locate websites on writing from other colleges, or to find general websites that focus on improving one's writing. These are made into a master list, and then distributed to all of the students. They truly appreciate this group effort, as it gives them additional resources to help their writing. Try this with your students; both you and they will be surprised by the number of good websites "discovered!"

Have your students create a fictitious scenario that uses some real aspect(s) of your course's subject. Again, this is a great way to have students personalize the course material, gain more ownership in the course, and have some fun! In fact, I have had so many really imaginative and effective scenarios developed by students that I've made them into a master "Writing Class Scenarios" document that I distribute to all my students. This serves not only as interesting and fun reading, but also as additional examples of good writing.

Search out professional chat rooms and websites with folks who teach what you do to exchange ideas. No doubt you know of at least one; ask visitors for their most creative and interesting approaches, activities, and strategies for teaching. You'll be surprised at how willing others are to share, and how much more information you will acquire, and how many more resources you will gain when you leave!

As you come across jokes, anecdotes, and cartoons related to the course material, sprinkle them throughout the length of the course. These are meant to do one thing: Give your students a bit of a chuckle. Not only does this allow for a much more casual and open-and sometimes fun-learning environment, but scattering these about on occasion also humanizes you a bit more, something that is very important to anyone who teaches online.

Be always on the lookout for news items that somehow relate to your class and share them with your students. Don't merely rest on what has appeared and happened. Be ever watchful for that which is happening: a piece in today's news, a TV show or movie soon debuting, a major event being planned, etc. If there is any hint of your subject in something like this, point it out to your students. Our world is always changing and you want your students to know that what they are learning is something very much alive, very much in use today. Today's online course can make use of streaming video and audio files, as well as text, so don't hesitate to use all.

Continue to build up an organized resource center. I have hundreds of these now, and they save me a good deal of time in wanting to get this or that point across to my students. Use whatever methods are best for you, but do build up a resource center that is easy for you to draw on-your class will learn so much more easily, they'll keep learning beyond the end of class, and you'll find yourself more enthusiastic about teaching.


Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online for 13 years. He is the 2005 recipient of the "Dell College Teacher of Excellence," writes a column on distance learning for USA Today, has four published books, and has developed a series of online teaching activities (Pebbles) in use at 350-plus colleges. Previously, he was cultural editor of Southern Living magazine and assistant editor at the National Enquirer. He can be reached at [email protected].

©2008 ACM  08/0400

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