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Attitude Plus Aptitude Will Determine Altitude
Motivating our students in an online environment

By Brooke Bennett / July 2014

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As educators, what can we do to help motivate our students? Are there certain activities and tactics we can build into our teaching design that cater to enhancing motivation? By looking at different theories of motivation and reviewing different activities that enhance motivation, we, as educators can determine better ways to serve our students in the online environment. Through our own behavior, course design, and teaching practices, we can create online classroom conditions that encourage engagement and motivation to learn on a variety of levels. We need to implement an array of strategies that can deeply stimulate and sustain students' motivation to learn in the online classroom and within the overall subject matter. Instructors can create many types of engaging material/experiences. Instructors can get students engaged in activities with interactive features that can offer instant feedback. It is easy for students to become overwhelmed and disoriented by all the information, tasks and chaos associated with online learning. We should create an environment that will decrease anxiety over learning new material and unfamiliarity with online learning. It is important to know how to use online resources to help make the most of students' education.

What is Motivation?

In order to know how to better motivate our students, we first need to understand motivation. In Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn, Raymond Wlodkowski writes: "Motivation is basic to our survival. It is the natural human process for directing energy to accomplish a goal. What makes motivation somewhat mysterious is that we cannot see it or touch it or precisely measure it. We have to infer it from what people say and do. We look for signs—effort, perseverance, completion-and we listen for words.…"[1].

Although motivation is an internal drive, it is influenced by outside factors, such as people, environment, communication, success, failure, fears and anxiety, etc. Educators can use this information to develop different ways to help motivate our students.

What are the Challenges?

There are many advantages to online classes that make learning more convenient for students. Online courses allow for a self-paced environment, therefore students can work, take care of a family, tackle everything that comes along with everyday life and get an education. Also, the Internet offers flexibility, interactivity and creativity. Even with all these advantages, online courses present special challenges and concerns when it comes to engaging and motivating our students.

Often faculty and students are only in contact over the Internet. This means educators cannot see nonverbal cues, which are sometimes indicators of disengagement, frustration, and unenthusiastic students [2]. It may be difficult for instructors to share emotion such as enthusiasm, encouragement, and concern. Because of the asynchronous and at times anonymous nature of online environments, students can become withdrawn, leading to minimal participation and/or disappearance from the course. Also generalizations of online courses support the notion that less work and time are required. Therefore some students may already feel disengaged.

However, there are other challenges and concerns [3] such as, difficulty finding the means to closing the social and psychological distance between instructors and students. Also, students need to possess specific characteristics in order to successfully complete an online course, such as effective time management, organization, self-discipline, self-assessment and reflection.

ARCS Model of Motivation

John Keller developed a four-factor theory to explain motivation—ARCS, which stands for attention, relevance, confidence, and satisfaction [4]. This model (see Table 1) can be used for both online and face-to-face learning, making it flexible and versatile. Attention is gained in two ways: perceptual arousal and inquiry arousal. Methods used to gain attention can include participation, variability in presenting material, humor, and inquiry.

Establishing relevance is also vital to the ARCS model. This can be done through the use of concrete examples. If you allow students to share their experiences and build upon their present skills, this shows worth and future usefulness of the material. Although educators can also pose as models, we can provide students with other models, such as online guests, who can share their experiences through posts or videos. It is important to offer choices whenever possible, allowing students to use different methods of pursing their work.

As educators, we also need to help build confidence in our students. We can do this in many ways, such as providing objectives, requirements, evaluation criteria, and prerequisites. Giving feedback and sharing the likelihood of success allows for small steps of growth, which students can attribute to their own abilities and efforts. Students will begin to see that success is a result of the amount of effort that is invested.

Students should feel a sense of satisfaction. If the learner outcome is consistent with expectations, students will feel relatively good about the outcomes, therefore remaining motivated. It is important to provide reinforcements in the form of extrinsic rewards, intrinsic reinforcement, and equity. As educators, we should encourage and support the intrinsic enjoyment of learning, give motivational feedback and maintain consistent standards for success. Students should be able to see how their new skills are useful and beneficial. It is equally important to provide opportunities to use new knowledge in "real" settings. Through understanding the model and tactics of ACRS, educators can better create an online environment where learning, engagement, and motivation become prevalent [5].

ARCS Model Components
Table 1. ARCS Model Components (Used with permission)
[click to enlarge]

What Can Educators Do?

There are several strategies to help encourage and motive eLearners. Debbie Morrison has created a blog dedicated to motivating students in online environments [6]. She has pinpointed several activities educators can initiate and undertake to keep students connected to not only the instructor and fellow students, but to the material they are learning as well.

It starts with educators providing regular, timely, and meaningful feedback-including constructive and personalized feedback. It is important for instructors to respond to students within 24 hours and create weekly messages to put on the home page, which can be in form of text or video. We should also encourage participation, which supports student collaboration. During challenging weeks, Morrison suggests providing additional resources. Educators should comment on discussion boards and note insightful comments made by students.

It is equally important for educators to understand how to adapt different technology tools, making for a positive learning experience and an environment in which students can thrive. According to Dennen and Bonk, some instructors may lack training on how to effectively use tools for motivating and engaging students online. In those situations instructors should focus on 10 key elements [7]:

  1. Set the tone/climate for the environment. Engage and interest learners at the beginning of the course, which leads to active participation throughout the semester.
  2. Monitor progress toward goals through feedback, which can lead to maintaining or improving quality of work.
  3. Keep students engaged and remember that "motivated learners are engaged learners."
  4. Provide material and activities that are meaningful, authentic, and relevant.
  5. It is important to give students a choice when possible. For example, allow students to choose topics for projects that connect the content of the course to their outside interests. This allows students to feel in control over their learning.
  6. Do not rely on the same activities each semester. This keeps learners alert and attentive through variety.
  7. Instructors should allow students to explore topics that are not originally expressed, exploring their curiosity.
  8. During participation, allow for "fruitful learning discussions."
  9. Peer interaction is a tactic that keeps students from feeling isolated or dropping the course.
  10. Lastly, goals should be presented and valued within the course structure.

There are many activities that fall under the 10 key elements for motivating and encouraging students in an online environment; Table 2 shows some examples.

Motivational elements addressed by different online activities
Table 2. Motivational elements addressed by different online activities (Reprinted by permission of the publisher).
[click to enlarge]

Educators have a lot to do with students' motivation level: teacher's behavior, teaching style, structure of the course, nature of assignments, and interactions are all influential. Therefore, it is important for the instructor to behave in certain ways in order to motivate students-starting with setting expectations, encouraging communication, and offering assessments [2]. For example, choose posts and wordings that reach out to students. Instead of posting, "Let me know if you've got questions," try "I'm happy to help with your questions. It's best if you can touch base well before the deadline so we can sort through any questions before the weekend." Help build community by creating a "Tips & Tricks" thread. This allows students to share suggestions with classmates. Be open to different ways of communication, such as Skype, iChat, instant messaging, phone calls, and email. Ask students to post a picture of themselves along with an introduction, instructors should do the same. Instead of written feedback, try video or audio feedback. Jing is a simple, free online program that can be used for "screencasts."

Students are all motivated by different things such as internal motivation, inspiration, challenges, and stimulation. All students have different wishes, principles, and desires. It is suggested that educators should communicate personal interest in students, calling students by name and initiating conversations. It is also good practice to create an environment that "welcomes the successes and accepts the stumbles and failures that accompany learning" [8]. This makes students feel they are a valued part of the learning community. Educators should also share their enthusiasm with students; hold realistic, yet challenging expectations; and build on students' strengths and weaknesses. Instructors should put emphasis on intrinsic rewards, such as mastery, self-expression, personal growth, and meaningful discovery. It is important to have good everyday teaching practices rather than trying to directly affect motivation.


There is no single formula for motivating students. There are many factors, internal and external, that affect students' ability to study and learn. Davis reminds us that "not all students are motivated by the same values, needs, desires, or wants" [8]. We need to keep in mind that unmotivated students are not engaged; they are not mentally and emotionally invested in the learning process. Therefore it is vital for educators to understand the complexities of motivation. This understanding can enhance our efforts to create environments and conditions that can boost students' eagerness to learn [9].

As instructors, we need to construct a learning environment that targets and caters to our students. Through interactive activities, support, and understanding, we can help motivate our students. Considering the flexibility the Internet has to offer, instructors have many tactics, tricks, and tips to get the ball rolling. As online education expands, our tactics need to expand with it.


[1] Wlodkowski, R. Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn (3rd ed.). Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2008.

[2] Cull, S., Reed, D. and Kirk, K. Student motivation and engagement in online courses. On the Cutting Edge. National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT). 2010.

[3] Dennis, K., Bunkowski, L. and Eskey, M. The little engine that could-How to start the motor? Motivating the online student. Student Motivation 2 (2007), 37-49.

[4] Keller, J. M. Motivational design of instruction. In Instructional Design Theories and Models: An overview of their current status, edited by C. M. Reigeluth. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ, 1983.

[5] Kas307. ARCS model components table. 2012. Retrieved from .

[6] Morrison, D. How to motivate students in the online learning environment. online learning insights. Aug. 31, 2012.

[7]Dennen, V. and Bonk, C. We'll leave the light on for you: Keeping learners motivated in online courses. In Flexible Learning in an Information Society, edited by B. Khan. IGI Global, Hershey, PA, 2010, 64-76. doi:10.4018/978-1-59904-325-8.ch006.

[8] Davis, B. Tools for Teaching (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2009.

[9] Barkley, E. Student Engagement Techniques: A handbook for college faculty. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2010.

About the Author

Brooke Bennett is a recent graduate from the University of Southern Maine. She received a master's of science in adult and higher education. She became interested in this topic as she was completing an entirely online program. She wanted to find effective ways to help motivate students in an online setting. In preparation for teaching online and face-to-face classes, she plans to continue doing research on this and many other topics.

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