Motivating Online Students

Competence, relatedness, autonomy

What motivates students?

This question is particularly important to consider when facilitating an online course, as self-directed learning is key to student success in this format. According to Ryan and Deci (2000), motivated learners believe that they have the capability to succeed (competence), that what they gain from the experience will be relevant to their goals for growth (relatedness), and that they have the agency to make the learning “theirs” (autonomy). In her book Minds Online, Miller (2014) offers the following strategies for increasing the motivation of online learners:
Tips to increase competence: Students’ confidence increases, and the quality of their work improves, when they can practice and get feedback on all parts of an assignment before turning it in for a final grade. Consider scaffolding student work on an assignment by dividing it into phases (e.g., project brainstorming, project proposal, completed work). As an added benefit to students, have them post peer feedback on works-in-progress within an online discussion, composed in consultation with a rubric that guides students’ attention and improves the quality of feedback.
Tips to increase relatedness: Provide context and increase the personalization of the course by posting weekly announcements that share how the upcoming work connects with previous work and overarching course goals. Students’ prior discussions can provide insight into their perspectives, so consider referencing themes and ideas from those interactions in your announcement.
Tips to increase autonomy: Most online courses already provide students with lots of autonomy because they can choose where and, within assignment parameters, when they do the work. You can increase students’ perception of autonomy by providing a calendar of assignments and discussions, specifically noting when there are flexible windows of time for interacting within the course. This reinforces students’ awareness that they have both the autonomy and the responsibility to decide when they will get the work done.
Miller, M. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 
Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-beingAmerican Psychologist55(1), 68-78.