One of the challenges online learners face is sustaining motivation over the duration of a course. In face-to-face classrooms, teachers can personalize motivational strategies to meet the needs of individual students, and the social presence of teachers and fellow learners provides its own motivational incentives. Online students, however, need to internalize motivational strategies that actively remind them of not only what they need to do to meet the course expectations but also why they are taking the course in the first place.
Studies demonstrate the motivational power of setting goals (Hendel, 2017; Schunk, 2001) and writing them down and keeping track of them (Matthews, 2015). When students identify specific personal or professional goals that have led them to enroll in a particular course, these goals can help provide a motivational framework that will support them through the challenges the coursework presents. The motivational potential of goal-setting is further enhanced when students are encouraged to write their goals down, share them with their classmates and instructor, and reflect at regular intervals on their progress toward them (Locke & Latham, 2006). While online classes may not allow for the face-to-face contact that motivates many on-ground students, the discussion board features in online learning platforms are ideal forums for students to articulate their goals in writing, compare them with their classmates’ goals, and reflect on their progress in meeting them.
I build goal-setting into the curriculum of the online courses I teach and design as a way of clarifying each student’s personal “stake” in the class. Over the course of a semester, I embed three goal-oriented discussion thread questions designed to (1) activate the students’ self-conscious awareness of their learning goals, (2) facilitate midsemester reflection on these goals, and (3) provide students at the end of the class with an opportunity to assess the extent to which they have progressed toward their goals. This sustained emphasis on students’ personal goals serves as a reminder that the content and coursework associated with the class all serve a “higher purpose” and that, by fulfilling the course requirements, they are also moving toward fulfilling their own personal life projects.
In the first week of class I invite students to introduce themselves by describing the goals they hope to achieve in the course. I encourage them to identify specific skills or bodies of information that they would like to master. Some students define their goals narrowly—they want to learn how to write stronger paragraphs or learn more about a certain topic—while other students identify goals that are personal or even spiritual. I try to make room for a diversity of goals, but I use the discussion board to (1) encourage students to craft goal statements that are specific and realistic and (2) explain how the assignments in the class will help them advance toward their goals. Discussing these goals on the discussion board allows students to respond to one another’s goals, which they typically do with supportive enthusiasm, borrowing goals from one another, comparing goals, and providing practical ideas to one another about strategies for achieving them. The students’ responses to one another’s goals establish a shared ethos of collective effort, contributing to a richly interpersonal learning environment.
Near the course’s midpoint and sometimes as part of a midterm assignment, I ask students to recall the goals they articulated in the first week and to comment on whether or not they feel that they are making progress toward them. When students report that they don’t feel they are meeting their goals, it can be a chance to evaluate whether the problem lies in the goals or in the students’ approach to the coursework. By contrast, when students report that they are making progress toward their goals, it is an opportunity to celebrate their success and inspire them to continue their efforts. Often students will reassess their goals in light of what they experienced during the first half of the semester, and this evolution of their goals is itself important evidence of genuine learning.
In the final week of class, I use the discussion board to invite the students to return once again to the goals they wrote about in week one. This discussion provides a valuable opportunity for students to look back on the entire arc of the course and to evaluate their experience in reference to their initial goals. I ask them to think about how they can continue using what they’ve learned in the course as the foundation for articulating and advancing toward new and more ambitious goals. As a bonus, these conversations regularly give me valuable insight into which elements of the course spark student achievement and which elements of the class might be falling flat. These insights serve as regular reminders of my ongoing goal to facilitate an online learning environment that is engaging, responsive, and impactful.
A similar, motivation-oriented sequence of assignments can be unobtrusively incorporated into just about any online course in any discipline. Students who remain mindful of their personal and professional goals are more likely to keep up with their coursework and to sustain a clear sense of purpose as they do so.
Hendel, R. J. (2017). Supporting multiple modalities and universal design in learning with goal-setting. Journal of Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics, 15(6), 25–30. Retrieved from http://www.iiisci.org/journal/CV$/sci/pdfs/IP029LL17.pdf
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New directions in goal-setting theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265–268. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00449.x
Matthews, G. (2015). The effectiveness of four coaching techniques in enhancing goal achievement: Writing goals, formulating action steps, making a commitment, and accountability. In G. T. Papanikos (Ed.), Psychology abstracts: Ninth annual international conference on psychology (p. 41). Athens, Greece: Athens Institute for Education and Research. Retrieved from https://www.atiner.gr/abstracts/2015ABST-PSY.pdf
Schunk, D. H. (2001). Self-regulation through goal-setting. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED462671.pdf
Randy Laist, PhD, is a professor of English at Goodwin College.