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10 Ways to Motivate and Engage Your Online Learners

Teaching Strategies and Techniques

10 Ways to Motivate and Engage Your Online Learners

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Motivation and engagement play a central role in student success and satisfaction. However, the online learning environment poses special challenges. Without proper course design and facilitation it's all too easy for online learners to feel isolated, bored, and unengaged with the materials. The following are motivation and engagement strategies that Paul Beaudoin, assistant humanities professor at Fitchburg State University, has found to be effective in the award-winning online courses he teaches.

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Motivation and engagement play a central role in student success and satisfaction. However, the online learning environment poses special challenges. Without proper course design and facilitation it's all too easy for online learners to feel isolated, bored, and unengaged with the materials. The following are motivation and engagement strategies that Paul Beaudoin, assistant humanities professor at Fitchburg State University, has found to be effective in the award-winning online courses he teaches:

  • Instructor participation—“If you do only one thing, participate in your classes,” Beaudoin advises. “Make sure your students know you're there in the course with them by participating with them in their learning.”

    Effective instructor participation includes responding promptly to students' questions or emails. “When students email me, it's like they are raising their hand in class. They want to be noticed as soon as possible. I make sure that even if I can't immediately answer their email, I can let them know that I've read it and will get back to them within 24 hours,” Beaudoin says. “An effective instructor will acknowledge when learners are doing well and not so well. An email applauding an excellent grade or an email to another who may not be achieving as much as he or she should” will go a long way toward personalizing the online learning environment.

    Beaudoin suggests reading as many discussion board posts as you can and responding to them in a timely manner. “When students know you are actively participating in the class, they are more likely to take responsibility for how they contribute to the online class. When I reply, I always start with the name of the student and then follow through with a comment that directly reflects the student's post. For example, I might write ‘Rhonda, I read your post today on … and I don't agree with …' or ‘Elaine, your post on … was well thought out and organized, and you articulated a really important point ….' These kinds of posts change the dynamic I have with my learners, and they stand as examples of good responses in a discussion board. It will encourage your learners to think more reflectively about what they will post. Isn't that a win-win?”
  • How-to video—For many students, the online learning environment may be completely new.To help orient students to the design and expectations of his courses, Beaudoin includes a 12-minute video tutorial that explains the layout and function of the course. After the video, students take a short quiz to check that they have viewed the video and understand what to expect in the course.
  • Vary the learning experience—A course that follows the same pattern—read this chapter, answer these questions—module after module can be a major motivation killer. “Students always know what to expect. They can actually come to dread it as much as one would dread a monotone lecture,” Beaudoin says. “I try to create learning modules that encompass all kinds of learning materials—readings, lectures, activities, games. I mix it up so that students don't become uninterested.”
  • Course map—Although Beaudoin likes to vary the learning experience, he designs his courses so that the module content is arranged in a clear and logical order. He then creates a course map to help students navigate the course. The course map is a downloadable PDF document that provides a complete list of elements within each module. It outlines how long each lecture is, what the learning objective for that module is, whether there are readings or additional media, what the discussion board topic will be, and whether the module contains activities or a quiz. Students are given an area to check off the materials they have completed for each module, allowing them to visualize the progress they are making through the course.
  • Icebreakers—Like many instructors, Beaudoin uses icebreakers to encourage students to connect with each other by sharing their interests, major, year in school, etc. In addition, he has students visit each other's pages within Blackboard and post messages to make connections. Because he teaches music and art classes, he has created the “Museum of Me” icebreaker—where students create a “museum” of the things that are important to them in their own lives, be it family, friends, hobbies, work, education, etc. Students are required to visit at least three other museums with the hope of finding others in the class with similar interests—but most students visit all the other museums in the class. “Not only am I introducing them to the concept of the class [an appreciation for the art and music of years past] but I'm getting them to think about their own lives and those of their colleagues. The kinds of bonds that are made between the learners in my class are genuine and often continue well past the end of the semester. That bond helps students feel less isolated and more responsible for the kinds of learning taking place in the online environment.”
  • Incentives—To help learners meet goals and deadlines, Beaudoin creates incentives that motivate students. For example, he creates a checklist for the materials that students need to complete before midterm. “If they are able to check off all the items on the checklist by a specific deadline, I'll give them an extra 10 points. It's a feel-good, positive reinforcement measure. The extra 10 points don't really change their grades, but it gets them thinking ‘I can get 10 extra points if I can do this by this particular time,' and that motivates them,” Beaudoin says.
  • Games—Activities such as digital scavenger hunts, crossword puzzles, and word searches can motivate students. “I want my students to realize the devices they use to connect to the Internet are really powerful. I'll divide my class into smaller groups and have them do scavenger hunts to find materials they are actually going to be working with later in the course. The winning group gets bonus points and recognition on the course home page,” Beaudoin says. Word searches and crossword puzzles help learners memorize new vocabulary or important concepts. Students are given bonus points when they complete the activities successfully.

    With the permission of the winning group, Beaudoin creates a “Wall of Achievement” on the course announcements page, listing the students who have achieved the most success with any incentive. He has noticed that “learners will work very hard to get their names on that wall, and that kind of ‘public' recognition goes a long way toward motivation and engagement.”
  • Surveys—Halfway through his courses, Beaudoin creates an anonymous survey, asking students for feedback (e.g., The professor is responsive to my emails), prompting self-reflection (e.g., I want to learn more about …), and including “just for fun” social questions (e.g., If you could have dinner with a famous person, who would it be, and why?). The survey is his opportunity to adjust the course and address the needs of the learners. “Each course is a unique group of learners with different experiences, learning backgrounds, and abilities. The midpoint survey allows me to take an anonymous picture of that group and adjust my strategies as necessary.And don't be surprised when your learners are honest and forthcoming about what is and isn't working right for them.”
  • Newsletters—“I can send my learners an email, but graphically it isn't engaging, and they're likely not going to read (or pay attention) to the whole thing.”He was inspired when he received one of those “family Christmas newsletters” thatdespite all his misgivings he was compelled to read all the way through. “I realized I could harness that by creating a newsletter for my class.” He creates and sends out newsletters twice in each of his online courses—at midterm and just before the final. By using graphics and humor to convey information that is important at these times, he greatly improves the effectiveness of the message. For example, a two-page newsletter before the final features a photo of a worried-looking young man holding a sign that reads “The end is near,” a calendar with a circled date indicating the final due date, an announcement for the end-of-course survey, an invitation to check grades, and a news item that relates to the course content. The newsletter will always include the email contact information for him as well—reminding students yet again that he is always available to them.
  • Relevance—Beaudoin makes it a point to demonstrate how the course material relates to students' lives, professions, and educational goals. This is particularly important when students are taking the course because it's a requirement and not necessarily something they would be interested in taking.

    Introducing concepts by using examples students can relate to is a great way to engage them. “Imagine your favorite sports team is having a winning streak. Just how probable is it that the winning streak will continue? That's a great way for a statistics class to begin. Or imagine that the best baseball batting average at the moment is about a .350. I ask my students how they would feel if their favorite performer hit only 35 percent of the notes. By connecting the course materials to current events, I take a subject that learners might not be so interested in and get them thinking about it. If I can find a way to create relevancy to students' lives, I can open a door to a new world, even if just a crack,” Beaudoin says.

Beaudoin admits that “it's an exciting time to be in education—the world is open and anyone can learn anything, anyplace, anytime.” However, that sea of openness can be a challenge for the student sitting in front of the computer feeling there is nowhere to turn. These 10 tips for motivating and engaging your online learners is a starting place for you to think about the kinds of needs your learners have and an encouragement to think creatively about addressing them.