Are your students performing their very best in your class and completing all learning activities on time? Do they always want to be involved in class discussions, eager to be part of the conversations, while demonstrating what they have learned from the assigned reading? Or do you have a typical mix of students, with some who excel, and other who struggle to stay motivated and involved in the class?
For a traditional class, student motivation can be observed. In contrast, online instructors must watch for a different set of cues and develop conditions within a learning management system which are conducive to learning. There is a belief among some educators it is not possible to help students that you cannot see, especially with a quality such as motivation which cannot be visually assessed in a virtual environment. But a student's level of motivation will influence all aspects of their involvement, from their engagement in the class to their participation in discussions and completion of learning activities such as written assignments.
With the many demands made of an online instructor it is possible classroom management can become the primary focus and it consists of tasks such as participation, feedback, acquiring class materials, and developing class lectures or posts. It can then become fairly easy to miss a student who is gradually disengaging from class until it is too late. This includes spotting a student who is lacking a sense of self-motivation or does not know how to sustain it when they are feeling discouraged, frustrated, or challenged.
While students are expected to be self-directed by nature as adults, it doesn't mean they are equipped to meet the many demands expected of them as a student. This is the reason why an instructor must be prepared to identify their needs and have motivational strategies ready to assist them.
It is possible for an instructor to gauge the level of involvement of their students in a class by the number of times they have posted responses in the discussion threads and the perceived amount of effort that is put into their written assignments. But that doesn't necessarily mean it is possible to accurately gauge how motivated the students are when an attempt of some kind is being made to complete their work.
The reason why is that motivation is an internalized state and challenges are acknowledged through statements such as "I'm not certain I can do this" or "this is too hard" or "this isn't what I expected I would have to do" – anything that will result in a student deciding to give up, quit, or eventually withdraw from the class or their degree program. An instructor will know that this is happening if they have developed open communication with their students and as a result they are willing to share their frustrations and concerns.
Students Who Are Struggling
When students are struggling in their class it can be easy to first assume that they are not trying hard enough, they aren't utilizing the feedback provided, they haven't read the assigned materials, or any other number of possible reasons – without being able to pinpoint exactly what they are experiencing. At the beginning of class most students have the highest level of enthusiasm and a sense of hope about a new start, even if there is some anxiety or apprehension mixed in.
It is when a student attempts to participate in class that determines how long their excitement is sustained and there are many factors that can have a negative impact, including a lack of academic skills, feedback they do not accept or understand, a subject that is too difficult to comprehend or does not seem relevant to their lives, or receiving a grade they do not believe they should have earned. This causes an eventual decline in performance and one that may not be intentional or even consciously recognized until an instructor addresses it.
5 Methods of Energizing and Motivating Your Students
Instructors may not always know with certainty why students are struggling but at the heart of most issues is a willingness to keep trying and work on continued self-development, even when it requires them to acquire new knowledge or skills. What instructors can do is to develop a set of proactive instructional strategies that are encouraging in nature and supportive of students' attempts and progress.
The following five methods have been implemented in my own teaching practice and what I have helped to coach online faculty with through my work with faculty development.
#1. Build Productive Relationships. While this should go without saying for any class, whether it is a traditional or online class, relationships with students always matters. It can have a direct impact on their ability to feel comfortable asking for assistance when needed and that can alert the instructor to potential problems. But developing this type of relationship in a virtual environment isn't easy and a class that lasts only a few weeks can make it even more difficult.
How a relationship begins is with the attitude an instructor holds and it continues with an ongoing intent to be helpful and approachable. Students must know that their instructors care about them.
#2. Carefully Manage Your Communication. All forms of communication that instructors have with their students matter and must be cultivated with care that the intent of message is clearly made and the tone is not likely to be perceived in a negative manner.
When responding to a student, whether by email or a post in the classroom, it should not be done hastily or when an emotional reaction is felt. The reason why this is so important is that a negative interaction can be de-motivating to a student and a series of these types of interactions can cause a student to disengage from the class.
#3. Be Present, Available, and Accessible. If students are to stay engaged in the class and perform to the very best of their abilities they need to know that their instructor is readily available to assist them whenever they need help. This doesn't mean an instructor has to be on call at all times or answer questions as soon as they are posted; however, there needs to be an established pattern that students can rely upon.
I've found it helpful to have multiple methods of contact that includes email, instant messaging, weekly office hours, sharing my phone number for times when students need immediate assistance, and posting a questions thread in the classroom. This allows me to develop connections with students and it can be very motivating for them to know I am accessible.
#4. Help Make Certain that Students are Adequately Prepared. I've found that academic under-preparedness can be extremely detrimental to the mindset that new students hold as they attempt to navigate the course and the requirements they are expected to complete. Even as established students make progress through their degree program they may still struggle with areas of development that can create a mental barrier and ultimately lead to a sense of defeat if they do not receive assistance.
What I've done is to share resources that address students' specific developmental needs in the feedback provided and if I find sources that may benefit the entire class, I'll share it in a separate classroom post. I've found that the more students feel equipped to complete their tasks, the more confident they will be as they make an attempt to do so.
#5. Develop and Use Proactive Outreach Strategies. It is imperative that an instructor always be aware of the classroom conditions and more importantly that they are aware of students who are not actively involved and present in class. It may be helpful to establish a mental baseline for expected performance and over time an experienced instructor develops an instinct for student engagement.
A discussion thread is one way to gauge if students are disengaging from the class. When I discover a student who isn't posting messages or they are continuing to struggle with their written assignments, I'll make outreach attempts. First I'll send an email and try to engage them and if that isn't successful I'll make a phone call so that the student doesn't completely disengage from class. I've learned that a personalized approach will go a long ways towards helping students sustain their self-motivation.
Sources of Motivation
Most research about motivation points to the sources of motivation, both internal and external. This means that students may be motivated by a sense of accomplishment (internalized) or a grade (externalized). With a limited amount of time available to get to know students for a typical online class, instructors may never know exactly what the source of motivation is for every student or be able to develop techniques to meet their individual needs, especially when classroom management and instructional duties require a significant investment of time.
What instructors can do is to address self-motivation as a driving factor for student success and use the methods provided above to help students feel self-confident, rather than become easily discouraged and willing to give up. When instructors bridge the distance gap and connect with their students, they will notice the results in the effort they make and the performance level they maintain throughout the class. When students believe someone cares about their progress, and is willing to support them as they make an attempt to complete the class requirements, an increase in self-motivation is likely to likely to occur. You have an opportunity to be that someone for your students and what it takes is showing an interest in your students and being aware of their involvement in class. Your interest in students not only can energize their involvement in class, it can transform and energize your involvement as well.
About Dr. Johnson
Dr. Johnson has worked in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005. He specializes in distance learning, adult education, faculty development, online teaching, career management, and career development. Dr. J has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA. Presently Dr. J is a Core Faculty member for one of the premiere online universities, fulfilling his life's mission to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others.
As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference. He has also published over 200 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and career development.
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