Enhancing Motivation for Online Learning During COVID-19

Whether a parent, teacher, or a student, online learning can be a struggle.

Posted May 03, 2020

 Slidebot, used with permission
Source: Slidebot, used with permission

Student motives for online learning used to include, “It’s more convenient,” “I enjoy the anonymity,” or, “It’s easier and takes less time.” However, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these reasons have been replaced with laments of “Can I do it later?” “I hate this,” or “I want to go back!”

The online instruction mandated by most school districts was an abrupt and radical change for everyone involved. The Brookings Institute reported over 104,000 school closures affecting 47.9 million students (Fishbane & Tomer, 2020), subjecting parents, teachers, and learners to a litany of motivational challenges implementing and sustaining effective online instruction. Regardless of whether the instruction is synchronous (required at specific times) or asynchronous (can be done anytime), learning is questionable without a motivated teacher and an engaged student.

Part of the COVID-19 motivational dilemma is the perceived effectiveness of online learning, which is clearly…ambiguous. Some teachers and many students think online learning is a waste of time. In addition, disadvantaged learners may not have computer access or a reliable internet connection.

Is online learning effective? Although situational use of computer technology often boosts short-term learning (Tamim et al., 2011), online instruction may reduce knowledge transfer resulting in less practical value for the content taught. In addition, learners often report lower satisfaction with online learning (Ebner & Gegenfurtner, 2019). One fact that is hard to debate is that good teachers are good teachers, regardless of the circumstances (Jackson & Anagnostopoulou, 2018). As such, the following recommendations are designed to enhance motivation across learning platforms but are especially helpful for online instruction during the unusual circumstances created by the COVID-19 crisis.

Recognize existing expectations

Parents, teachers, and students harbor personal beliefs about learning. Most expect that school is necessary and it should be challenging and useful. Some expect learning to be easy. However, not everyone agrees about online learning because online instruction can seem impersonal and unfamiliar. Lack of online experience may promote fear, leading to ability doubts and uncertainty concerning how to be an effective online teacher or student.

These doubts can cause withdrawal or resistance to participation. One solution to sustain motivation is not to lose the personal connection that already exists between teachers and students (Davis et al., 2019). Feeding the bond between stakeholders means regular communication that is both related to learning and of a personal nature. During online instruction, it is especially important to avoid disassociation from the existing classroom culture (Larreamendy-Joerns & Leinhardt, 2006). Replication of classroom routines are essential to promote familiarity and positive comparisons to pre-pandemic learning conditions. Whatever day-to-day routines were used in the classroom before should be adapted and modified to replicate the same feelings and personal experiences during online instruction.

Evaluate course design

In addition to learner-centered concerns, course design issues can broadly influence motivation. A frequent complaint of learners during radical transitions to online learning is simplistic course design. Online instruction may be evaluated as inferior to previous instruction, prompting disengagement. Specific steps should be taken to avoid repetitive text-based discussions, while instead cultivating higher-order skills, such as creative thinking (Boling et al., 2012). 

Assessments can be project-based, especially ones that take advantage of home resources and knowledge of current events. Instructors can easily incorporate examples related to the pandemic into their online instruction. For example, use COVID-19 related math word problems or crosswords, critically evaluate the pandemic implications to certain social groups, or graph statistics related to flattening the curve to enhance learner engagement through these difficult times.

Do not focus on merely making learning “fun.” Avoid excessive levels of cognitive load by removing design elements that are unessential for learning such as needless hyperlinks or infusion of games only marginally related to learning objectives (Kalyuga, 2007).

Address misconceptions

Slidebot/Used with permission
Source: Slidebot/Used with permission

Many pandemic learners lack the psychological readiness for online instruction. They may harbor misconceptions concerning learning objectives and believe there is little necessity to show course mastery. Considering the almost immediate transition from traditional instruction to online learning, advance preparation was not possible. Minimal preparation can lead to a lack of critical thinking, limited information processing, and poor retention because learners operate under the unjustified presumption that online learning is easier or useless. Similarly, both teachers and students may approach instruction as a mandated administrative requirement that is not necessarily concerned about achievement. Teachers and parents should emphasize to students that online instruction was necessary and not a substitute to merely to keep students busy until the crisis subsides. When learners perceive instruction to be valuable and relevant their academic motivation will increase, shifting focus away for the emotional consequences of COVID-19 and promoting more personal investment in learning and achievement (Kim & Frick, 2011).

Optimizing effectiveness

Once teachers assure learners that online instruction is serious business and not an inferior statutory substitute for classroom learning, the educator can employ specific design principles found to enhance engagement and persistence. Specific learning objectives and course goals must be explicitly stated. Courses should include prompts such as “by the time you finish this unit you will be able to …” or “this content is relevant because …”

Second, the design should include a site map and mouse-over directional tools to instill learner confidence in the ability to navigate the online environment. Students must believe they are qualified to master an online course despite lack of familiarity with online learning systems.

Third, learner perceptions of relevance can be fostered when course content and online assessments are highly correlated. Learners should be able to review recorded material, access content asynchronously, study worked examples, and retrieve hyperlinked content glossaries needed for elaboration or clarification. Parents should strive to convince their children that online learning can be a fun and informative process, one that is necessary to avoid learning lapses of previously taught material.

Teacher presence is essential to motivate online learners, regardless of instructional synchronicity. Active instructor involvement shows learners that the teacher is motivated to conduct the online instruction. Posting regular contributions, providing feedback, and showing a concern for the plight of learners is essential (Shea et al., 2006). Last, keep in mind that the pandemic fosters feelings of isolation and the emotional consequences of separation must be addressed and explicitly stated as a normal part of the online transition (Lewis & Abdul-Hamid, 2006). Regular instructor interaction with learners via targeted feedback that focuses on sporadic interpersonal contact will serve as necessary scaffolding for consistent course participation and continual engagement throughout the pandemic.


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