How to Motivate Students in the Online Learning Environment

“Correction does much, but encouragement does more“
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

How can course instructors encourage  their online students to learn?  In this post I’ll describe how course instructors can foster learning in their online classes. I’ll also examine how the needs of online learners differ from students of traditional  learning and how instructors and institutions can support non-traditional students.

This is the third post in a four-part series on strategies for online instruction. In post one and two I introduced the Online Learning Support Framework that divides an online course by weeks into three distinct learning phases. In a twelve-week course for example, phase one comprises weeks 1 to 3, phase two weeks 4 to 8, and phase three weeks 9 to 12. The model describes the learner’s level of self-direction and prescribes the type of academic support required within each phase.

Self-Directed Learning (willingness and capacity to conduct one’s own education)
The Online Learning Support Framework is a model that can help educators understand the distinct needs of the online student. Research suggests that students taking online classes require a sense of self-directed learning (SDL)  (Song & Hill). Yet how can an online learner acquire and develop these skills? This model applies the concept of self-direction and suggests how instructors and institutions can support and guide students through each.

Phase-Two: The Not-so-Needy Student
In the previous post I described phase one where the learner was dependent, subsequently requiring a high level of academic support. Provided the student did in fact receive the support as needed in phase one, then he or she will be equipped to engage with the course content and be ready to learn in phase two.

And what about the Teaching?
In phase two there is a considerable amount of teaching that needs to occur, along with a high level of relational support. Relational in this context means personalized support. Students do not require hand-holding; they are past the ‘needy’ phase but they do require feedback, reinforcement and acknowledgement for the time and energy they have already invested. It is the personal connection and encouragement that is so very needed in online learning. It is the instructor’s encouragement that can make the difference between whether a student is successful or not. Yet how can the instructor bridge the virtual divide of time and space to encourage and motivate?

How to Encourage Online Students
Encouraging can take many forms, though encouragement within this model means that instructors encourage and are ‘there’ for learners providing support on the sidelines, yet are ready to step-up when needed. Students need to know that someone is ‘there’ – someone committed to their learning.

Below I’ve listed several strategies that have great potential to encourage students. I can personally vouch for the strategies listed here – they work.  Most have been used by the  very best of professors that I had when completing online courses for my graduate work.  I’ve also included one or two other methods identified in the research studies already referenced in this post. See resources below for details.

  • Provide timely feedback on assignments. At the beginning of phase two, the student should ideally receive feedback on at least one individual assignment. This provides the instructor with the opportunity to make a connection with the student, thus encourage and motivate a student just at the point when the student is moving towards becoming an independent learner. This reinforces the student’s increasing level of self-direction.
  • Respond to student questions within 24 hours. Doing so encourages focus and commitment – the student senses that someone ‘cares’.
  • Include constructive and personalized feedback on assignments. Specific comments about a student’s work sends a message that his or her learning matters. Even if a grade is poor, constructive and supportive feedback from the instructor is appreciated.
  • Craft a weekly message in the form of a text or video message to post to the course home page. Doing so demonstrates to students that the instructor is indeed involved and engaged in the course.
  • Acknowledge academic challenges. If a given week is challenging academically, provide encouragement and suggest additional resources that students might find helpful.
  • Comment strategically within discussion boards – making note of insightful or notable comments made by students.

Notice from the image of the model below how the need for relational support peaks around the middle and then declines towards the end of phase two. As students become more confident with the course and its content, the need for encouragement in the form of relational support declines. Learners are learning how-to-learn, how-to use the resources, and are becoming less dependent on the instructor and the institution.

How can Institutions Encourage?
Though we did see in phase one the need for a high level of academic and technical support, in phase two the student requires relational support from the institution as well as the instructor.  Institutions can provide encouragement by providing:

  • Easy access to resources that students will need as they become further involved in the course including: library resources, writing skill support and time management instruction.
  • Academic counseling and/or planning.
  • Career service support and/or counseling.

Online students are not unlike traditional students in their need for encouragement. But online learners need encouragement and support at the right time and the right place to keep them on their path to learning. Check back next week as I close this series with a review of phase three – the need for instructors to monitor and guide students to successful course completion.


  • Lowe, S.D. Responding to the needs in distance education providing academic and relational support (PARS), (2005). PDF
  • Song, L. & Hill, J. A conceptual model for understanding self-directed learning in online environments, (2007). Journal of Interactive Online Learning, v 6 (1).

Strategies for Online Instructors: Understanding the Needs of the Online Learner

This is the first post in a four-part series that presents instructional strategies addressing the unique  needs of online students. In this post I’ll present a model that outlines three distinct learning phases inherent to an online course and how instructors can support the learner through each.

Cognitive overload. There is no question that online learners suffer from cognitive overload at the start of an online course. Many learners struggle, are ill-equipped to handle the volume of information inherent to an online course. Frequently, students lack the technical skills needed to navigate through the course itself. In a traditional setting the process of assimilating information is different – course material is often distributed throughout the course, the syllabus reviewed, quite often the instructor further clarifies course requirements at various intervals throughout the course. Not so for an online course. Course information is abundant, often delivered all at once. Students can feel as if they are drowning in information and not sure where to begin. I’ve been there.

In the virtual environment a unique skill set is required, quite different than what is needed within a face-to-face (F2F) setting. A high level of motivation is required for online learning, as are time management, organization and self-directed learning skills. Granted, these skills are needed for a F2F class, though at a much higher level in the online course.

Why a Framework of Support is Needed
Students learning online need a different level and type of support. Often there is considerable guidance for first-year students in a F2F setting – yet not for online students.  Research suggests that learners of distance education classes are at a higher risk for dropping out,  performing poorly, or not completing the course. There has been much discussion in higher education circles lately about high drop out rates within online course, yet few resources exist to explain the process of learning in an online environment. A framework to guide instructors is needed.

 Online Learner Support Framework
The framework presented in this post, the Online Learner Support model is based upon  the PARS model, Providing Academic and Relational Support adapted by Stephen D. Lowe (2005). The model is both descriptive and prescriptive, providing insight for the educator into the needs of learners (part I) by analyzing their level of dependence over the duration of the course in three distinct phases. Building on part I, part II is prescriptive in nature outlining specific strategies for instructors and institutions to support online learners. These two parts, when layered together create a practical framework for the instructor and institution.

Part One: Self-directed Learning Phases of Learner
This part of the model is informative as it illustrates the learners inclination to drive the learning process through the phases within a course based upon their level of dependency. Moving through the weeks of a course, the student ideally will learn how-to-learn and become less dependent. Within phase one when the student is dependent, he or she requires direction, instructional and/or institutional support to learn how to navigate and manage the course. I’ll discuss this concept further in my next post, and will elaborate on how instructors can apply this information.

Part Two: Levels of Instructor Support (academic and relational) for Learner
This part outlines specific types of support required to help the virtual student throughout the three phases. Support is divided into two categories: first is relational support. Relational support takes the form of personal interaction and social connection which creates a foundation for student motivation and engagement. The second category is academic and technical support. This level of support requires competent and responsive faculty, technical support, quality materials, tutorial assistance, knowledgeable support staff and orientation to the learning platform.

Next in the Series
The model is dynamic and relevant. Over the next 3 posts I will review each of the three phases in-depth, outlining characteristics of students and providing specific strategies course instructors and institutions can employ to support online students effectively. Check back later this week for my next post titled, Strategies for Online Instruction: How-to support and guide the Dependent Learner.

Smith, K.T. (2006). Early Attrition among First Time e-Learners: A Review of Factors that Contribute to Drop-out, Withdrawal and Non-completion Rates of  Adult Learners undertaking eLearning Programmes. JOLT.

Lowe, S. D. (2005). Responding to Learner Needs in Distance Education: Providing Academic and Relational Support (PARS). PDF