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Motivating Students

Helping Students to Stay Motivated in Online Courses

Self-directed learning plays a larger role in online classes, and staying motivated can be difficult. To address this challenge, we asked Tim Urdan, a Professor of psychology at SCU and motivation researcher, to provide some insights on how the motivation literature can help us support students in online courses. Here are three specific challenges to students’ motivation that Tim identified and some strategies to help address them.

Community:  Social isolation can have a big impact on students’ motivation. Without the spontaneous conversations that occur in face-to-face classes, students in online courses may find it difficult to feel like part of a community. Fostering opportunities for students to connect with you and each other can go a long way towards creating a sense of community in an online course.

  • Create informal spaces for students to talk to each other. These could include co-working Zoom sessions, group office hours (rather than just individual meetings with students), or a discussion forum devoted to non-class related topics (for instance, students’ favorite shows or free time activities).
  • Consider replacing an upcoming assignment with an alternative activity to foster community. For instance, ask students to discuss a video or article related to the course content with a classmate, family member, or friend. Students could complete a reflection assignment about the conversation they had and how it enhanced their thinking.

Self-regulation:  Self-regulation is the ability to manage one’s thoughts and behaviors to carry out particular practices (for instance, working on a project when we aren’t in the mood to work). This is already a challenge for many college students and is even more challenging now that students’ learning is more self-directed.

  • Provide structure such as consistent due dates, check-ins, routines, and procedures.
  • Offer students a recommended structure for managing their time (e.g., read one hour MWF).
  • Consider incentivizing participation, such as showing up for Zoom sessions.

Self-efficacy:  Because online instruction is often less familiar to students, they may have a lower sense of self-efficacy; that is, they don’t feel as confident about their ability to learn effectively in an online environment. Clear and consistent communication can help students navigate these unfamiliar learning circumstances and prevent confusion, which in turn increases students’ feelings of competence.

  • Put in extra time to explain logistics and expectations, such as how your Camino site is organized.
  • Do not assume students will read your email. Put all communication in a single location on Camino that students can find easily (for instance, within Announcements or Assignments).
  • Keep communications concise and encouraging in tone.

Additional Resources

Online Learning Research Center. (n.d.) Self-regulation support

Vanderbilt Center for Teaching. (n.d.). Motivating students.

Weimer, M. (June 6, 2018). Five keys to motivating students. Faculty Focus.


Page authors:
Dr. Tim Urdan, SCU Professor of Psychology
Dr. Rachel Stumpf, SCU Faculty Development Program Manager

Last updated:
August 3, 2020