Unpacking the Problem of Unmotivated Online Students

Unpacking the Problem of Unmotivated Online Students

Recently, I received this message from a college professor in response to a blog post I wrote:

“I truly believe in the benefits of online learning; but only for those who really want to learn. And unfortunately, those students are few and far between—maybe 5 to 10 percent ... I have found many professors at my university and at conferences agree with this. We need to develop some sort of a methodology whereby taking an online course is seen as a privilege and an opportunity to learn a subject more deeply than in a face-to-face class. Until we do this, online course [sic] will continue to be considered by students as the easy way out—not seen, not heard, just getting by.”

I’ve thought deeply about this message for a while and I’d like to unpack my reflections a bit more here. Learning online requires students to be more accountable, and online research shows that self-efficacy impacts student success online. But when we focus on lack of student motivation as “the” problem, we oversimplify a more complex and important issue.

Motivation’s Shaping Forces

To start, motivation is not like having a size 8 foot. It’s not a fixed trait that some humans either have or don’t have. Rather, motivation is more like water; its qualities are impacted by other forces. Water can be serene and glass-like one day and rough and choppy the next, depending on factors like the weather or the number and type of boats in use. Motivation is similarly influenced by outside factors.

Human brains are wired to think deeply about the things that are most important to us. Immordino-Yang and her colleagues at USC's Brain Creativity Institute recently published research showing that emotion serves as the foundation from which cognition emerges. Whether this emotional context is good (the smell of my mom’s freshly baked chocolate chip cookies) or bad (the sight of a spider crawling up my arm) does not matter. The important point is that an affective connection to an experience fosters greater memory retention and deeper engagement.

In the 1950s, researchers Bloom, Krathwohl and Harrow classified learning into three domains: cognitive (thinking), affective (feeling) and psychomotor (doing). The domains are organized into classification or taxonomies, which range from simple to complex processes. In higher education, cognition, the development of knowledge, serves as the privileged domain of learning. In contrast, the affective domain of learning is rarely a focus in a university classroom. Resituating our feelings as the fertile soil that cultivates thinking requires a major pivot for many academics.

The 6 C’s of Motivation

Mike Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver, recently pointed out, “With the right system of connected explanations and examples we could serve students the individual content they need on numerous dimensions.” The design of an online course matters. We can build motivational aspects into its structure.

The framework provided below examines the six C’s of motivation, which researchers Paris and Turner introduced in 1995 to help teachers understand how to motivate early literacy learners. Here’s how you can use the six C’s to design a meaningful online class. Together, they emphasize supporting learning through open-ended tasks, active learning, Universal Design for Learning, and community, which researchers agree increase opportunities for learners to make relevant, meaningful connections to topics through the use of technology.

Choice: Options increase intrinsic motivation. Allow students to choose from a list of topics to research or a series of photographs to discuss. Provide students with options in how they express themselves (writing, audio, video).

Control: Give some of it up. Involve students in decision-making. Design assignments so students can choose which group to join, create the content for a portion of the course, or suggest ideas for assessments.

Constructing Meaning: Empower students to discover real-world connections. Invite students to locate examples of concepts in their daily lives and contribute examples through videos or images they’ve taken on their phones. Use this content as a catalyst for discussion, analysis and debate.

Challenge: Get students out of their comfort zones and encourage them to try new things. Teach them about about the difference between a “fixed” and a “growth mindset” and be sure they know that you believe in them. A former online student of mine, Diane, was in her mid 50s and not jazzed about using a blog in my class. In fact, I thought she was going to drop the class. I reached out to her, encouraged her to give it a try and ensured her I would be available to support her if she had problems. Diane ended up flourishing in the class and before it was over secured employment as a blogger for a local newspaper. Click here to listen to Diane’s reflection about the class (hers is the second comment on the slide).

Collaboration: Empower students to inspire one another. Design activities that connect students with students, as well as with subject matter experts (through Twitter, for example).

Consequences: Unlocking learning from the walled garden of your LMS is a powerful way to improve ownership and accountability. Consider having students produce and share work with a global audience (blogging on Wordpress, for example).

When online classes are designed to support and encourage learning differences, align technology with pedagogy, and are facilitated by a present, empathetic and aware instructor, we can begin to see them as a tremendous opportunity for the diverse population of students in higher education.

Michelle Pacansky-Brock (@brocansky) is a Teaching and Learning Innovations Specialist at California State University, Channel Islands and the author of "Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies." 

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