How to Design Online Courses That Motivate Students

When designing an online course, it's important to consider how to create learning experiences that will spark learners' intrinsic motivation. While different learners may be motivated by different factors, there are several models that can provide useful guidance when you're designing motivating learning experiences. Two useful models are self-determination theory (developed by Ryan and Deci) and the culturally responsive motivation framework (developed by Ginsburg and Wlodkowski). In an interview with Online Classroom, Rebecca Zambrano, director of online faculty development at Edgewood College, talked about elements of these models and how to apply them to online course design.

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When designing an online course, it's important to consider how to create learning experiences that will spark learners' intrinsic motivation. While different learners may be motivated by different factors, there are several models that can provide useful guidance when you're designing motivating learning experiences.

Two useful models are self-determination theory (developed by Ryan and Deci) and the culturally responsive motivation framework (developed by Ginsburg and Wlodkowski). In an interview with Online Classroom, Rebecca Zambrano, director of online faculty development at Edgewood College, talked about elements of these models and how to apply them to online course design.

According to these two models, the following three elements affect motivation:

“As educators, if we can tap into those areas of human motivation when we design activities for our students, it will help our students enjoy the learning process and go much further with it than if they're only doing it because of a grade or external control,” Zambrano says.

Relationships
Community

Zambrano recommends asking, “What does community mean in the context of this particular course?” when designing a course. “If I'm teaching a course on statistics, students may be coming into the course strictly because they way to learn those skills. They may not be there to network or become really connected with other people in that course. So community and relatedness in that course might just mean students want to make sure that their professor is highly available to them when they're struggling.

“In another course on marriage and family therapy, it may be that students really want to understand or become much more highly motivated to go in depth on understanding family systems by hearing each other's family stories,” Zambrano says.

Individual communication

Learners come to a course with a variety of skills and experiences. When an individual's use of language does not match the language of others in the course, he or she may view the others in the course as more competent, which can be demotivating. “It's really critical to know that their voices and ideas matter more than their language, so I think the instructor has to design some way to interact with students individually early in the course,” Zambrano says.

Appreciation wiki
Zambrano includes an appreciation wiki in her online courses to provide a space for students to anonymously show their appreciation for their peers. She asks students to copy and paste important contributions from the week's discussion forum into the wiki and attribute each quote to the individual student.

“That's very motivating because all the students begin to see that their contributions are valuable to others in the course. It's very intrinsically motivating to become part of a community where your voice is important to the growth of the group,” Zambrano says.

The broader community
Relating the course to the broader community can be intrinsically motivating as well. “If we can give students a sense that everything we're discussing relates to ethical change in the world, it really ignites their passion. I think that relates to a sense of relatedness and caring about being in the larger human community. Even though it's not often discussed that way, I think it's really important,” Zambrano says.

Instructors can lead students to think about how the course relates to the broader community by asking appropriate questions. For example, at Edgewood College, there are two core questions associated with its Dominican tradition: Who am I? and How do my particular gifts meet the needs of the world?

To address the needs of the broader community, Zambrano recommends looking beyond what occurs within the learning management system. “When I think of creating community in my online courses—I work mostly with adult learners—I ask students to connect with others out in their organizations or fields of work. And they actually network and create community as part of the course. That's highly motivating,” Zambrano says.

Another way to reach beyond the LMS is to design assignments that have the learners create resources for groups in the broader community.

Competence
Because learners are motivated when they see their progress, it's important to design assignments that provide this evidence. Assignments are often summative demonstrations of learning at the end of the course. Zambrano recommends breaking assignments into smaller parts so that students will be observe the deepening of their knowledge over time.

Another way to enable students to see their progress is to ask the same series of questions at different times throughout the course. This gives students the chance use new knowledge and skills to address familiar problems, providing opportunities to monitor their progress.

Autonomy
Opportunities for choice can be highly motivating for students. And it helps students to have a good sense what their choices might entail. Zambrano recommends interviewing former students to get their perspectives on what was enjoyable about different assignments. You can provide audio or video clips of former students talking about which assignments they chose and how these assignments matched their learning styles, what they enjoyed, and what they valued.

When students are making choices about assignments, it's important for the instructor to have a conversation with each student by telephone or Skype to help students determine which choice would be most motivating.

Different students require different levels of autonomy and structure. “I'm constantly asking myself whether a rubric I created is going to interfere with creativity or stifle motivation or whether it's flexible and open enough to allow for autonomy,” Zambrano says. “I'm not sure I have the perfect balance, but I express the dilemma to my students. I provide high structure because some students need that to be able to trust the instructor. So I put together rubrics and tell the students, ‘I don't want my structure or rubric to interfere with your creativity. I want you to be responsible for making this learning meaningful to you. If you want to veer from the assignment's instructions because there's something else you're interested in and you want to move in that direction, let's talk about it.'”