Supporting Students Online by Focusing on Control and Value

Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s book The Spark of Learning (2016) teaches how student control and value is central to learning. Control-value theory was first conceptualized by Pekrun (2006), who defined it as being

based on the premise that appraisals of control and values are central to the arousal of achievement emotions, including activity-related emotions such as enjoyment, frustration, and boredom experienced at learning, as well as outcome emotions such as joy, hope, pride, anxiety, hopelessness, shame, and anger relating to success or failure. (p. 315)

In other words, achievement emotions that accompany learning influence the degree of learning, and these achievement emotions are heavily influenced by student feelings of control and value. In a classroom environment, students must “feel in control of the activities and outcomes that are important to them” and that “the activity or material represents meaning or worth” (Cavanagh, 2016, p. 148). Thus, it behooves faculty to inject measures of control and value into their classroom activities. Here are a few simple steps for doing so.

Include checklists

Checklists are an easy first step to help students develop a sense of a control over their learning. While I’m sure most online instructors see their instructions as being coherent and concise, well-defined checklists can make expectations clear for students and help them monitor their progress in completing what is expected of them. Checklists can also help students to reflect on they learn and to self-regulate their learning. For example, in each module in my online class, I list the specific tasks students need to complete and those tasks’ deadlines. Identifying each task in a simple list helps students monitor their progress and develop a sense of control over their learning and success.

Use screencasts

Many online instructors use screencasts to record personal introductions to their online courses or provide week-to-week overviews. But screencasts can also be a strategy to build student control by giving them the tools to do new things. For example, an instructor might assign a project using complex spreadsheet functionality and scaffold the project with a screencast explaining relevant spreadsheet functions in detail. They might also assign students to do unique types of online database searches that they teach with a screencast tutorial. Whatever your focus, consider the overall learning goals your assignments serve, and use screencasts to support student progress at every step.

Make broader course connections

While we’d all like to believe that our students learn for the sake of learning, we need to help them see the relevance of course content. To foster students’ value appraisals, look at ways your online assignments can apply to their real lives or to their future academic or career goals. For example, one simple strategy to help students find relevance is to ask them to consider how they might use the course content in their future careers. Including this forward-thinking, reflective element in an assignment can help students better recognize the value of the content you’re teaching and increase their motivation to learn.

Provide student choice

Student choice is a great way to foster both student control and value in an online class and can be integrated in myriad ways. For example, you can allow students to choose which topics they research or which assignments they submit for credit. You can also let students choose how they submit an assignment. When given a choice, some students may submit a written paper while others record a video. By offering these choices, instructors increase students’ control over their learning and help them recognize the value and importance of their work.

Reflecting on control-value theory a little more, I can think of many times during my teaching career when an assignment or a lesson didn’t go particularly well. In each instance, however, I can now see how elements of control and value played a role in my instructional missteps. Maybe I didn’t give clear enough directions for students to understand my expectations, and as a result they didn’t feel in control over their success. Or maybe I didn’t help the students see the assignment’s relevance, and so they were less motivated to complete the work. By focusing on elements of student control and value, I now see the powerful impact that the affective dimensions of learning have on student success in my online and face-to-face classes.


Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

Pekrun, R. (2006). The control-value theory of achievement emotions: Assumptions, corollaries, and implications for educational research and practice. Educational Psychology Review, 18(4), 315–341.

Oliver Dreon, PhD, is a professor of educational foundations and director of the Center for Academic Excellence at Millersville University.

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