How to Motivate Your Online Students

Many years ago, a higher-education publication ran a commentary from a faculty member who complained that students were bored by her lectures because she was not entertaining them enough, but that she should not have to entertain them; however, she was wrong.

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Many years ago, a higher-education publication ran a commentary from a faculty member who complained that students were bored by her lectures because she was not entertaining them enough, but that she should not have to entertain them; however, she was wrong. She chose to become a teacher, and as a teacher she is on stage with an audience. Most importantly, her job is to produce learning in the students she is given, not the ones she would prefer to be given. If the students are not reacting to her material, then she needs to revise her presentation until she finds a method that keeps their attention. Teaching in a way that gets and keeps students' attention is simply one of the rules of the game she is in—a condition of her employment—and her job is to be effective within that game.

Effective teachers are able to keep their student's attention, and unfortunately many faculty think that the threat of a bad grade is, or should be, sufficient to keep their students' attention. They then devise various mechanisms for punishing students for not paying attention. They may also call on students in class in hopes that the fear of looking dumb in front of their classmates will scare students into paying attention. However, effective motivation is internal. It comes from seeing information as interesting or relevant.

Grabbing and keeping an audience's attention, including students, is much simpler than most people think. It just involves using some simple principles of communication.

 Always start by getting their attention

The first rule of communication is always to start by getting your listeners' attention. If you haven't gotten your listeners' attention within the first two minutes, you are finished. They have checked out mentally—or even literally, by looking at their cell phones.

This means that the absolute worst way to begin any presentation is with an outline of what you will do. Nobody will remember the outline two minutes after you have delivered it. Look at a TED Talk. They never begin with an outline of what will be discussed. The first words out of the speaker's mouth is a hook intended to get the audience's attention. They might start with “Do you think you are smart?” or “We are in the midst of the greatest revolution in human history.”

Watch a few TED Talks for some examples of how they begin and think about how you can do something similar in your own learning modules. A story is always a good option. My module on the definition of death in my medical ethics class would be just as boring as it sounds if I started right into the definition and legal history of death. Instead, I begin by describing my experience of sitting with a group of doctors in a hospital medical ethics course. One of the doctors described to the teacher how death was determined at the hospital. The teacher responded with horror and started banging his hand on the table, stating that the hospital was not using the correct method and were declaring patients dead who were not dead. A stony silence followed. I tell my students that most doctors do not know the legal definition of death, and because of this many people are declared dead in hospitals who are not dead. Now I feel that I have their attention and can go into the lesson.   

 Only significance matters

One of my fundamental principles for developing online content is that “only significance matters.” That is, nobody remembers brute facts. Our minds are not like computer databases that will retain whatever brute facts are entered into them. Our minds have evolved to retain only information that is significant to us. 

This means breaking out of the mind-set of “covering content.” As one wise faculty member once told me, “We teach students, not subjects.” The goal of teaching is not to march through topics, hoping that the information will transfer from the teacher to the student, but rather to reach the student in a way that produces lasting insight. We do this by focusing on the significant in any topic.

Using the example above, I tell students that as future medical professionals they could be called upon to make decisions about life and death. They will need to understand what death is to avoid declaring someone dead who is not dead. I will also tell them that death is not what they think it is. Now I have motivated the subject by placing it within the context of its significance for them.

 Show concern for their learning

As an undergraduate, I had many “timeclock” faculty who demonstrated by their demeanor that they were only interested in pitching content to their students, not ensuring that students caught it. Students pick up on this lack of interest from faculty and reflect it in their engagement with the course. A faculty member who demonstrates interest in whether or not a student learns will also get similar interest in return.

One prime method for demonstrating interest in students is to go beyond merely checking off errors in their work by using feedback to initiate a dialogue with the student meant to improve the student's understanding. This means giving students direction on how to improve their work. Instead of just stating that the work is disorganized, suggest a better way to organize it. Better yet, share your expertise with the student by talking about how you organize your thoughts to make for a coherent work.

Screencasting feedback is excellent for this purpose, because it allows faculty to talk with students as if they were sitting next to them in their office. The faculty member can highlight and move text around on a student paper to demonstrate how the student should have organized it. If a student gets a math problem wrong, instead of circling or correcting the error, a faculty member can use screencasting feedback on a tablet to write out the steps for doing the problem correctly. Modeling correct work is a powerful teaching device, and screencasting technology makes it easy to record procedures for students. Once done, these videos can be reused when multiple students make the same error. See the March 2016 issue of Online Classroom for information on how to make screencasts for your courses.  

 Show interest in their thinking

One pitfall of teaching the same course over and over is that you start looking for a predefined set of responses in your interactions with students. This tends to automate your teaching and overlooks individual differences between students. Students will sense this and start just trying to feed you what you want to hear.

Online discussion is an ideal antidote to this problem because the faculty member is not constrained to get through material by the end of class. The faculty member can encourage students to express their own views and explore detours in their thinking. Instead of trying to guide discussion back to a pre-established outcome, the online faculty member needs to be willing to give up control and allow the discussion to wander a bit.

One thing an online instructor must do is avoid the common mistake of writing discussion questions as mini-essay assignments. Requiring a certain number of citations for a posting is a sure sign of this mistake. Online forums should be akin to café discussions, and nobody requires citations for the views people express during café discussions.

Consider making a video wrap up at the end of each discussion. This can be a simple webcam video shot from your computer where you mention interesting points made during the discussion and lessons learned, including something new you discovered. Nothing motivates a student like seeing that his or her commentary caught the attention of an instructor and got that instructor thinking about something.

Also, encourage students to provide advice to one another. Students like to help one another, and a faculty member can set up a course forum devoted to discussion about the course itself. A student having trouble finding sources for a research paper can ask other students for advice. You might also ask students for recommendations for future students and incorporate those into the syllabus. Advice from former students often carries more credibility than instructor advice and demonstrates the instructor's willingness to listen to students.

Finally, ask students for recommendations about content to add to the course. A student might encounter a good article or website to contribute to the course. Students might also run into humorous content related to course topics. There are some very funny YouTube videos made by medical students and other medical professionals that students have shown me that I have added to the optional resources for the course.

 Humanize yourself

Online faculty should always include a bio in their course materials to humanize themselves to students. We are much more motivated to engage with a person than with a machine. Importantly, the bio should not be a resume or CV. No student is interested in what his or her instructor has published. The bio should be a more personal message from the instructor. Mine talks about the fact that I was married on a 100-mile bike ride and that I ski, among other things. A video bio is ideal, as nothing humanizes us more than a face and voice. 

These simple steps will vastly improve student motivation and engagement in your courses.