Student Motivation

While there is no empirical data to support the belief that students will be more motivated to learn when they have greater control over the learning process via asynchronous learning, it follows generally-held principals of teaching and learning.

Intrinsic motivators for students include fascination with the subject, a sense of its relevance to everyday life and the world they experience, and a sense of accomplishment in mastering it (DeLong & Winter, 2002). Students can use Internet search engines to explore subject matter and view examples of how it relates to the lives of others, comparing and contrasting what they read and see in videos on sites such as YouTube, to what they experience. With the ability to dedicate more personal time to learning, each student can participate, along with parents and family members, in determining what they read and see that helps them to achieve mastery, even if it is limited to specific elements of the subject. Individual students innately seek out and gravitate toward things that interest them and they personally relate to.

While intrinsic motivation can be long-lasting and self-sustaining, getting there can require special attention. Careful preparation by the teacher requires an understanding of the needs of individual students. A variety of approaches may be needed to motivate different students. The teacher must include a system of checks and verifications to determine student progress on assigned tasks, and use constant communication to gain a strong understanding of what drives or impedes student participation.

Extrinsic motivators are important as well. The teacher should clearly communicate expectations to parents or guardians, and attempt to engage them in promoting participation in digital learning. In some case, parents will need guidance in how to use personal technology in the home to support their children’s efforts. Sometimes the children will be more adept at using technology than their parents. The level of parental involvement in the process can seriously impact the effectiveness of digital learning. Parents who fully engage will monitor the amount of learning time spent by their children and be the gatekeepers for access to specific sites and content. The school may have to provide expert guidance in how to configure parental controls in order to allow students to fully access the content and sites they both require and desire, while limiting access to inappropriate or unwanted content on the Internet.

Another important extrinsic motivator is the expectations of other trusted role models or peers. If students engage with peers in asynchronous or synchronous discussions about the content, peer expectations will become more prevalent and more influential than they are in a physical classroom.

Learning Styles

As with all forms of learning, motivation affects and may become apparent in learning styles. Deep learners are students who respond well to the challenge of mastering more difficult and complex subjects (Bain, 2004). These students will naturally commit more time and energy to tasks assigned in a digital learning environment, and this effort will be apparent in their posts and assignment submissions. Strategic learners are motivated primarily by rewards and are more likely to react well to competition. These students are more likely to compare their work to the work of other students. While they may do well in achieving higher grades, they are more likely to learn only enough to do well on a test or quiz, and forget much of the material after they have made use of it. As with deep learners, it is important for these students to be challenged by deeper engagement with the subject. The teacher can foster a more intrinsic approach by requiring students to apply, synthesize, or evaluate material instead of comprehending or memorizing it. The teacher should design forum questions, online quizzes or tests, and assignment expectations to clearly require an analysis and use of what is learned.

Surface learners are the students requiring the most support in a digital learning environment. They are often motivated by a desire to avoid failure, doing only what is necessary to complete an assignment or pass a test. They are not typically motivated by grades, but do respond to feedback. The teacher can assist surface learners by helping them gain confidence in their abilities to learn and perform. Recognition of posts or submissions that indicate progress, and praise particularly for contributions that can be of benefit to other members of the online class, such as those posted in online forums are recommended as they can increase individual student motivation. Scaffold course material and assignments by designing a series of activities or challenges that build on each other in terms of complexity and recognize achievement at each step.

If you are engaged in the creation of the digital learning program, or its delivery, consider the following model for building intrinsic motivation (Middleton, Littlefield, & Lehrer, 1995):

  • Each student determines for themselves whether the subject and any assigned activity is about something that is known, and is of interest.
  • If the subject or activity is not known, the student evaluates it based on two factors:
    1. The stimulation it provides (e.g., challenge, curiosity, fantasy)
    2. The personal control they have (e.g., it is not too difficult, amount of free choice)
  • If the student perceives the activity as stimulating and controllable, they are interested and become engaged. If not, they disengage unless an extrinsic motivator influences them to continue.
  • If the activity is repeatedly stimulating and controllable, it may become more interesting and engagement increases.
  • If over time the activity provides little stimulation or control, despite extrinsic motivators, the student will disengage to some degree due to a lack of interest.

The challenge in digital learning for the teacher is to ensure that online learning activities provide some degree of stimulation and personal control. There is greater opportunity for this in asynchronous learning than in synchronous learning because the teacher can plan for, and if necessary, reconfigure during the learning process, specific activities that appeal to each student. Parental feedback can support this effort.