Student Motivation and Engagement in Online Courses
by Selby Cull, Washington University in St. Louis
Don Reed, Dept. of Geology, San Jose State University
Karin Kirk, Science Education Resource Center
authored as part of the 2010 workshop, Teaching Geoscience Online - A Workshop for Digital Faculty
- Without face-to-face contact, faculty are not able to pick up nonverbal cues from students that can indicate they are disengaged, frustrated or unenthusiastic.
- Faculty also cannot share their emotions easily and may find it harder to express enthusiasm, encouragement or concern.
- The anonymous feeling of the online environment can make it easier for students to withdraw, participate minimally, or completely disappear from the course.
- Students may enroll in online courses because they feel they will be easier and require less of their time. So before the course even begins, these students may be prone to disengagement.
On the other hand, there are several advantages to the online environment that make it easier to engage students.
- The self-paced nature of online courses allows students to fit the work time into their schedule. Those who prefer to login to the course at midnight are free to do so!
- Extrinsically motivated students can be engaged with quizzes and interactive features that offer instant feedback
- The web offers tremendous possibilities for flexibility, interactivity and creativity. It is possible to create many types of engaging experiences.
Background: The Nature of Online Learners
Online learners are a varied group, but there are commonalities that can assist instructors in developing effective strategies in course design and pedagogical approach. In particular, these students desire a flexible schedule to achieve their educational goals through self-paced learning while juggling the other demands on their time.
- The requirements of self-paced learning – self discipline, effective time management, writing skills, self-directed work, organization and prioritization of effort, and confidence in presenting ideas openly and recognizing gaps in understanding through self assessment and reflection.
- Type of students we serve - online students range from fast-tracked, high achievers to students currently on academic probation who may take courses through continuing education. The average age of students is generally older and there is higher percentage of female students than in the offering institution as a whole.
- Study habits - many online students have multiple demands on their time, causing odd, sometimes irregular, hours online. Multiple and sometimes competing obligations are squeezed into their daily schedule (other courses, accelerated graduation schedule, work, travel and family), consequently online coursework may not always be their top priority, causing assignments to be pushed aside to last minute, especially in general education courses.
Pedagogic Design for Engagement
- Do not limit your course web pages to blocks of dense text and sparse images. There are many ways to create an engaging design for your course pages. Rely on use of imagery, video, audio, music and interactive features. If possible, work with an instructional designer to create these features.
- Use video of yourself introducing course content, as in this video of Course Information (link down)
- Use video of exciting topics in your course, such as this video of the La Conchita Landslide
- Use real-time, web-based data such as USGS streamflow network, NOAA offshore buoy measurements and drifter buoys, recent earthquakes or climate data.
- Have students take on the role of a geoscientist in virtual research activities, patterned after major research initiatives in the geosciences, real-time data or online databases. Example activity - Tracking Drifter Buoys
- Case studies can involve role-playing, the use of maps and data sets and opportunities to synthesize various materials around a central topic (see a collection of 38 role playing scenarios for the classroom)
- Applications of course concepts to your own home town. (such as Environmental Geology of the Area where you Live)
- Ask for students' input on class topics and assignments (Dennis et al. 2007)
- Use of "gateway" assignments, which students must complete before proceeding in the course can be effective in some situations.
- Adopt instructional methods that emphasize "guiding students toward their own discoveries of facts and relationships" (Alutu 2006) (Such as, "While you're reading this assignment, think about how it relates to _____.")
- Use discussion boards to create a sense of community and promote active engagement with the course topics (Using Discussions in an Environmental Geology Course
- Create course topics and readings that are current. Incorporate recent news events and magazine articles into existing course topics (Dennis et al. 2007).
- Assign roles in discussion assignments , especially for provocative discussions based on current events, case studies or policy issues.