Motivation in eLearning can best be described with a U-shaped curve: novelty and enthusiasm produce high drive at the beginning, but it drops off sharply thereafter, only increasing when the end of the course is in sight. It is up to you to boost and maintain your students' motivation throughout the course, so that they will get the most out of it. Unless they have the motivation to focus and sit through the entire course, they learn nothing at all.
Though every student responds differently, here are some fundamental guidelines you can use to keep your learners motivation levels high from that first splash to the finish line.
1. Offer choice, control, and freedom
Naturally, you as the expert need to define many elements of a course, but there should still be some areas where you can allow students to make choices. Even a relatively small amount of control can be a powerful motivating tool, as it makes learners active participants rather than passive receivers of information.
Course participants often start with different levels of background knowledge, preferred learning models, and end goals. Only by offering a certain amount of choice can everyone's needs be met. Consider allowing a range of assignment formats or topics, or make assignments that relate to students' past experience. Also you can provide choice through how learners demonstrate proficiency, how they apply skills, how they organize their learning or how they share their experiences with colleagues.
2. Structure lessons around clear, real-world goals
The learning has to matter for it to motivate learners. Studies show that students maintain motivation better when focused on topics either of personal interest or immediate applicability. In short, to help students with motivation in eLearning, make sure they can always answer the question, "Why do I care about this?"
Rather than starting with jargon-heavy generalizations, present a relevant problem and only then show how the formalization is useful to solve it. Tie instruction to what learners already know, so that they don't get put off by over-intensity of new information. In evaluations and assignments, focus on questions and elements that are concrete; the information students really need to retain is how to handle real-world situations, so focus evaluation on that.
3. Create engaging, bite-size materials
Getting the form and structure of a lesson right makes comprehension easier, which in turn reduces the drain on motivation that any new information poses.
One common tactic is to start the lesson by posing a question, problem, or mystery, which you will pursue throughout the materials. Humans have a natural aptitude for narrative, and linking the lesson with a story causes it to linger in the mind longer than the bare facts would. Rote, boring tasks that require little thought do not serve to motivate students, leading to ineffective courses.
To optimize learning capacity, keep lesson units small - about 10-20 minutes is a good figure. These "learning bytes" are easily digestible in a single cognitive chunk, which aids motivation in eLearning by placing fewer demands on a student's focus. In addition, adding assessment to each learning byte grants students a sense of accomplishment, as well as helping you identify problem areas quickly.
4. Engage students with each other
ELearning courses run the risk of being isolating, unsocial experiences in which learners interact only with the instructor, and that distantly. To prevent this, encourage students to reach out - not just to you, but to each other as well. Instead of a pure lecture, which is completely passive, try adding elements of discussion. In addition to keeping students' minds engaged, they will be able to share their personal perspectives with each other, broadening their understanding.
Chat rooms, online mentoring, email lists, and audio streaming can all increase motivation in eLearning by offering students choices (see point 1) and chances to relate socially, both of which make an activity more pleasant. The more support students have, the more comfortable they feel in pressing forward.
Games and other competitive activities can also be great motivational boosters. Both competition and cooperation can urge students to focus and articulate what they're learning to others without feeling onerous.
5. Give - and seek - feedback frequently
When students don't receive regular feedback, they often feel lost and unsure of how well they're doing and whether they're learning anything at all, both of which severely reduce motivational energy. Make sure to provide assessment opportunities steadily: even if the student is doing well and doesn't require your intervention, they benefit from knowing that!
It's important to calibrate assessment difficulty carefully: on the one hand, students who don't have to work at all to succeed may lose interest or focus; on the other, if students feel like they're working hard and not succeeding, they get dispirited. Both are detrimental to long-term motivation. For best results, tasks should be challenging but doable.
It's important to receive feedback as well as provide it. Check in with students regularly to make sure you're meeting their educational needs. Even if everything is going well, people are more invested in situations where they feel their opinions are valued.
Overall, the key to maintaining motivation in eLearning is investment: whether through interest in the topic or desire to maintain a success rate, students who are more motivated to succeed have better focus and find courses more rewarding.
Keep these guidelines handy when designing your eLearning courses and you’ll see what a difference a little motivation makes.