Motivation and Online Learning: Part II

Wouter Buelens, Paul A. Kirschner, & Mirjam Neelen

Last week, we discussed the relationship between motivation and learning in general. This week’s blog investigates whether the principles of motivation that apply in face-to-face learning contexts also apply in the context of online/blended learning. We then describe a number of effective learning and instructional strategies that enhance learning and can increase motivation. How can we implement these strategies in shaping (partially) online learning?


It’s a humongous challenge to keep learners motivated during (forced) distance education or online learning. Interestingly, at the same time, the idea that blended learning should have a permanent place in both compulsory and higher education now and in the future, is gaining popularity. A blended form of instruction or learning usually means a mix of ‘in-class contact instruction’ and a certain degree of online learning outside the ‘physical building walls’. The debate on the best method of implementation and in what form for which target groups is still going strong. In this contribution, Barend Last explains [in Dutch] the concept of blended education and a number of models for designing a blended learning environment.

It’s wise to have an eye for the intrinsic motivation of learners during (independent) online learning – and how to strengthen it – both now and in the future, so let’s get started.

Motivation and online learning

The determining factors for motivation as discussed in our previous blog are equally valid in a (partially) online context. It’s probably fair to say that the specific nature of online learning, requires us to consider motivation even more when designing online instruction.

We go into a bit more detail here and refer briefly to research which shows the importance of paying attention to self-efficacy, ownership, and socio-emotional aspects (see last week’s blog). Also, we provide two online tools for each concept that can help maintain or strengthen the motivation of learners who learn online.


The feeling that you can do something successfully is a determining factor in sustained effort. This certainly seems to be the case in an online learning environment where high drop-out rates can be partly attributed to a limited degree of self-efficacy (Hartnett, 2016). Self-efficacy can be promoted by allowing learners to have learners experience success. This is how.

  • Build in small tests or quizzes regularly. These aren’t meant to grade learners (i.e., tests that aren’t summative in nature but are, rather low- or no-stakes tests). Instead, they’re either formative or are intended as a learning aid or study strategy (retrieval practice). Digital tools used in these cases can allow learners to receive immediate feedback when answering questions. In this automated feedback you can give learners extra positive reinforcement in case of a correct answer. But even if the answer isn’t correct, supportive information (i.e., scaffolds) can be provided, so that they come to a correct solution with a nudge in the right direction. Even if you don’t have access to a specific electronic learning environment, there are many useful tools to realise this. Think of Google Forms or digital exercises made with H5P (see how to make a quiz here).
  • Learners can also develop self-efficacy when they notice that peers (in this context their ‘equals’, classmates with the same or similar capacities) are able to realise challenges (vicarious experience). You can achieve this, for example, by giving positive feedback on contributions from learners that are posted on a forum and can be read by others. Or when using examples (e.g., Building block 3, Lessons for Learning, also see our blog here), you can use good practices from other learners. The idea there is that the learner will think: “If someone so similar to me can do that, then so can I.”


Having some control over the learning process can, for example, be about having a say in choices that are made in achieving predefined goals. If the learner experiences the online learning environment to support autonomy, this has a positive effect on intrinsic motivation (Hsu et al., 2019).

However, ownership also has to do with a sense of control over causes of failure and success. Learning is promoted when learners attribute their learning success or failure to factors they control (attribution). On the one hand, you can attribute success (I can) or failure (I can’t) to your own behaviour. For example, I could/couldn’t do this or I got the answer right/wrong because I may or may not have paid enough attention in class or put enough effort into studying.

On the other hand, you can attribute success or failure to something outside of yourself; I was lucky or the teacher always chooses what I don’t know. Learners who don’t attribute failure or success outside themselves often show stronger persistence in online learning. Helping learners make informed choices in their online learning journey can strengthen learners’ focus on success factors they can control (Lee et al., 2017).


Although ‘flexibility’ is often perceived as one of the advantages of blended learning, teachers – often rightly so – aren’t necessarily convinced of the self-regulating abilities of learners that would allow them to take/keep control over their learning. Further research into a good balance in blended learning between, on the one hand, the learner behind the wheel and on the other hand the teacher who determines the approach to the learning process is necessary (Boelens et al., 2017).

  • When providing feedback, try to emphasise those factors that learners can control. This is quite difficult to achieve with ‘normal’ one-way written feedback. It may therefore be appropriate to use a tool that can provide audio visual feedback (see also our blog here). When recording your feedback, you can more easily (compared to writing) give rich feedback This refers to feedback that not only tells the learner what the answer should have been (what Paul calls single-loop/corrective feedback), but which also gives information on how a better answer or solution can be achieved (double-loop/directive feedback) or even better that gets learners thinking about how to do it better (triple-loop/epistemic feedback). Research has shown that learners spend more time ‘reflecting on’ feedback when it includes non-verbal communication and they also use it more often (Winstone & Carless, 2020). You can give learners the opportunity to ask for clarification, to articulate intentions, etcetera, by responding to your feedback. This way, you create more ownership among the learners about their feedback (process). There are several tools to add a sound or video clip as feedback. In this video [in Dutch] or this video [in English], concrete tools are explained that you can use for providing audio visual feedback.
  • Ownership can also be shaped through effective instructional videos. Videos can be paused, rewound, or rewatched. At certain moments in your video (for example with EdPuzzle) you can insert questions and when learners answer them (adjunct questions[1]), they receive direct feedback. One of Paul’s first scientific articles (possibly the first[2]) was The Effect of Adjunct Questions on Learning from a Videotape Lesson (1979). This way, you not only create a sense of personal agency, but also promote the already discussed self-efficacy. It’s also important to support learners in developing their self-regulated learning. Simply making materials available online, without a clear structure or goal, is detrimental to the continued involvement and effort of your learners. You need to clearly describe expectations, and help them plan and monitor their progress. This (possibly gradually phased out) support will certainly be necessary for younger learners (but it’s likely that also older learners who are novice to the subject matter need support at first). Therefore, don’t only focus on content, but also include moments or activities in which you support learners in structuring, planning, monitoring, and shaping their progress. You can manage this process online through, for example, setting deadlines. There are many tools, such as digital calendars, where automatic reminders are sent at regular times or deadlines are visible in the learners’ dashboard. However, it can be just as effective to include a Google Doc, Word file…whatever, in your learning path, where your learners have a clear overview of what is expected, when, and how. Have your learners write short reflections (or add them in the form of audio video files) in this file as they complete certain parts and provide feedback on them.


Key here is that yes, a sense of ownership can promote motivation but only when you also offer the necessary support, so that your learners don’t just drop out because they aren’t (yet) able to make certain choices in their learning process. Also, when a learner has to make choices for which they aren’t ready, that causes excessive cognitive load, which impairs effective learning.

Socio-emotional aspects

Especially in the case of online learning that largely takes place asynchronously (i.e., learners and teachers are not present at the same time and, thus, where direct/live interaction isn’t possible), there’s a risk that learners will experience a great ‘distance’ and therefore they’ll feel a lack of connectedness. Wilfred Rubens wrote this clear blog post [in Dutch but by right-clicking anywhere on the page you can let Google translate it into English or whatever language you choose] about the challenges of realising social cohesion in a blended learning environment, with numerous concrete, simple tips to stimulate learners to feel a connection online.

The risk of this literal and figurative distance in blended education goes for both the teacher, the school, and the fellow learners as well as with regard to the subject matter. This sense of transactional distance is therefore not only practical or emotional in nature, but also refers to a cognitive distance or too little connection with the subject matter.
  • Creating social interaction in an online learning environment is more difficult than in face to face learning situations. However, there are a number of tips that you can build into your online instruction to promote the feeling of involvement, both between the learners/teachers, and learners/the learning content.
  • Provide a healthy variation between synchronous and asynchronous meetings. As described in the ‘Ownership’ section, it can be beneficial to allow learners to watch recorded instructional videos at their own pace. However, it also certainly makes sense to organise ‘live’ MS Teams, Zooms, Smartschool Lives, or whatever you use. These online meetings may be less focused on the ‘transfer’ of learning material, but they may very well be moments to ask questions or to get a sense of how learners experience the learning. You can also use these live sessions to support self-regulated learning. Yes, these moments might be at the expense of precious instruction time, but are oh so necessary if the amount of face-to-face time is limited. After all, unfeasible goals increase the gap between learners and the subject matter and thus also increase the chance of dropping out. This is why we need to keep a finger on the pulse in general. Involvement in the learning content is also reinforced by linking new material to existing prior knowledge. You can increase this involvement with the subject matter and with the learners, by working with break-out rooms (recently also possible in MS Teams). For example, start an online meeting by asking all your learners certain questions that they need to solve individually. Then create separate rooms with three to four learners in which they compare, supplement, and discuss each other’s answers. At an agreed time, everyone comes together again for a plenary discussion of the answers (digital variant of think-pair-share).
  • Using peer feedback tools cannot only enhance motivation by creating a sense of belonging (both emotional and cognitive) but also increase self-efficacy. Google Docs and Word online are simple tools where collaboration and feedback on each other’s work can be realised (possibly again by providing audio visual feedback). There are also specific feedback tools such as Peergrade and Buddycheck, which may or may not be integrated into an online learning environment. It’s important that learners also receive support when giving feedback to their fellow students (i.e., their peers). Clear criteria, such as rubrics, whether or not drawn up together with your learners, can be an option. Learners can also receive such a rubric (made available online) with an example elaboration. You can explain this example elaboration in a synchronous online meeting or through an instructional video. Here too, make sure that learners have all completed the assignment using a planning and good structure before receiving feedback: if they’ve already thought about the content of it, their peer feedback will also be more valuable and effective.


Keeping our learners motivated is a challenge not only in online but also in face-to-face learning. Despite any obstacles and efforts to be made along the way, it’s important that learners persevere towards pre-established learning goals. Designing our instruction in a way that it promotes learning is an important starting point (duh!). This way, learners will systematically gain more confidence in and have a grip on their own learning and learning process. If all this also takes place in a warm and safe learning climate in which we build in gradually decreasing support in the field of self-regulation, we’ll systematically work towards intrinsic motivation for continuous learning. Imagine that!


Boelens, R., De Wever, B., & Voet, M. (2017). Four key challenges to the design of blended learning: A systematic literature review. Educational Research Review, 22, 1-18.


Hartnett, M. (2016). The importance of motivation in online learning. In Motivation in online education (pp. 5-32). Singapore: Springer.

Hsu, H. C. K., Wang, C. V., & Levesque-Bristol, C. (2019). Reexamining the impact of self-determination theory on learning outcomes in the online learning environment. Education and Information Technologies, 24(3), 2159-2174.

Kirschner, P. A., & Hendrick, C. (2020). How learning happens: Seminal works in educational psychology and what they mean in practice. Londen, VK: Routledge.

Last, B. (2020, 28 november). Leuk dat blended learning, maar hoe implementeer je dat eigenlijk?. Geraadpleegd van

Lee, E., Pate, J. A., & Cozart, D. (2015). Autonomy support for online students. TechTrends, 59(4), 54-61.

Winstone, N., & Carless, D. (2020). Designing effective feedback processes in higher education: A learning-focused approach. New York: Routledge.

[1] Questions inserted into text with the intention of drawing attention to important textual material. Adjunct questions are known to serve several functions, including both forward and backward effects. The forward effect alerts the reader what to pay attention to in the passage. The backward effect requires the reader to go back and reread sections and to be made aware of what is more significant in the passage. Research has indicated that adjunct questions enhance comprehension by increasing the learner’s attention to specific text information and, when used skillfully, guiding learners in organizing and interpreting text material.
Dornisch M. M. (2012) Adjunct Questions: Effects on Learning. In N. M. Seel (ed.) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Springer, Boston, MA.

[2] Kirschner, P. A. (1978). The effect of adjunct question position, type, and the presence or absence of feedback on learning from a videotaped lesson. D. Brook & P. Rice (eds.), Aspects of Educational Technology XII, London: Kogan Page.