Imagine you’re an online instructor in the middle of a semester. Every week at the 11:59 pm deadline, students submit assignments that barely meet the rubric minimums. The discussion boards and virtual office hours are ghost towns, and you’re not convinced anyone is reading your feedback. What can you do to motivate your online students to engage with the content and go the extra mile with their assignments and studies? Turner and Paris (1995) identified 6 factors to consider in your own course design to improve student motivation: Choice, Constructing Meaning, Control, Challenge, Consequence, and Collaboration.


When students are curious about a topic, they make a greater effort to learn and understand the material (Schiefele, 1991). This is easily incorporated into assignments by giving students a range of options to choose from when completing a paper or project. Consider the following examples:

Example 1 (for a management course):

In the Week 1 Discussion Board, describe your main takeaways from Tom Wujec’s TED Talk – “Build A Tower Build A Team.”


In the Week 1 Discussion Board, describe your main takeaways from a TED Talk related to Business Management. Here’s a list of 10 options (, or you may choose a different one.

The second option will give students an opportunity to explore the wealth of TED Talks available and choose one of interest to them. They may even watch several to see which one they’d like to write about. They’ll also benefit from reading about the videos their peers reviewed.

Example 2 (for a gender studies or media course):

Apply the Bechdel test to the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and write a 250+ word post in the discussion board on why it passes or fails.


Apply the Bechdel test to one of the following movies: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Run Lola Run,” “The Blind Side,” or “Avatar.” Write a 250+ word post in the discussion board on why it passes or fails.

The second version provides students with a greater level of choice than the first version, but they’re still presented with options that will more likely yield interesting discussions or insights. Alternatively, you can let students choose any film, but this may make grading difficult and could perhaps compromise the effectiveness of the assignment. The level of your course (lower-division, upper-division, graduate) should be an important factor in the amount of flexibility you give to your students.

Constructing Meaning

Students’ motivation to learn increases when they consider the knowledge to be valuable (Wang & Han, 2001). Faculty may assume that students realize how the course materials and objectives apply to real-life skills and situations, but students’ understanding of their field can often be very limited, or they may harbor misconceptions. The Quality Matters Certification Rubric, which is used to evaluate the effectiveness of online courses, includes the essential criterion, “Both the purpose of instructional materials and how the materials are to be used for learning activities are clearly explained” (QM Standard 4.2). Consider listing the related learning objectives of each item and emphasizing the benefits or reasoning behind all of your major assignments and instructional materials, even if they may seem obvious. Anecdotes can be particularly powerful here; try beginning with a personal story or fictional-but-common scenario depicting when you or someone else had to complete a similar project in your profession. While text is an easy delivery option, consider including these anecdotes in a video overview or description so students can see your passion and expressions.

You may also consider a hypothetical scenario leading into a weekly unit or assignment. Instead of using a simple to-do list, consider starting with a brief narrative. Compare these prompts for students:

Example 3 (for a weekly overview or reading list):

This week, please read: Chapters 7 and 8 of Principles of Supply Chain Management.


Imagine it’s your first day on the job as a supply chain manager and a member of your team has a problem shipping parts through an area devastated by a forest fire. What factors do you need to consider when rerouting the parts, and how would you respond? This week, read chapters 7 and 8 of Principles of Supply Chain Management to be prepared for this common scenario. This reading will help you complete this week’s writing assignment and meet learning objective 4.1.

Example 4 (for an assignment):

Unit 3 assignment: Describe the life cycle of a plastic water bottle in a 2 page paper. Cite your sources.


Unit 3 assignment: Imagine there’s a new local ballot initiative in your town to ban plastic water bottles. In your future career as an environmental expert, the Channel 3 Action News team reaches out and wants to know how plastic water bottles are produced and where they typically end up. Write up a 2 page script of what you might say to them, and be sure to cite your sources in case anyone questions your facts.

This is a simple, short, and non-technical way to construct meaning for students. Depending on your prompt, you may get some more creative responses to your assignments. Additionally, requiring the students to write in a more conversational tone will likely make it more difficult to directly copy an answer from a formal source like a textbook or reputable website without paraphrasing.


Giving students control of their own learning promotes responsibility, independence, and self-regulation, but can also increase anxiety and confusion. In a typical online course, control can apply to: when to do course work, how to do coursework, or whether to collaborate with peers. It’s possible that, depending on when course units open and close, students may not have or allot enough time to properly complete assignments regardless of their excitement or interest. Consider the following questions regarding control, keeping in mind that there’s no ideal answer for all courses:

  • Do you open multiple or all learning modules/units up for students to access early, or do you limit their access to the current week?
  • Do you provide paced due dates, or perhaps cumulative installments in a major project, or do you simply require students to complete all assignments by the end of a unit or course?
  • Do you give students the option of working collaboratively or solo on course projects? For instance, you may give students the option of working solo on an 8 page paper or in pairs on a 12 page paper.


An appropriate level of cognitive challenge is key to keeping students engaged with course material. If the cognitive challenge level is too high, students can be frustrated or overwhelmed, and if it’s too low, students may become bored and disengaged. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a great resource to help frame the spectrum of low to high cognitive challenge in educational settings. In this category, it’s important to distinguish cognitive challenge from time required since many instructors and students will consider a difficult assignment to be one that involves a lot of time and effort. Activities that require high cognitive challenge (ones that require analysis, evaluation, or creation as opposed to simply remembering or applying facts) don’t inherently require more time, and conversely, major projects can sometimes require a lot of time and minimal cognitive challenge. In the latter scenario, unless there’s a direct application to the students’ field, this will likely be seen as busy work and won’t inspire engagement. Here are three versions of an assessment that progressively challenge students at higher cognitive levels:

Example 5 (for a music course on the Beatles):

Describe the musical characteristics of “Abbey Road” and “The White Album”


Identify a song written by each of the Beatles on “Abbey Road” or “The White Album” and analyze how each member’s writing style is reflected in that song


Create a music review for a fictional final album by the Beatles that would have followed “Abbey Road” by drawing from developmental trends in their previous few albums.

The first version would be more appropriate for lower-level music students or non-music-majors, while the third version would be a more engaging challenge for those with a much deeper familiarity with music. Depending on the assignment details, all three examples could require a similar time commitment.

Another consideration in this category is whether or not students should have an opportunity to re-submit an assignment, quiz, or draft after feedback is given. If this scenario would be appropriate in your class, this may allow for higher cognitive challenge without some of the added frustration since students can have their mistakes or misunderstandings corrected prior to the final submission.


Consequence refers to students’ recognition that there will be positive or negative repercussions associated with their efforts in the class. At ASU Online, we typically recommend a mix of low- and high-stakes assessments, including formative assessments (low-stakes or ungraded quizzes and assignments that help students check their understanding) and summative assessments (higher-stakes tests and assignments at the end of a unit or course to measure if students have met the learning objectives). If you find that students are skimming or ignoring some of your lectures or readings, consider making a low-stakes assignment or quiz directly relating to these materials, or, for your summative assessments, consider requiring that students quote and cite the course learning materials in their discussion posts, projects, or assignments. For the latter option, be sure to make this requirement clear in the assignment description and/or the rubric.

Additionally, consider having students post their work publicly. Students tend to exert more effort when it will be appreciated and recognized by others (Malone & Lepper, 1983). For a final presentation or paper, consider having students post their work to a discussion board with peer review and responses. Recognizing exemplary work by students in weekly announcements can be rewarding for those with the top submissions and may inspire a sense of competition for future assignments.


When students work together, they have opportunities to learn from each other or hold each other accountable to stay on task and meet deadlines (Wang & Han, 2001). Group work can be challenging in online courses due to technology requirements, asynchronous communications, time zone differences, and other reasons, but the benefits can and often do outweigh the added effort compared to solo work. Students may benefit from seeing others’ work and sharing perspectives, which allows them to compare their own understanding and experiences with their peers. This process can fill in gaps where the instructor’s materials weren’t as effective or extend their knowledge to new domains or applications. This comparison can also inspire lagging students to invest more time in the assignment in order to match their peers’ efforts. Consider opportunities in your own course where you can implement peer review or group work, and consult with your instructional designer if you have any questions or concerns on the best way to structure these interactions.

In any collaboration setting, keep in mind the importance of clarifying to students what is cheating and where it’s appropriate to collaborate to prevent any misunderstandings of academic integrity.

What are some strategies that you use to motivate students in your online courses? Are there any other motivational factors instructors and instructional designers should consider when designing their courses?

Special thanks to: Marc van Horne, DeAnna Soth, Athena Kennedy, Philippos Savvides, Geoffrey Gunter, and Lindz Lewandowski for their suggestions and comments on this article.


Malone, M. R. & Lepper, M. R. (1983). Making learning fun. In R. E. Snow & J. F. Marshall (Eds.), Aptitude, learning, and instruction: Cognitive and affective process analyses (Vol. 3, pp. 223-253). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Schiefele, U. (1991). Interest, learning, and motivation. Educational Psychologist, 26(3/4), 299-323.

Turner, J., & Paris, S. G. (1995). How literacy tasks influence children’s motivation for literacy. The Reading Teacher, 48(8), 662-673.

Wang, S. & Han, S. (2001). Six C’s of Motivation. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved 20 October, 2017, from