Motivating Online Students to Achieve Success

By Kyle Harley, Purdue University Global Writing Center Tutor


As I continually see the fantastic work our faculty accomplishes here at the university, I, like many of my colleagues, wonder how we can improve further still. The process of motivating students, particularly in an online setting, proves a challenge at times. I suspect every instructor, on-site or online, would happily agree with that statement. This rarely proves much of a problem, however, as each educator possesses a different skillset to “reach” their students. Some use a more rapport-based approach with students, while others rule with an iron fist to keep students on track and dedicated to punctuality.   I recently came across a student, now one of my favorites to work with, who proved a bit of a challenge for instructors and other tutors alike. These bumps in the road, however, stemmed from the student feeling silenced and misunderstood, both in the classroom and in a tutorial setting. I began to understand the student’s frustration. Instead of suggesting that I do a better job at instructing or anything of the like, the student surprised me with a statement that really made me think differently about how we address students who lack motivation. The more that we spoke at length, the more I began to heed these simple words that we rarely hear from students:  You speak my language.

The biggest issue this particular student faced, indirectly, evolved from feeling lost within the classroom and, therefore, developing a severe lack of confidence. As most any writing instructor will suggest, students who lack confidence tend to make a few more mistakes than a confident writer. That said, the student felt that they were simply not being understood fully. After a bit of prying, the issue, much like many cases similar to this, stemmed from the student not having the confidence to ask their professor or tutor a simple question. The question, in the eyes of the student, seemed far too simple for the course when others seemingly picked up on the material instantly. After some colloquial questioning, the student revealed that they simply felt unmotivated due to their inability to write effectively, particularly with this assignment and the course itself as the pace of the material proved an issue to boot. Tapping into the notion of self-empowerment, not too often spoke of in an online setting, may well be the direction we all need to approach to better propel our students into their desired futures. So where do educators begin? First, why not ask a very simple question?

How comfortable would we be, as a student, if we completely lacked confidence?

In a simple response: not too comfortable. A good number of students, from my experience, on both ends of the spectrum, tend to feel uncomfortable with an assignment at one point in their academic career. Sure, we did as well, but why shy away from exploring the issue further? Taking the few extra minutes, possibly after class or a tutoring session, to explore these queries may well make all the difference in the world. Take the time to sit down with a student, even individually, and listen to their concerns. If the educator can identify the issue of the student, it then we can react and interact to further help students achieve their goals. Speaking of which, why not discuss that issue?

Make their goals your goals.

Why shouldn’t educators focus on the eventual career of the student? If we are here to educate, regardless of the title, our primary concern should be the student. Sure, I am not a nursing major, as many others are not as well, but does that shed our responsibility of identifying what the student wants to accomplish in their lives? Surely this will require more conversation and connectivity with our students, but nothing can help students more than knowing that they have an academic shoulder in respects. Regarding just the one example listed above, I think the case is pretty obvious in that students, amidst the lives they are living, may well need a level head to speak to every now and again. Now is not the time to assume someone else can “fix” the situation; instead, we all can sympathize with our students to comfort them in a way that they feel nurtured, at home, and willing to learn—even if some of them question us the entire way.

Next: Show them “why they are taking this course.”

Every educator, regardless of the subject matter, will likely have heard or read the following question:  Why am I learning this?  When students pose this question, ask them! Why ARE they here learning this? So many times I see students enter a tutoring room asking why they need to know A, B, and C, so why not explore the issue further with the student? Five minutes of our time can make all the difference in the world. Students respond very well to figures of authority, regardless of our style in terms of teaching. Even in a classroom setting, I still find it pertinent to take notice of every student’s name, concern, and desire regarding their academic desires. Simple dialogue, such as staying after class or a workshop, for any student, really does extend that caring element. We can all do a bit more to make our students feel comfortable in any situation—in the classroom or in tutoring. Still, how do we inspire confidence? Simple: How did you get to the place that you are in today?

By believing in yourself! Confidence requires a bit of a nudge.

We all have mentors, even harkening back to when we were in our students’ position, but how many of us take on that “ambassador” role for the university? Many, if not all of our faculty, can easily occupy this role with little worry, but even in a class of 30+, we must retain that role and make sure that each and every student feels valued. Speaking individually with students can make all the difference in the world, particularly when they have questions. The key here is to make sure that all students find enough comfort in a scholastic setting to voice these questions effectively. Even by simply staying a few minutes later just to ask if any student needs further clarification could be the turning point for a shy student to open up a bit.

It should be our top priority as educators to see to it that our students feel valued, comfortable, and confident in each academic scenario. The separation via the online medium can provide a few unexpected challenges along the way, particularly for these nervous students, but it should then be our responsibility to seek out these students and adhere to their needs. Where would we all be if someone did not take a bit of a extra time to help us, as well?



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2 Responses

  1. kuwcnews says:

    Thanks, Kyle. I appreciate the reminder to think about the student perspective. More and more with the busy lives of our students they need to understand why they are spending their precious time doing a particular task. I am finding that in recent days, especially in the tutoring centers, that some students are so focused on one individual task or one individual part of an assignment they have trouble understanding that the answer they seek is actually found in a previous chapter or assignment. This has proven to be one of those moments that taking the student perspective has been helpful. Great post!

  2. Great tips! Thanks for reminding me that I am on point with my strategies to ensure my students’ success! Jeanette

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