Motivation of Online Learners

Authors: Joseph Aduayi-Akue, Kodjovi Lotchi, Subia Parveen, Tanja Onatsu, Tuula Pehkonen-Elmi



This paper is based on the pedagogical project which focuses on the main factors that motivates or demotivates learners while they are studying online. Specifically, this paper focuses on technical and pedagogical aspects that are needed to make an online course attractive and motivating during the course. The idea is to determine what an online course should implement to keep the learners’ motivation high to learn and to participate and what should not be done during an online course in order for the learners to lose their motivation. The project was divided in two phases. First the literature review and second phase was development of the survey which could be used to find out motivation of online learners. The review of literature in this paper was conducted around four (4) research questions: 1) what are common facts that are found to be affecting online learners’ motivation. 2) What are the positive and negative influences previously found. 3) How common it is to evaluate online learners’ motivation? 4) What kind of evaluation processes have been used? The review was based on previous published articles where we compare findings from the authors to identify the best practices.  Based on this literature review the survey was developed for the facilitators to use in order to assess the motivation of online learners.


Online learning or distance learning is an important part of University teaching around the word with the fact that there is a great need to provide flexible delivery of education. It is gaining popularity in the educational world nowadays. This trend will likely continue due to the globalization of education and the spread of new and adequate information technology tools. It gives flexibility to the learners in terms of time and place. Moreover, it allows a person to continue job and other responsibilities. (Harandi, 2015; Hathaway). There are many approaches to online learning such as web based learning, computer based learning and virtual learning environment. (Dalhem & Saleh, 2014). There are many definitions and perceptions for these different terminologies used like online learning, distance learning and virtual learning.

Online learning is considered one of the best opportunity nowadays for professional grooming and learning and thus the number is increasing in every country. Study conducted on nurse’s shows positive impact of online learning as it is suitable for work condition and needs. It was recommended to provide online learning opportunity to nurses despite of their age, working experience and area of residency. (Karaman, 2011). Study conducted on learners from higher studies show association between eLearning and learners motivation. The conclusion was when the eLearning is more practical and application based it will draw learner’s motivation and learners will be more engaged in learning thus leading to success and achieve the learning objectives. (Kim & W. Frick as cited in Harandi, 2015).

Online learning may pose some challenges due to its nature of delivery. It can lead to demotivation, minimal participation or even withdrawal of the learners. Therefore, in order to have positive learning experience it is vital to identify and discuss the factors affecting learner’s engagement and motivation in an online course. (Gedera, et al, 2015). To master online learning environment, it is important for the facilitator and also for the learner to be competent in technological aspects. To develop collaborative learning skills for online education, learners should possess these skills such as social learning skills, discursive skills, reflective skills and evaluation skills (Dabbagh, 2007).

It is obvious with the development of online courses in the educational institutions and in the corporate life that this question about factors that motivate or demotivate learners should be answered. Besides, it becomes important for teachers or instructors to know the answers of the previous question to successfully implement an online course.

Based on the pedagogical significance of the topic the group decided the complete the project in two phases. Fist to review the literature and get insight on the topic and secondly integrate this learning in developing a survey which can be used to assess motivation of online learners. The literature review helped us to assess the factors that motivate and demotivate learners during an online course, and to find how these issues can be resolved while preparing and implementing the course.

Literature review

The literature was searched from these databases, Science Direct (Elsevier), ERIC, EBSCO Host, PubMed, and Google Scholar, using the set key words. The key words were Motivation, Online Learning, Distance Learning, Factors affecting motivation, Web based learning. Online learning and motivation. The articles which were published in the past 10 years were included in the literature review process with the exception of some landmark studies in the field. Initially 25 articles were found based on our search. After the critical appraisal process, we included 14 articles in the final literature review. All these articles were about motivation of online learners, factors affecting motivation of online learners and online learning.

Knowing that motivation is a key in online learning and when it lacks it can lead to failure or drop out, it is obvious that we ask this question: How common is it to evaluate online learners’ motivation?

How common is it to evaluate online learners’ motivation?

E-learning/online learning will not be a viable alternative to traditional onsite learning if e-learner are not motivated enough. The learning environment itself which need to be designed in a way to move and attract the learner instead of deterring him is another important factor. In that regard various studies revealed the importance of motivation in learning in general and in e-learning in particular. According to Bzuneck (2001) motivation is an internal construct which guides, changes or maintains goals, actions and preferences. There are two types of motivation in this namely Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation occurs when we act without any obvious external rewards. We simply enjoy an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualize our potentials.” (Coon & Mitterer, 2010). In the other hand “Extrinsic motivation refers to our tendency to perform activities for known external rewards, whether they be tangible (e.g., money) or psychological (e.g., praise) in nature.”(Brown, Psychology of Motivation, 2007). In further researches, Deci and Ryan (2000) proposed a continuum of internalization of the regulations of behavior which gradually progress through types of extrinsic motivation until they reach the motivational level conceived of as more self-regulated and autonomous, that is, intrinsic motivation (Deci & Vansteenkiste, 2004).

Furthermore, a study made on 160 final-year undergraduate psychology learners at University of Bucharest, Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, Romania helped to see the impact on learners’ conceptions of learning according to their learning context (regular and distance education) and to their level of intrinsic motivation for learning. The result showed that learners from distance learning program, compared to the learners from regular program, reported higher scores on conceptions that learning is personal change and a continuous process.

Also study conducted on learners from higher studies show association between elearning and traditional learners’ motivation. The conclusion was when the eLearning is more practical and application based it will draw learner’s motivation and learners will be more engaged in learning thus leading to success and achieve the learning objectives. (Kim & W. Frick as cited in Harandi, 2015). Not only in the educational institutions, in professional or corporate life where online courses are used, is the same question asked. Study conducted on nurse’s shows positive impact of online learning as it is suitable for work condition and needs. It was recommended to provide online learning opportunity to nurses despite of their age, working experience and area of residency. (Karaman, 2011).

Researches demonstrated that the question of motivation is known as key issue in online course. What are the common facts that are found to be affecting online learners’ motivation?

What are the common facts that are found to be affecting online learners’ motivation?

Motivation can be either intrinsic or extrinsic (Kiymet Selvi, 2010). Whereas intrinsic motivation is related to internal energy that supports interest of learning, extrinsic motivation is related to external factors that stimulate learners. These extrinsic factors can be for example: teachers’ behaviors, learning topics, interaction between the teacher and the learners and so on. Extrinsic motivation is the one we will investigate mainly in this review.

Five main themes were identified by Selvi K. (2010) in his research. The themes are as follows in a priority order:

  • Learning-teaching process – Roles of instructors
  • Participation and attention
  • Online learning environment / technical infrastructure
  • Time management

Of course all these findings tend to be extrinsic motivation factors in opposite to intrinsic motivation factors.

While by reviewing past studies Kim and Frick (2011) developed a theoretical framework for influences on the learner’s motivation in online course. They organised the factors that influence learner’s motivation in computer-based instruction and distance education settings into three major categories: internal, external and personal factors.

Internal factors are related to the features of the course itself. Cognitive overload and perceived difficulty of course learning tasks can increase learner anxiety, and decrease learner motivation to learn in online settings. Convenience and flexibility of learning can have a paramount influence on the learner’s motivation for online learning. Also, learner control which can be summarized into three categories (sequencing, pacing, and access to learner support), affects learner motivation in computer mediated learning. Instructional approaches which promote flow and playfulness can lead into sustaining learner motivation in multimedia learning environments. Technical difficulties and communication breakdowns demotivate and might cause learners to drop out of an online course. The presence or the absence of social interaction in on the online learning environment can have mixed impacts on the motivation of online learners. The level of interaction with learning materials is significantly associated with learner motivation in online learning environments.

External factors refer to aspects of the learning environment. According to Kim and Frick (2011) several motivation theories underscore environmental influences on human motivation. Learner support in particular affects learners’ satisfaction with web-based instruction. For non-traditional adult learners, support for technical difficulties and for the challenges adult learners face (e.g., lack of time and family demands) is important in their participation in online courses (Hudson, McCloud, Buhler, Cramer, Greer, and Paugh 1998).  Adequate training to use the necessary technology improves the learner satisfaction with their online classes (Schramm, Wagner, and Werner 2000). Learner motivation is also influenced by the overall climate of the learner’s instructional and organizational setting (Kim and Frick 2011).

Personal factors refer to motivational influences caused by the learner. Learning and motivation can be affected by learners’ personal variables e.g. learning style and media preferences (Kim and Frick 2011).

According to Kim and Frick (2011) the best predictors of motivation to begin elearning/online course are perceived relevance, reported technology competence, and age. The study also shows that perceived quality of instruction and learning (elearning is right for me) and motivation to begin are the best predictors of motivation during online learning. In addition, the study indicates that motivation during elearning is the best predictor of positive change in motivation, which in turn predicts learner satisfaction with online course.

What are the positive and the negative influences previously found?

The common facts found are mainly divided into intrinsic and extrinsic factors. The next question will be how the intrinsic and extrinsic factors are defined and how they should be worked on in the course to emphasize on the motivation.

Selvi (2010) stated that factors that are positively affecting motivation of learners are for example:

  • Teachers’ enthusiasm
  • Relevance of the course materials
  • Well planned and organized class sessions
  • Instructors’ expectations at an appropriate difficult level
  • Learners’ active involvement in the classroom learning
  • Use of various instructional techniques
  • Warm and friendly teachers
  • Use of real, concrete and clear examples …

Kim and Frick’s instructional design principles for sustaining learner motivation in self-directed e-learning are:

  • Provide learners with content that is relevant and useful to them.
  • Incorporate multimedia presentations that stimulate learner interest.
  • Include learning activities that simulate real-world situations.
  • Provide content at a difficulty level which is in a learner’s zone of proximal development.
  • Provide learners with hands-on activities that engage them in learning.
  • Provide learners with feedback on their performance.
  • Design the website so that it is easy for learners to navigate.
  • If possible, incorporate some social interaction in the learning process (e.g., with an instructor, technical support staff, or an animated pedagogical agent).

Online learning requires more self-regulation, intrinsic motivation and independence from the learner than the traditional classroom education. Keller’s ARCS (attention, relevance, confidence, satisfaction) Model of Motivation is a framework for learners to become and remain motivated. To motivate learners, it is important to gain and keep the learners attention. Relevance is related to the ability of the teacher to connect the accomplishment of learner learning to a desired future goal. Confidence is teachers’ ability to instill in the learner the belief that he/she can successfully handle taught subject. Satisfaction comes from learner’s feeling of accomplishment.

Distributed scaffolding can also assist in developing support to help learners achieve learning outcomes. Distributed scaffolding refers to the role of the educator in stimulating, supporting and encouraging the learner to higher goals through techniques that are constructed for the leaner and then gradually decreased as the needs of the learner decrease.

The use of the ARCS Model of Motivation and distributed scaffolding can also be used in the online classrooms. Learners attention can be raised by preparing a video explaining background of the course, expected outcomes and sharing something personal about the teacher. Creating opportunities for learner-to-learner interaction will give learners feeling of belonging. Using a variety of teaching/learning strategies to present content and taking advantages of technology available also affects learners’ attention. Learners often have the same questions, so creating opportunities for all to see teachers answers and explanations can be helpful in keeping learners’ attention.

Relevance of the online course can be achieved by learners introducing themselves and their goals. Learners should have opportunities to share examples of the information in their blogs or journals. Creating a “social page” or the “coffee room” can be helpful. This way learners will have opportunities to share dilemmas and get help in solving them. The engagement in learner network will benefit the learner’s learning and demonstrate relevance.

Having learners creating content, leading groups and discussion board can empower learner confidence. Teacher should respond personally to low-performing learners. When learners feel confident they will begin to see the relevance of content to larger goals and their beginning mastery of the concepts. This will inspire confidence to continue to be engaged and to seek further information.

To ensure satisfaction feedback on work should be given either in verbal or written or by phone. Online testing or evaluation methods can be used to measure learner progress. Availability for learners can be achieved via virtual office hours, scheduled appointments or by planned phone call.

ARCS Motivational Model and scaffolding techniques can be applied to course design to encourage learner participation in class, fell less isolated from faculty and peers and remain motivated to learn. Faculty need to be aware of the technology tools and their capabilities and comfort barriers in implementing them to facilitate motivation, engagement and learning in online learners.

Other researchers emphasize also on the same aspects. For instance, Lin and Chiu, in their studies concluded that the key factors that affects online learning positively includes sense of community, instructor involvement, prior learning experience, interaction, different learning styles and student motivation. (Lin and Chiu, 2011). Dennen & Bonk also stressed on the factors like learning environment, timely feedback to the learners, student engagement, authentic and relevant course, variety of teaching strategies, increase curiosity, group and peer interaction, and effective communication strategies. (Dennen & Bonk, 2007).

Peer learning is another important factor to take into account in order to facilitate online learning. As defined by Topping (2005), peer learning is the acquisition of knowledge and skills through active help and support among stated equals or matched companions. That is why Rafiza Abdul Razak & Yee Chen See (2010) study on improving academic achievement and motivation through online peer learning recommended online peer learning as a process of achieving better motivation and academic result.

Incentivized online activities are also of prime importance. One of these incentives are the communication technologies to enhance effective learning experience among learners (Stiles, 2000). However, a research conducted on adult learners Arts and Social Sciences field by Lee Chin Hin & Brian (2011) focused attention on an Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM), one of the key communication behavior models which suggests that it takes Motivation for the receiver to think about the message. At the end of their research, the propose the following strategies as incentives or motivation:

  • Include e-learning activities as part of the course assessment components. This represents a direct incentive to engage the learners. The suggestion is that most, if not all, e-learning activities should be graded.
  • Encourage instructor-learner interaction. The online discussion board should encourage learners to articulate and reflect their thinking, instead of just browsing the course materials and lecture notes.
  • Instructors should rethink learning outcome if they intend to convert the conventional course into an e-learning one.

It is obvious that motivation is very important in order to be an effective e-learner. Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are needed. That is why instructors should not just transfer their course material into an online portal and call it e-learning. They must make use of various online learning tools. It is also important to have in mind the group factor by arranging if possible for peer learning. By so doing learners wherever they are, will not feel isolated and can support each other. The course material itself and the way it is delivered is also important. It must be interactive and rewarding to the learner.

In addition to the knowledge about how motivation is affected in online course, an instructor should often check how motivated are his/her leaners. This can be done in different ways.

What kind of evaluation processes have been used?

In many cases, students’ motivation is checked at the end of the course or a survey is made to check how motivated was the course and what should be done next to make it more motivational. Selvi K. (2010) asked the following questions PhD students who did an online course:

  • What are the motivating factors for the online course being conducted? Please explain briefly.
  • According to you what should be done to increase the motivation in an online course?

This last question was a possibility to the students to reflect on what they think should be in the future online course therefore help improve the quality of the course.

These are the answers that students gave in order of priority:

  • Learning-teaching process – Roles of instructors
  • Participation and attention
  • Online learning environment / technical infrastructure
  • Time management
  • Measurement and evaluation

The provided answers confirm the findings in the previous different researches. These factors have to be taken into consideration when designing an online course in order to keep learners’ motivation up during the course.

Phase II: Survey Development


In the second phase of the project our learning circle choose to develop a survey.  By using the survey, we would be able to discover the reasons of demotivation of learners in online courses and their level of importance. It will also help identifying positive and negative factors that affect learners’ motivation.  This will further help to make changes and improvement based on the survey result. The survey was developed based on the insight gained from the literature review.

The survey included question from teaching, course satisfaction and learning environment which further consists of faculty, students and technology related question. All these items are measured on a Likert scale of 1-5 and for importance and satisfaction both.

After the survey was ready, the group decided to get feedback from some facilitator and students for further improvement. The feedback from both the students and facilitators were incorporated in the final survey. Finally the ultimate outcome of the project was ready in the form of survey which can be utilized by facilitators involved in online teaching.


Online learning and teaching is the need of the time. It is crucial for the facilitators to keep in mind the factors which could motivate or demotivate the learner. Thus accordingly plan the course to make it successful and engage learners in a productive way. Through this literature it is emphasized that students active engagement , teachers role in the online learning environment, feedback and evaluation process, technological competencies are some of the important points which should be considered by educations to plan and implement an effective online learning experience for the learners.


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