"A learner who is fully motivated will overcome barriers of situation and time, ... be able to deal with the stress of study with very little extra external support, and will become that most desirable of distance students the independent learner." (Simpson, 2013, p77)

This week I’ve been thinking more about what motivates online and distance students.  At work I often hear dedicated, innovative colleges complain that their students haven’t engaged with their online discussions and I see their good will and enthusiasm develop into weary scepticism for all online teaching, and disappointment in their students.   So, I wanted to explore more about why some students don’t engage when offered interesting opportunities, by reflecting on my behaviour as an online learner.

Simpson (2013) questions whether motivation is innate in students, and suggest that there is a lot a tutor can do to motivate online learners.

I had a lightbulb moment when I read this chapter as I reflected on how I studied and my subsequent performance in the first module of the MSc which was based around a series of online discussions.  Like most students, I’d prefer to be doing anything but studying in my spare time, but something motivated me to study and to organise my time well enough to succeed, something more than the novelty of it being the first module.  What was it?

It was the way the module was designed and facilitated.  These elements were crucial in supporting and motivating me:

  • it was well scaffolded: the orientation and expectations were clearly articulated right at the start of the course, helping me to plan my time and find materials.
  • it offered me a choice of topics to engage with (I chose what interested me)
  • very importantly the learning was facilitated through the discussions, it was not an add-on (don’t take part, don’t learn)
  • the requirement to contribute regularly provided small achievable goals and a sense of accomplishment
  • the task was assessed (always a motivator!)
  • I was never stuck or demotivated (or if I was it didn’t last long) as there were channels to ask for clarification and help, and to connect to my peers for reassurance .

Good online teaching is like good classroom teaching; it requires the tutor to scaffold activities that have clear value to the learners.  In the unsuccessful discussions these elements were missing.  For me, completing module 1 successfully was a result of my efforts, yes, but it was also a result of the module design and tutor facilitation which supported my requirements – the requirements I didn’t even know I had.


Simpson, O. (2013) Supporting Students for Success in Online and Distance Education.  Oxon: Routledge.