6 Strategies to Motivate Students to Complete Work Online

Last week my school division made the decision to start the school year fully virtual, at least for the first 9 weeks. Similar decisions have been made by districts all over the country. Many teachers in those divisions breathed a collective sigh of relief because going back face-to-face while virus transmission rates are still so high in many areas was anxiety inducing, to say the least.

However, immediately after the sigh of relief came the hard reality that we have to gear up for several more months of online teaching. Let’s be honest, the success of online teaching in the spring was a mixed bag, in many instances because school divisions had just a week to make the shift. Now that we have a bit more time to plan, I know in my division we are committed to doing some things differently this fall. Namely, we are putting a stronger emphasis on parent partnerships, student support, and student engagement.

I have been thinking a lot lately about that third topic, student engagement. Many instructors at my school felt that it was the number one issue we faced in the spring. How do we get students to want to log in and engage in our classes each day? How do we get them excited to learn in this new way? After some careful research and talking to colleagues who have taught online for years, I’ve come up with six ideas that teachers of all grade levels could use.

#1: Keep the Class Setup Simple

I’m starting with this idea because several online teachers I know stressed this was most important. If the setup of your class is overly complicated, students will get frustrated and many will give up. If they have to make too many mouse clicks to get where they need to go, many will give up. If they have to log into too many resources (and remember all the passwords) to complete their work, many will give up. We need to design our classes with the KISS acronym in mind: Keep it Simple and Straightforward. Also, you should regularly try to navigate your class as if you were a student and complete your own assignments to see where things don’t make sense or where students may struggle. Then you can anticipate those struggles and build in supports. This is known in the software industry as dogfooding, and is a best practice for online teaching.

#2: Be Yourself

We all know that building relationships with students is one of the most critical things teachers do, period. Since the online world can seem so impersonal, it’s even more critical for us to show students our authentic selves whenever possible. This can look like you starting every synchronous class session with a Star Wars quote, as one of my colleagues does. He also records screencasts dressed as Star Wars characters. This could mean putting little pictures of your cat into slides during pre-recorded lessons and encouraging students to count how many they see during the lesson. Another one of my colleagues does this and tells students to e-mail her the number of cats they saw. If they get it right, she sends them goofy cat memes. Have some fun! You may find that this encourage students to share who they are and the goofy things they’re into with you and their classmates. (See #5 below for more ideas on getting students to share and collaborate.)

However, being yourself isn’t always fun. It also means being honest and vulnerable and admitting to students when you make a mistake. We’re all new at this online learning thing, so we need to offer each other grace to make mistakes and learn from them. It’s all about having a growth mindset!

#3: Communicate the Why

As you build your online content, another thing to keep in mind is to be SUPER clear on your learning objectives, and be sure to communicate those objectives to students and parents in student friendly language (not the teacher-language state standards are written in). Students need to know the purpose, or the “why” of what you are asking them to do, or many will lose motivation.

One way to build in the “why” authentically is to adopt a project-based learning (PBL) model online. Yes, this is totally doable – check out these tips from PBLWorks. My daughter’s middle school used a PBL model for their online work in the spring, and both she and many of her classmates were really engaged. I think a big reason why is because all project-based units need to start with a hook and driving question, as it points out in the article above. By doing this, you build in the “why” from day 1 of a unit. In elementary school, the “why” can also be delivered in the form of regular, synchronous or asynchronous “morning meetings” that mirror the way school would start in a face-to-face setting.

#4: Personalize the Learning

Whether you create project-based learning units or not, another way to keep students engaged is to make the learning as personalized as possible. There are so many ways to do this. One of my favorites is to incorporate regularly current events that relate to what we are studying and that impact student lives. Online tools like National Geographic Kids, Newsela, or DOGO News are great for doing this. Another idea is to use choice boards so students have a say in what formative practice they complete or what their final summative assessment will look like. Teachers can even co-create choice boards with students. When students have a say, they are simply more apt to stick with the lesson or project until it’s completed.

#5: Build in Collaboration

The COVID-19 quarantine highlighted more than ever that we are social creatures; it’s hard-wired into our DNA. Even introverts need to connect with others to stay motivated and maintain a sense of well-being. All teachers need to consider how they can connect their students and build a class community even when online. There are the obvious things they can do, like having students participate in online discussions or collaborate in breakout rooms during synchronous sessions or complete partner or group projects. However, during the school shutdown this spring, some schools and teachers got even more creative. Check out some of those great ideas in this article from We Are Teachers. Additionally, I want to give a shout out to one collaboration tool I had a lot of success with during the shutdown: Flipgrid. It allows students to participate in video discussions instead of traditional text-based discussions. Just being able to see and hear their classmates upped the engagement factor for my students, and they got a chance to practice their communication skills. It’s free, and easy to use from both the teacher and student perspective.

#6: Set Goals & Plan Rewards

This is important not only for instructors to do to keep themselves motivated, but also for students to do as well. It is a basic tenet of mastery-based learning and is necessary to help students develop a growth mindset. Setting goals sporadically or in isolation, however, has been proven in multiple research studies to do little to raise student motivation or engagement. Instead, goal setting needs to be systematic, continuous and visible. In an online setting, this can mean regular goal check-ins either during synchronous whole-class sessions or during individual office hours. Students need to constantly understand where their strengths lie and where they still need to improve. In addition, encouraging them to plan little rewards for themselves when they meet a goal is key for maintaining motivation. Rewards during the time of COVID can be as simple as ordering pizza for dinner or giving yourself an hour to watch Netflix or going for a hike at a local park. Parents also need to be in the loop to help reinforce goals and facilitate rewards.

One more note about setting goals: if teachers are not regularly providing clear and meaningful feedback to students and parents in an accessible way, they can’t know if they are meeting their goals. The feedback cycle becomes so important in online learning, when we are not seeing our students in front of us every day. Luckily, many learning management systems are starting to allow teachers to leave feedback in different formats (audio, video, text, etc.), and there are also some great apps out there to assist in giving feedback (I use and love the Google Chrome extension called Kami for this). Find what works for you so you can regularly tell your students how they are doing.

Additional Resources:

  1. Teach the Earth “Student Motivation & Engagement in Online Classes”
  2. E-Learn Magazine “How to Motivate Your Students”

Edweek Blog “Four Ways to Help Students Feel Intrinsically Motivated to Do Distance Learning”


Megan Panek is a secondary Language Arts teacher and instructional coach. She currently teaches and coaches at a career and technical education (CTE) center in Virginia and believes in CTE with all her heart. She considers herself a life-long learner and is always looking to improve her craft.”

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