Motivating Online Students to Learn

A photo of blue stairs with a person in red shoes running up them.

Creating an inviting and supportive course climate can go a long way toward setting the stage for student learning and student retention. A positive learning climate is important for any student, but particularly so for online learners. The absence of physical peer presence and direct sensory feedback creates uncertainty and insecurity in online learners. Establishing trust and credibility in a positive way goes a long way toward addressing these insecurities. A positive learning climate is one in which students understand expectations and learning outcomes. In this article, we explain how course climate ties in with student motivation for learning and provide several techniques for creating a positive learning environment.

In his 1973 work, The Adult Learner, Malcom Knowles identifies climate as one of necessary elements for successful learning. Per Knowles, a learning environment should be:

  • Relaxed and trusting
  • Mutually respectful
  • Informal and warm
  • Collaborative and supportive
  • Open and authentic
  • Humane

Knowles’ ideas on climate closely tie in with current best practices in online courses. In 2001, five evaluators from the Indiana Center for Research on Learning Technology put together "Seven Principles of Effective Teaching: A Practical Lens for Evaluating Online Courses," an adaptation of Chickering and Gamson's "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education." These principles state that good practice encourages:

  • Student-faculty contact
  • Cooperation among students
  • Active learning
  • Giving prompt feedback
  • Emphasis of time on task
  • Communication of high expectations
  • Respect for diverse talents and ways of learning

Comparing Knowles’ aspects of climate to the Seven Principles of Effective Teaching can help create ideas for implementing successful techniques in an online environment. For example:

  • Regular student-faculty contact can help develop trust, relieve student anxiety, and create a more relaxed course environment.
  • Prompt feedback from the instructor can further promote trust and relieve anxiety, thus also promoting a more relaxed environment.
  • Emphasis of time on task - by both the instructor and student - is a demonstration of mutual respect.
  • Cooperation among students can provide a collaborative and supportive environment, as well as emphasize the humanness of everyone involved in the course.
  • Communication of high expectations can be done in a manner that shows support for the learner’s success.
  • Showing respect for diverse talents and ways of learning can help create an atmosphere that is open, warm, and mutually respectful.

These principles have since been integrated into discussions on effective online teaching and incorporated into measurement tools, such as the Quality Matters rubric. Quality Matters is a research driven organization promoting and improving online education. CLEAR uses Quality Matters as the basis for the Online Course Approval Process. To learn more about the CLEAR Course Approval Process, click here.

At first, these areas may appear difficult to establish in an online environment. Many of these qualities are typically conveyed by body language or tone of voice in face-to-face interaction. However, there are strategies that you can use to help incorporate these qualities into your online course.

Techniques for Enhancing Course Climate

Supporting students in an online course is a great way to show that you care. Bender (2003) suggests that caring ranges from the impersonal (how to find a textbook) to the highly personal (life or work situations relevant to student success in the course). Early semester caring is likely to be impersonal and directed generally toward students. As the course progresses, caring may become more specific to each student as you get to know them better.

Try the following techniques to demonstrate support and caring to your online students:

  • Students respond well, are more satisfied, and feel cared for when the instructor communicates clearly and often in the online course. If it is possible, personalized communication and responses really do make a difference to your students. Even if you have many students, a simple brief note to individuals as frequently as you can manage will go a long way toward establishing your connection and creating a positive climate. One of the ways you can make this more manageable is by scheduling individual check-ins a few times each semester.
  • Simple acknowledgments of communication are important. Emails and messages left unanswered by the instructor are a quick way to create uncertainty for online students.
  • Create clear policies for when students can expect to hear from you (email, phone calls, assignments, discussion forums, etc.) And, make sure that these interactions are sooner, rather than later.
  • Organize and arrange your course in a manner that facilitates ease of use for students and emphasizes a logical progression through the course topics.
  • Choose ways of communication with students and developing assignments that work well for your purpose and emphasize content over technology while facilitating ease of use for everyone involved.
  • Provide students with insight into your thinking about how best to approach the course by including information on how the course works, the way the work should flow, required materials, and being open about what you want them to do.
  • Create clear policies for how students should interact with each other.
  • Start the course off with an opening welcome that provides information and expresses enthusiasm.
  • Begin to build a sense of community through an introductory ice-breaker activity that will allow everyone to get to know each other and help individual personalities emerge.


Center for Learning Enhancement, Assessment and Redesign. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.

Graham, C., Cagiltay, K., Lim, B., Craner, J., and Duffy, T.M. (2001). Seven principles of effective teaching: A practical lens for evaluating online courses. Retrieved from

Wlodkowski, R.J. (2008). Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.