Understanding what motivates online learners is important because motivated students are more likely to engage in activities that help them learn and achieve, says Brett Jones, associate professor of educational psychology at Virginia Tech. Based on an extensive review of the literature on student motivation, Jones has developed the MUSIC model of student motivation, which identifies five main factors that contribute to student motivation: eMpowerment, Usefulness, Success, Interest, and Caring.
“The primary purpose of the model is to provide instructors with a guide that they can use to make intentional decisions about the design of their courses,” Jones says. In an interview with Online Classroom, Jones explained his model and its implications for online course design. We’re providing an excerpt of it here.
1. eMpowerment – Students feel empowered when they feel that they have some control over some aspects of their learning. This can involve giving students choices. “Is there some way that we can give students at least a little bit of control by giving them choices? Is there a way to give students some option to bring in something from their own lives or make some decision about a topic within that narrow assignment that lets them feel like they have some control over it?” Jones says.
Jones cites an example from an online personal health course: The instructor has students either take an online assessment or attend one or two workshops on campus related to the course’s learning objectives. This allows students the opportunity to choose their activities while still staying within the framework and goals of the course.
2. Usefulness – Students need to see that the course is useful and relevant to them within the course and beyond. In some cases it will be obvious that the skills that students will acquire in a course will directly contribute to their success in a chosen career field. In other cases, that connection will not be as clear. Jones recommends being explicit about how the skills and knowledge students acquire in the course can be applied beyond school. One way to do this is to have students interview professionals in their chosen careers about what skills and knowledge contributed to their success.
3. Success – Students need to feel that they can succeed in the course if they make a reasonable effort. The instructor can help students succeed by setting expectations, providing feedback, and facilitating the course so that students have access to additional resources if needed. “What resources do you have available for them to succeed? If you thought ahead you can know what problems students typically run into. A lot of times you can create additional documents or videos that explain the more difficult concepts,” Jones says.
4. Interest – There are two types of interest that contribute to student motivation: situational interest and individual interest. Situational interest refers to an aspect of a course that is enjoyable or fun. For example, Jones incorporates articles from Psychology Today related to the learning objectives to vary the tone and provide a different perspective from the textbook. “These are just little side readings that don’t take a lot of time and that might help students see how the [concept] might apply to the real world.”
Situational interest can be enhanced by novelty and emotions. “We as humans are attracted to things that are novel. If you have something that can engender emotion so you get people fired up about a topic or issue relates to your learning objectives that can really draw people in. We want to trigger their interest so that they pay attention enough and are interested enough while they are engaged in it,” Jones says.
Situational interest is often short lived, but it can lead to longer-term individual interest, which refers to how the content relates to the individual. For example, a student taking a course within his or her major might have a strong individual interest in the content based on how the content related to who they are and what they aspire to. A mechanical engineering major may have a strong individual interest in a mechanical engineering course because she sees herself as a mechanical engineer and thinks, “I’m interested in it because it’s who I am.”
It is possible for a student to have an individual interest in a course but not a situational interest. A student might think, for example, “I want to be a mechanical engineer, but this is boring.”
Remember that interest isn’t universal. “We assume that students think a particular subject is fascinating or that everybody’s curious about it, but that’s not the case,” Jones says.
5. Caring – Students need to feel that the instructor (and other students) care that they learn. Jones assumed that although caring is a big motivator for children, it would not play a large role in online higher education courses. He was wrong. In fact, in a study of 609 online learners, caring was the number one predictor of online instructor ratings. “It turns out that caring is very important even for adult learners,” Jones says.
Jones recommends providing regular feedback and asking students whether the feel that they’re getting the support they need.
Excerpted from Five Factors that Affect Online Learning Motivation Online Classroom, (September 2011): 1, 5.