Promoting Online Learners’ Social-Emotional Growth: A Montessori Perspective

Student learner on laptop has paint colors and gears coming from computer

When I first began creating and teaching online higher education courses, I searched scholarly journals, instructional design resources, and quality standards for insights and guidance.  Although I followed best practices and noticed good academic results, I felt that something was missing in my courses.  My learners were learning the content, but my course did not seem to be contributing to their overall development as adults.  Their ability to think critically, collaborate, and self-manage remained static.  After much self-reflection, I concluded that my emphasis on the course content had kept the social and emotional aspects of learning very much on the back burner.   

Social and emotional aspects of learning in higher education are often viewed as a means to the “real” end, that is, knowledge of course content.  For example, online instructors are encouraged to include social collaboration to improve learners’ understanding of course content.  We are told that fun and emotionally engaging activities increase learners’ motivation to learn the subject matter.  While these recommendations may be valid, I believe that online instructors have a unique opportunity to help our learners grow socially and emotionally, as well as cognitively.  In pursuing the goal of fostering my learners’ social-emotional growth, I have found inspiration from a surprising source: Maria Montessori. 

Although Montessori (2014) is widely known for her work with young children, her principles for creating learning environments are highly relevant to online course creation for adult learners in higher education.  The Montessori learning environment has the following characteristics: structure and order, intellectual stimulation, freedom, beauty, real experiences, and sense of community (Lillard, 1972).  Although other authors (e.g., Martin, Rizhaupt, Kumar, & Budhrani, 2019) have addressed some of these characteristics, the Montessori approach presents an integrated perspective on how to cultivate the cognitive, social, and emotional development of the adult learner. 

Structure and order:  An online course that is well-organized, with clear and predictable navigation, builds learners’ confidence in their ability to succeed.  Furthermore, when materials and activities are presented in a logical and coherent order, learners are better able to make connections among topics and integrate their knowledge.  Such connections contribute to learners’ ability to think critically and to apply their knowledge to new situations. 

Intellectual stimulation:  An effective online course offers a variety of intellectually stimulating materials and activities, including both scaffolding and extension activities.  When a course explicitly activates learners’ previous knowledge and experiences to facilitate new learning, learners forge connections and see contrasts between old and new learning.  Learners can then challenge their assumptions and biases regarding the new learning through reflection and discussion.  The knowledge that emerges from such discussions contributes to learners’ feelings of competence and self-efficacy while building their meta-cognitive skills.

Freedom:  Adult learners enjoy choice because it affirms their independence and encourages their ownership of their work.  To provide choices, instructors can create learning resources using varied modalities (audio-visual, text, etc.).  Learners can choose some of the topics of their learning, focusing on areas of personal interest and relevance.  Assessments can include options for demonstrating knowledge of the subject matter. Such freedom allows learners to develop key social-emotional skills, such as curiosity, initiative, and autonomy. 

Beauty:  Learners generally experience positive emotions when they see visually appealing images.  Carefully selected, beautiful visual images can spark learners’ interest in the subject matter.  Other representations of beauty, such as a piece of music, an elegant mathematical proof, or a poem or quotation, can evoke similar levels of satisfaction in many learners.  However, instructors must be mindful of inclusion when selecting images and other beautiful resources.  Incorporating a wide variety of stimuli that have aesthetic and emotional appeal within different cultures will help to ensure an inclusive environment for diverse learners. 

Real experiences:  An online course may at times be the antithesis of a real experience, especially when the course traps learners in an endless reading–video–discussion board–quiz loop.  In contrast, learners benefit from activities that are relevant, hands-on, and meaningful, such as service learning and community-based learning.  Such activities help learners to develop social-emotional capacities such as self-reflection and civic mindedness. 

Community:  When left to their own devices, many online learners will not spontaneously interact with each other.  Thus, instructors must deliberately elicit social interaction within their online courses.  Learner-to-learner and learner-to-instructor interaction can occur through synchronous dialogue, partner and group activities, community-building strategies, and virtual conferencing.  These activities contribute to a sense of community while also building communication, collaboration, intercultural competence, and self-reflection skills.

Montessori developed her ideas in an early education setting, but she recognized that social-emotional growth should be nurtured throughout learners’ educational lifespan.  Higher education instructors have an obligation to help their learners develop the broad cognitive, social, and emotional skills needed to succeed personally and professionally after graduation. Online instructors will find in Montessori’s principles valuable guidance for creating courses that promote adult learners’ cognitive, social, and emotional development. 

Bio: Catherine R. Barber, PhD, is a psychologist and an associate professor in the School of Education and Human Services at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. She is the chair of the Online Education Action Group at St. Thomas and is co-author of a workbook on creating online courses, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press (Barber, McCollum, & Maboudian, in press).


Lillard, P. P. (1972). Montessori: A modern approach. New York, NY: Schocken Books.

Martin, F., Ritzhaupt, A., Kumar, S., & Budhrani, K. (2019). Award-winning faculty online teaching practices: Course design, assessment and evaluation, and facilitation. The Internet and Higher Education, 42, 34-43.

Montessori, M. (2014). The Montessori method. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.