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Using Self-Determination Theory to Improve Online Learner Motivation

According to self-determination theory, a theory developed by Deci and Ryan, three basic psychological needs affect motivation: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Susan Epps, associate professor of Allied Health Sciences, and Alison Barton, associate professor of Teaching and Learning, both at East Tennessee State University, have used this theory to develop ways to improve online learner motivation.

In this context, autonomy does not refer to independence but to the desire to have control over one’s own life and to make choices based on personal preferences. In an online course, this means providing students with opportunities to have some control over the learning experience.

Creating a sense of autonomy helps students make choices that emphasize what they value, which can increase the subjective value of the learning—the sense that the learning is relevant to one’s life, Barton says.

Here are some ways to offer students choices:

Feeling competent and having a sense of self-efficacy can be highly motivating. These are some ways that Epps and Barton instill competence in their students:

Feedback on writing assignments can be in text or audio format. Epps cautions against getting bogged down in correcting every single error in writing assignments. In addition to taking an inordinate amount of time, an overly marked-up assignment can undermine a student’s sense of competence and therefore decrease motivation. Instead, Epps recommends providing overall feedback, remembering to include positive comments.

When many students make the same errors, Epps will post an announcement or send an email, saying something such as, “Here’s an area that students are consistently getting wrong. Maybe I wasn’t clear in my instructions. Let me go back and revise them to make sure you understand them for the next assignment.”

Feedback need not be in text form. Whether it’s an announcement to the class or an individual comment on an assignment, a short audio recording can be an effective way to provide feedback. Barton uses SoundCloud (www.soundcloud.com), a service that enables users to record audio and simply embed a link in a document or send a link to the recipient.

Relatedness refers to the social aspects of the learning experience—the sense that students feel they have a connection to the instructor and classmates. Some of the ideas mentioned above contribute to a sense of relatedness, including timely feedback and participation in discussions.

In addition, instructors need to convey a sense of presence and approachability. Here are some ways to accomplish this:

“Students say things like, ‘Wow you’re actually engaged on the discussion board.’ I feel that if I’m not engaged with the students, what’s their incentive to have high-quality discussions or to question each other? When the students see that I’m interacting with them, they will step up their level in the discussion.”

Students also need to feel a sense of connection with their peers. Barton divides her class into thirds for discussions so that students create connections with a subset of the class, which makes it less likely that they will lurk in the background or be overlooked.

Epps has each student introduce himself or herself in a PowerPoint presentation, which helps students create connections that build in the discussion board. When students know each other’s backgrounds it’s more likely that they will ask relevant questions and get a real sense of how what they’re learning in the course relates to their lives, “and knowing that other people are expecting them to be there and respond to a question asked of them directly will help with motivation as well,” Epps says.

Deci, Edward L. and Richard M. Ryan. eds. (2006) The Handbook of Self-Determination Research. University of Rochester Press.

Reprinted from Online Classroom, 13.4 (2013): 2-3. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.