The Online Teaching Strategy: How to Personalize Your Motivation

Woman holding computer and cheering for success

It seems as if eons ago, we began to hear about online instruction. Historically, when the community college that I formerly taught at began to move towards this process, I couldn’t help myself from engaging what little free-time I had in this new, innovative system of teaching. Now, some many years later, I have learned some vital key elements in the strategy to motivate my students. I know these may seem obvious, but often what is acceptably obvious to one may become an unapparent epiphany to another.

As anyone who has taught online courses for any span of time knows, some things we do are obvious. For example, we should be more than diligent to provide feedback to our students in a timely manner, and to offer more than the cursory commentary of what was right, wrong, suggestions for improvement, and so forth. We should be relatively transparent in our “neighborliness” towards our students so that a consistently, functioning rapport can be established, initiating a significant sense-of-trust in that relationship between instructor and student. We must be the “eyes” of our students in terms of experiences.

In the book by Ryan Watkins and Michael Corry, E-Learning Companion: Student’s Guide to Online Success, the authors noted that “the social network of an online student is one that must be developed intentionally through involvement with other students and the instructor” (Watkins & Corry, 155). This is a truism, and the research bears this interaction requirement as necessary. However, when it comes to the part the instructor must play in the process, there is something very profound in how the instructor accomplishes their part of the motivational interaction.

Take for instance, how does friendliness, cordiality, openness, approachability, and the like, all play into the process to motivate students? Here’s a real-world reality: When I was an undergraduate electrical engineering student, my co-students and I were notified that a new professional engineer professor who scored 100 on a very difficult national exam was coming to our university. He was a retired, theoretical NASA scientist-engineer, and we began to quake in our shoes. We looked at one another and wondered who might be the first casualty of his exponential tutelage. Yet, when we first were in his lectures and mathematical prowess, it was as if we were sitting in the presence of a trusted and wise teacher-mentor. He was friendly, cordial, open, approachable, funny, a theoretical-applied-mathematical-engineering genius, and he had a resilient-personalized attitude of caring for us as struggling-to-be-engineers. In other words, he initialed his own motivation towards us, which in turn stimulated us to learn because we believed without any doubt that he truly cared for our success—and he went the extra self-motivational mile to validate his pay-it-forward success for each one of us, time-and-time again. So, what does it mean to personalize your motivation to motivate your students in online courses?

First, you must find the personalized motivation methodology that you can use to engage students in the truth that you care for them. In other words, when you tell them that you are available to help them, fulfill that communication promise. I give my students more than the syllabus contact information. I provide a cell number, home number, alternate email; if they have not been present in class for five to seven days, I send an email checking-in with them. Whatever it takes, I make every effort to stay in touch with them. I tell them when I am going through some challenges and ask them to do the same. We share what troubles us in proper collaborative exchanges and for the purpose of helping “us” through “their-our” troubles. You might think this is too personal, but it’s not if you approach this in a proper forum. For example, when students have issues that impact their studies, it shows in their work, communications, and is a problem that needs to be addressed. Personalizing my motivation for them includes a concern for my students beyond the seat in a classroom via online learning. Here’s why: students often go through what we as faculty face, albeit various levels of the problems and how these issues affect them. When my motivation for them notes these difficult times, I offer to talk with them, give as much attention to their problems as I can (in the proper context), and let them know that I am not just a node on the other end of the wire! I listen to them; I encourage them; and, I don’t just tell them, “Wow, that was hard to live through!” and let it go at that. Think of yourself when you face difficult situations or events. Personalizing my motivation for my students includes empathy for what they go through, to encourage and support them in whatever way I can as their instructor.

Second, I personalize my motivation to encourage them by a process of teamwork. As a Navy veteran, I use the idea of our learning as if we are on a mission assigned by the Admiral. I often use terminology that was utilized in Naval Operations to demonstrate how the process works as crewmembers, and that we have mission objectives and we complete the mission as a crew (co-learners) from pushing away from the dock to returning to the base and signing off at Station Keeping. I personalize my motivation in this to express to each of my students that they are not alone in this learning endeavor, but are a vital part of the overall crew and that they play a dynamic role for the mission to succeed (i.e., work to achieve the best grade possible via quality work). In his book, L. David Marquet (2012), a nuclear submarine commander, decided to personalize his motivation for the crew by allowing the crew to make decisions that impacted their personal lives, as well as the lives of the entire “ship’s compliment” aboard the boat. In turn, this motivational strategy moved the crew from “doing what was expected” to “working for the benefit of all hands-on-board.” As an outcome, the boat won some serious awards for innovative-motivational-leadership (motivated officers and enlisted crew). I use this motivational strategy from day one and allow my students (crew) to provide feedback, ideas, note changes to the course ad-hoc if needed, and so on. We communicate based on the idea of turn this ship around and make it function better (i.e. they are motivated to see this process as active participants, not simply as crewmembers with predefined roles).

Third, as the instructor, we are much more likely to have the experiences to envision what we are teaching. In other words, we personalize our motivation so that our students can more realistically see what they don’t know. The PhD professor previously noted used examples of how math, design, engineering principles, and the field-of-work moved the theoretical into the reality, which we could only imagine. He brought the reality of our futures into the present, teaching labs and assignments as we struggled to find the relationship of why a differential equation or design principle was applied to the job in which he had worked for many years. Thus, it went from, “Why are we doing this?” to “Hey, this makes sense!” even though we had never built a shuttle, or propulsion systems, or designed the wiring and signal integrity of the electrical systems on a spacecraft. With his vision—his personalizing his motivation into reality—we were able to see what we were unable to see. This thread of personalizing our motivation in learning is precisely what must be applied in the online instruction to maximize student success.

While there are many other issues that can be discussed to encourage online instructors to discover methodologies to personalize their motivation for the benefit of students, the bottom line is this: Imagine that the online process is like the two ends of a wire. Even with Zoom and other technologies, it is how we influence our students to use these technologies to motivate themselves to maximize their outcomes. A teacher that personalizes their motivation for their students, can bring a vision that students may not be able to grasp, and therefore can discover that their own individual motivation now has a force-multiplier in their success…and “see” what they are unable to envision in their present studies and their future in the world of work.

Dr. Scott and Dr. McCurty have been online teaching professors for more than 40 years of combined tenure, in both undergraduate and graduate curricula. 


Watkins, Ryan and Michael Corry. 2014. E-Learning Companion: Student’s Guide to Online Success, 4th ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

Marquet, L. David, Captain (U.S. Navy, Ret.). 2012. Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers Into Leaders, 1st ed. New York, NY: Penguin Group.