Increasing Student Engagement in Online Learning Environments Through Ungraded Motivational Activities

Concurrent Session 4

Brief Abstract

In this presentation, participants will be introduced to online instructional activities that enhance learner motivation and social interaction and that can be inserted into any online course. The research and theories that are the basis of these instructional activities will be also discussed. In addition, empirical data from courses with and without these instructional activities will be presented.

Extended Abstract

In spite of popularity, perceived flexibility and convenience of online learning among learners, online courses experience dropout rates that warrant concerns among college faculty and administrators. Even though some reported reasons for dropping out include circumstances outside of the classroom, these events affect learners regardless of the delivery method.  It can be argued that because of its nature, online environment invites procrastination, falling behind on discipline and appropriate time management. These are, however, mere manifestations of deeper-rooted barriers that students perceive as detrimental to their success in online learning.

Based on a factor analysis study by Muilenburg and Berge (2005), a lack of social interaction is the single most important barrier to online learning. Administrator/instructor issues, lack of time or support of the learner and motivation were other factors that play important roles in student success in online learning. The lack of social interaction and learner motivation are barriers that are the focus of this paper as they are least dependent on a particular course or a particular learner. Instructional activities enhancing social interaction and learner motivation are items that transcend the limits of a single course and can be built into the design of any online course.

Muilenburg and Berge (2005) define the lack of social interaction as a lack of communication among students, feelings of isolation, and impersonal nature of the online learning environment. The lack of learner motivation is defined as the inability to get started and assume more responsibility for own learning.

Based on the research and authors’ experience, some instructional activities designed to address the issues of social interaction and learner motivation in online learning are suggested. The suggested activities are variations of polls and discussions. The polls are designed to function as support, as well as interdependency tools. They are offered in every module of the course. In a poll, learners are offered several emotional support constructs they can choose from (e.g., hope, patience, wisdom, inspiration, etc.) to keep for the duration of the module. In each module, learners may choose a different construct they feel will help them and they need more of. The development of the poll was informed by person-centered motivational design model as described by Keller (2010). One of the functions of such a model is to assist learners with envisioning themselves participating in an action and accomplishing their goal. Providing them with tools, even virtual ones, is the first step in this process.

In addition to being an individual’s emotional support tool, the poll functions as an interdependency tool as described by Hung, Flom, Manu, and Mahmoud (2015). The learners are able to see the poll results after they participate in it, which helps them feel connected to the group of other learners who also need emotional support for the module. The learners’ reactions to this instructional activity are overwhelmingly positive and they report looking forward to finding out in what areas their peers need help and whether anybody else is experiencing the same needs.

The other suggested instructional activity is an informal discussion on a topic not related to the subject of the course. The topic may be anything related to learners’ interests, current events, or anything else that would trigger a lively discussion among learners. Formal discussions that function as assessments require more preparation from learners, which may hinder early and frequent participation. Informal discussions, on the other hand, are easier for learners to participate in, which ensures some level of activity early on in a module. Learners are also given an opportunity to connect with others socially, not only academically, which reduces feelings of being isolated (Fedynich, Bradley, & Bradley, 2015).

Both instructional activities, the polls and the informal discussions, appear in every module. The polls are always open to learners, the topics of the informal discussions are revealed at the beginning of each module. Because of their expected appearance in every module, the activities are motivational tools that draw the learners into the course at the beginning of each module.

The rationale for the poll being limited to one module at a time and for the discussion topic being revealed only at the beginning of each module lies in the marketing theory of loss leader advertising. “Loss leader pricing is the practice of setting prices on selected products at low levels that generates less than the usual profit margins  … For retailers the objective is to increase store traffic so they can sell other products at traditional profit margins” (Busch & Houston, 1985, p. 498). The polls and informal discussions are easy, interesting, and socially-rewarding activities. They are also ungraded, thus low-risk and low-stakes. In courses, the informal polls and discussions function as loss leaders in the grocery store business. Customers are motivated to go inside a grocery store that sells a certain product at such a low price that other grocery stores cannot compete with it. In online courses, low-risk, but high-reward activities are those low-priced items that attract learners to walk in. They are the reason why students are waiting for the old module to end and a new module to start. The learners are curious what topic will be discussed in the informal discussion and what other learners chose in the poll.  The authors’ experience (which will be explained in more detail at the presentation) concludes that, just like in the grocery store from the example above, learners stay in the course a little longer and familiarize themselves with the module, even start working on assignments or participate in formal discussions for a grade.

To summarize, polls, discussions on casual topics, as well as other informal and ungraded learning activities, are likely to entice learners to enter the virtual classroom more frequently. They function as motivational psychological tools, enhance social presence, promote online learning communities, and encourage learners to participate also in formal learning activities.

In this interactive presentation, the participants will examine motivational strategies to engage their online students. They will discuss how the presented strategies can be tailored to align with the needs of their own online courses. In addition, participants will be introduced to the research and theories that are the basis of instructional activities that enhance social interaction and learner motivation in any online course. Lastly, empirical data from courses with and without these Instructional activities will be presented.


Busch, P., & Houston, M. (1985). Marketing: Strategic foundation. Homewood, IL: Richard D. Irwin.

Fedynich, L., Bradley, K. S., & Bradley, J. (2015). Graduate students’ perceptions of online learning. Research in Higher Education Journal, 27, 1 – 13.

Hung, W., Flom, E., Manu, J., & Mahmoud, E. (2015). A review of the instructional practices for promoting online learning communities. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 26(3), 229 – 252.

Keller, J. (2010). Motivational design for learning and performance. New York, NY: Springer.

Muilenburg, L. Y., & Berge, Z. L. (2005). Student barriers to online learning: A factor analysis study. Distance Education, 26(1), 29 – 48.