An SEL-based Approach to Intrinsically Motivating Curriculum and Instruction for Adult Online Learners

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Brief Abstract

Adult learners choose online learning for convenience and relevance.  Disengagement can hinder retention. Infusing Social Emotional Learning into instruction and curriculum optimizes motivation and engagement. This session explores three elements of intrinsic motivation in online learning: competence, relatedness, and autonomy. Attendees explore strategies for boosting students’ intrinsic motivation with SEL.


Dr. Maggie Broderick is a Curriculum Director at the Sanford College of Education (SCOE), the Director of the Advanced Research Center (ARC), and an Associate Professor at National University. As faculty, she serves as the Faculty Lead for the ELL Specialization and as a Dissertation Chair. Dr. Broderick received her Ph.D. in Foreign Language Education at the University of Pittsburgh and her BS (Music Education) and MS (Education) degrees at Duquesne University. She has over 20 years of experience in the field of Education, including many years of teaching K-12 in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and over a decade of online teaching experience in Higher Education. In addition to teaching, Maggie enjoys collaborating on scholarly presentations, publications, and mentoring other scholars in similar pursuits. Dr. Broderick lives in Pittsburgh, PA with her family and is passionate about teaching and learning at all levels.
Dr. Amy E. Lyn is a Curriculum Director and faculty member at National University's Sanford College of Education. She also serves as the Faculty Lead for Social Emotional Learning and Trauma-Informed Educational Practices, Director of the Virtual Education Support Center, Co-Editor of the International Journal of Online Graduate Education, and Dissertation Chair. Dr. Lyn is an enthusiastic lifelong learner. She earned her Ph.D. in Adult Learning, Leadership, and Program Evaluation from Lesley University, an Executive Coaching Diploma from Emory University, and is pursuing a certificate in Intrapreneurship from Cornell University. She also holds an M.Ed. and a BA in sociology. Alongside her professional life, Dr. Lyn is passionate about holistic living. She speaks on topics related to wellness and emotional intelligence and is a member of the International Coaching Federation and a certified coach.

Extended Abstract

Adult learners choose online learning for its convenience and relevance. Online learner engagement is key. Curriculum and instruction infused with Social Emotional Learning (SEL) practices optimizes students’ intrinsic motivation. This session explores competence, relatedness, and autonomy in online learning. Attendees will identify SEL-infused curriculum and instructional approaches and brainstorm specific strategies for harnessing adult online learners’ intrinsic motivation. According to Lyn and Broderick (2023), educators have traditionally been placed at the center of learning, which implies the responsibility of motivating students. While many educators have shifted away from this teacher-centered approach, a transition to online education can often mean the resurfacing of more traditional methods. When educators take on motivating their students, disengagement and procrastination can fester as soon as the teacher is not actively present. 

Carrots and sticks, or As and Fs, produce fleeting bouts of personal drive. Innovative technological instructional design strategies such as badging activities and virtual rewards can be fun and engaging but are mostly extrinsic and superficial. While wins fuel some individuals, others may be driven by failures. Either way, extrinsic motivators fade into the distance, and a person is left to look inside themselves for the incentive they need to carry on, climb the mountain, and achieve all they have dreamed (Lyn & Broderick, 2023).

The most lasting way to motivate online adult students entails infusing curriculum and instruction with SEL, nourishing students’ true and ongoing intrinsic motivation. Effective online educators become models, mentors, coaches, and consultants for students, and SEL competencies help to infuse meaningful interpersonal relationships and depth into curriculum and instruction in the online classroom. These rich interactions in turn optimize students’ intrinsic motivation, which is a powerful driver of success and well-being. Ryan and Deci (2017) explained that extrinsic and intrinsic human motivation exist on a continuum of influences. Humans engage in reward-seeking and punishment avoidance when the influence is mainly on the extrinsic side of the motivation continuum. Extrinsic motivators such as grades and badges, tend to be temporary and often do not deliver the happiness and satisfaction intended (Ryzner & Dutton, 2020). Temporary satisfaction falls short of providing the sustained catalyst needed for ongoing motivation in online learning. Adult learners choose education in pursuit of advancing their goals and actualizing their passions (Knowles, 1984a; 1984b). Intrinsic motivators, like the belief that what is being learned will enable oneself to take competent action in an area one is passionate about, are a driver of engagement and success. 

Infusing SEL into online curriculum and instruction can nurture students’ intrinsic motivation because it is human, personal, deeply fulfilling, and lasting. The belief that human beings are naturally oriented toward growth and mastery is the construct self-determination theory is built upon (Ryan & Deci, 2017). Decades of research has identified three elements as having a profound influence over an individual’s experience of intrinsic motivation: competence, relatedness, and autonomy (Ryan & Deci, 2017).

Fundamental to self-determination theory is the belief that human beings are naturally growth oriented (Ryan & Deci, 2017). The desire to influence their environment and engage in effective action is intrinsically satisfying. While external rewards may be a goal for participating in adult education, the satisfaction derived from gaining competence nourishes people and fulfills their need for feeling efficacious.

Relatedness refers to an individual’s sense of belonging and connectedness. People’s intrinsic drive for belonging is the motivator for a variety of behaviors. Studies have shown the impact students’ sense of belonging has on attrition (Russell & Jarvis, 2019). A sense of belonging develops from feeling acknowledged and affirmed. Relationships lacking these qualities fall short of fulfilling this need. According to Ryan and Deci (2017), relationships range from “impersonal transactions” to “meaningful encounters” (p. 295). Meaningful encounters are supportive in nature and convey a quality of caring about the other. This element of feeling cared about provides individuals with a sense of belonging that is fulfilling and motivating. Educators are positioned to cultivate relatedness with and between students. The belief that human beings are naturally oriented toward growth and mastery is the construct self-determination theory is built upon (Ryan & Deci, 2017). Decades of research has identified three basic needs as having a profound influence over an individual’s experience of intrinsic motivation: competence, relatedness, and autonomy (Ryan & Deci, 2017).

Competence is rooted in the desire to take effective action. Self-efficacy is personally satisfying. When efficacy is thwarted frustration may take over and interest may be lost. Interruptions or difficulties with the technology in online learning is one example of how a barrier to feeling efficacious can result in disengagement and attrition. Relatedness is about belonging and feeling connected. Students’ sense of belonging has a strong impact on retention and attrition (Russell & Jarvis, 2019). According to Ryan and Deci (2017), “meaningful encounters” convey care and support thereby strengthening feelings of belonging (p. 295). Online educators can cultivate students’ sense of belonging by engaging in meaningful encounters and fostering student interaction.

Finally, it is autonomy that fuses together fulfillment of these three basic needs (Ryan & Deci, 2017). Autonomy represents human beings’ need to be self-governing. Feeling competent and cared about helps to create the conditions for taking autonomous action. Conversely, autonomous interaction carries the genuineness essential to meaningful encounters. Likewise, conditions that welcome autonomous action foster competence. Promoting student autonomy in online learning means intentionally making space for and elevating students’ voices and choices. 

SEL-infused curriculum and instruction creates the conditions for learner competence, relatedness, and autonomy to flourish in the online learning environment. Broderick and Lyn (2022) proposed the degree to which educators embody social and emotional intelligence governs and inspires their approach to learning, inclusivity, and relationships. Further, the educators’ capacity for integrating social emotional learning into the course design and delivery can enhance or diminish students’ opportunities to experience intrinsic motivation. This session presents a framework for enhancing students’ autonomy, competence, and sense of relatedness thereby elevating intrinsic motivation. The framework infuses SEL into the online educational approach in three distinct ways:

1.  The dispositions embodied by the educator.

2.  The instructional strategies implemented by the educator.

3.  The culture created in the educational environment.

These three items relate directly to curriculum and instruction, which can be mindfully created or chosen by the instructor with SEL competencies in mind.

Attendees will identify SEL-infused curriculum and instructional approaches and brainstorm specific strategies for intrinsically motivating curriculum and instruction for adult online learners.

Interactive components of this presentation model the theme of nurturing adult learners’ intrinsic motivation to enhance engagement. At various points throughout this session the online Mentimeter polling and word cloud generating tool will be utilized in real time for ongoing interactive elements about key points and takeaways. Attendees' prior knowledge and existing intrinsic motivations will be mindfully addressed. The last 10 minutes of this session include a brainstorming activity to generate specific strategies for infusing SEL into online curriculum and instruction for adult online learners within attendees’ unique teaching contexts and perspectives.


Broderick, M. & Lyn, A. E. (2022). Integrating Social Emotional Learning into the Formative Development of Educator Dispositions. In. S. Clemm von Hohenberg (Ed.), Dispositional Development and Assessment in Teacher Preparation Programs. IGI Global.

(In press) Lyn, A. E. & Broderick, M. (2023). Setting the Stage with SEL: Intrinsic Motivation in Online Learning. In Lyn, A. E. & Broderick, M. (Eds.), Motivation and Momentum in Adult Online Education. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Knowles, M. (1984a). Andragogy in action. Jossey-Bass.

Knowles, M. (1984b). The adult learner: A neglected species (3rd Ed.). Gulf Publishing. 

Russell, L., & Jarvis, C. (2019). Student withdrawal, retention and their sense of belonging: Their experience in their words. Research in Educational Administration & Leadership, 4(3), 494–525.

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-Determination Theory : Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness. The Guilford Press.

Ryznar, M., & Dutton, Y. M. (2020). Lighting a fire: The power of intrinsic motivation in online teaching. Syracuse Law Review, 70(1), 73–114.