Bridging Learner Motivation and Online Course Design

Concurrent Session 5
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Join us in bridging learner motivation and online course design by tapping into the three psychological needs of Self-Determination Theory (SDT) by Ryan and Deci (2000a; 2000b). We will showcase a scaffolded, summative assignment from an online Business Ethics course and explore further application of the theory together.


Meg Zurlage, MA is an Online Instructional Designer for Indiana University's (IU) eLearning Design and Services team. She provides instructional design support across the IU system for both credit-bearing and non-credit-bearing courses, projects, and programs. Her 6-years of experience teaching online and blended psychology courses at the associate and bachelor-level, help her maintain a focus on creating supportive and engaging experiences for all learners.
Carrie Hansel is an online instructional designer with Indiana University’s eLearning Design and Services who works with faculty to create engaging online courses for IU Online. She brings with her 20 plus years of experience ranging from early intervention to higher education. Her educational background includes a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from DePauw University and a Master’s degree in Adult Education from Indiana University. Presently, she is pursuing an Ed.D. in Instructional Systems Technology with Indiana University.

Extended Abstract

Meal planning and prep, playing blues guitar, going to the gym, background reading for a project at work, laundry, perfecting your grandmother’s marinara recipe, driving your children to various have we all managed to accomplish so much?   How have we managed to complete degrees and programs? It is likely that we have struck a balance between that which rewards us, what we value, and those things that we are intrinsically motivated to do. We, of course, are no different from the online learners we support.  Motivation plays a huge role in online learning (Zvacek, 1991) and face-to-face classrooms (Hartnett, 2012) with “[l]earners’ motivation [being] consistently linked to successful learning” (Clayton, Blumberg, & Auld, 2010, p. 350).

Thus, it’s no surprise the lack of motivation in an online environment has been identified as a key reason for the high dropout rate (Hartnett, 2012; Visser et al., 2002) with online learners facing drop-out rates of up to 50% (Lee, Pate, & Cozart, 2015).  Luckily, as online faculty and instructional designers, we are keenly placed to engineer a best-practices response to address this brain-drain.

Using a learner-centered approach inspired by Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory (SDT; 2000a; 2000b), we did just that in a semester-long Business Ethics course. SDT posits that when our interconnected psychological needs are met, along with positive support, we are more likely to engage in a task.  This provided us with a theoretical framework to promote student motivation in the course by better understanding and supporting their needs for "autonomy, perceived competence, and relatedness" (Jacobi, 2018, p. 2). 

Our journey into SDT began with a question posed by a business ethics professor.  She found that this course was different from the core business courses, in that there weren’t clear right and wrong answers or concrete business concepts and thus, students didn’t seem to see the same value.  They just didn't engage to the same degree that they did in their economics and management courses.  We were collaborating to take her face-to-face ethics course online and she stated that her main goal was to make her 400-level business students care and, ultimately, adopt a more ethical mindset. 

In this session, we will showcase a scaffolded project that was designed to immerse students in realistic ethical scenarios, allowing for a degree of autonomy, perceived competence, and relatedness.  Students were placed in groups and were tasked with creating their own companies, starting with a mission statement, values, and a unique company name.  They stayed with their groups throughout the term, being hit “randomly” with a different ethical scenario four times. Examples include a data breach, a sexual harassment report, the gender pay gap, and inappropriate social media use.  Her focus was on exposing students to more of the realistic, day-to-day ethical dilemmas, moving away from the larger, more “news-worthy” issues that they were less likely to face on the job. Each time, they would choose between two-three provided courses of action, discuss, and share their decision along with the assumed consequences of their decision.

At the end of the term, students presented their final decision to the "board" (i.e. the rest of the class) who then voted on the future of their company.  Groups had the option to present as they saw fit, as long as they met the rubric requirements.

We will wrap-up with a small-group activity, wherein attendees will take a stab at applying the theory to a given course or project.  A checklist will be shared electronically to facilitate incorporating the theories into their own course design.

Session Structure

  • 30-minute presentation
    • How backward design led to examining motivation in a Business Ethics course
    • How the theory was applied: A brief showcase the project
    • Next Steps:  Initial impressions and reactions; ideas for the next iteration
  • 5-minute individual reflection and time to organize into groups
  • 10-minutes group Q&A and brainstorming session
    • In small groups: draw a card with a course or project, identify your main objective, and outline how to apply SDT.  Groups will share with the whole group.
  • Notes/resources will be shared along with a checklist to try out when applying SDT to their courses (shared electronically)


Clayton, K., Blumberg, F., & Auld, D. P. (2010). The Relationship Between Motivation, Learning Strategies and Choice of Environment Whether Traditional or Including an Online Component. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(3), 349-364. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2009.00993.x

Hartnett, M. (2012). Relationships between online motivation, participation, and achievement: More complex than you might think. Journal of Open, Flexible, and Distance Learning, 16(1), 28 – 41.

Jacobi, L. (2018). What motivates students in the online communication classroom? An exploration of self-determination theory. Journal of Educators Online, 15(2), 1 – 16.

Keller, J. M., & Suzuki, K. (2004). Learner motivation and E-learning design: A multinationally validated process. Journal of Educational Media, 29(3), 229 – 239.

Lee, E., Pate, J. A., & Cozart, D. (2015). Autonomy support for online students. Tech Trends, 59(4), 54 – 61.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000a). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54 – 67. Doi: 10.1006/ceps.1999.1020.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000b). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68 – 78.

Visser, L., Plomp, T., Amirault, R., & Kuiper, W. (2002). Motivating students at a distance: The case of an international audience. Educational Technology, Research, and Development, 50(1), 94 – 110.

Zvacek, S. M. (1991). Effective affective design for distance education. Tech Trends, 36(1), 40 – 43.