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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Demotivated E-Learners

Listen to the podcast (downloadable mp3 file)

“Your online students are worse than demotivated,” said Claremond, the consultant that Squireford Community College had hired to evaluate student performance in online courses. “They’re dropping out in droves,” she said. Dean Rabelais looked uncomfortable.

“I don’t understand. They seemed so enthusiastic at first. What happened?” asked Dean Rabelais.

“According to the results of my summative evaluation, the students have gone from thinking they can succeed, to believing they’ll fail. They don’t know what to expect, and they don’t know where to turn for help. They feel isolated, and the learning activities make them think they’re failures,” said Claremond.

“What can we do?” asked Dean Rabelais.

“I’d recommend revising your program by implementing some of the well-tested psychological theories of motivation,” said Claremond. “I’ll outline the major ones. Let’s think of them in six simple points.”

Point 1: Cognitive Evaluation: Can I succeed at this?

Deci (1975) and Deci and Ryan (1991) conducted research that led them to conclude that cognitive evaluation plays an important role in an individual’s belief about whether or not he or she can succeed in a task. Before engaging in a task, individuals analyze it in order to determine whether or not they have a high probability of success. If they predict success, they are likely to embark on the task, and are likely to be motivated to complete the task (high persistence probability).

Learning objects used in instructional activities should be developed with the abilities and levels of the users in mind. Mastering tasks builds confidence and increases self-concept. If not, the users / learners will be frustrated and demotivated.

A good example of how learning objects can be effectively aligned with user grade or skill levels can be found in The ChemCollective’s ( virtual chemistry lab activities. All activities are rated on a scale of 1-5 for difficulty, which should help instructors determine which are useful for introductory chemistry courses, and how they might correlate with readings. Although the virtual chemistry has won many awards and has been recognized by MERLOT with an “Editor’s Choice” commendation, it is still difficult to replicate the excitement of working with chemicals and seeing the reactions “in vivo.” The ChemCollective is a part of the National Science Digital Library ( and has been funded by Carnegie Mellon.

Point 2: Consistency Theory: Don’t keep changing the rules on me!

Festinger (1957) explored how individuals become demotivated when there is a lack of consistency of behavior, values, and belief, and that such a condition can result in cognitive dissonance. Inconsistency in online learning occurs when instructor behavior does not align itself with expectations, or when the learning objects do not function in a predictable, practical way. For example, the form and function of interactive quizzes can differ from unit to unit, which results in frustration and failure to persist.

Point 3: Let me practice and get it right (and make sure I know why).

Online courses should give the learner the opportunity to try to apply his or her knowledge, and to make mistakes in a non-punitive way. The theories can be put into practice, too, and the learner can participate in a simulation that allows rehearsal and repetition, but in a very stimulating, intellectually engaging way.

An example is the “Negative Reinforcement University” ( which was developed by Scottsdale Community College students and psychology instructor Bernie Combs, working in conjunction with the Studio 1151 project. The online version was authored by Alan Levine of Maricopa Community Colleges. An extended virtual experience in behaviorism and operant conditioning, the learning object is careful to ground itself in commonly accepted terms, approaches, and terminology, as well as providing a theoretical base that is likely to reinforce what is being read in the course text.

Alan Levine’s blog ( has links to other types of activities that can lead to collaborative learning objects, such as wikis.

Point 4: Goal-Setting Theory: I know what I want – now, tell me how to get it!

Tetlock (1987) investigated how individuals are motivated by goals, and the achievement of goals. The key to achieving a goal is to set one that has the following attributes: attainable and accessible.

In order to direct ourselves we set ourselves goals that are: Clear (not vague) and understandable; Challenging, to assure stimulation and avoid boredom; and, Achievable, to minimize the chance of failure. Instructional activities should be selected so that they can be incorporated in the learner’s goal-setting system. For example, required work should be designed so that a student perceives it as achievable. Learning object-driven instructional activities should be clear and easy to conceptualize, but also challenging enough to maintain intellectual engagement.

Goal-setting that integrates a learner’s personal financial goals as well as helping attain his or her academic goals can lead to multi-pronged motivation. For example, a personal goal may involve home ownership and personal financial security. A student who is taking an economics or finance class may be very interested in making connections from abstract concepts or case studies to his or her own life. The relevance can be motivating.

In addition, a two-pronged approach to goal-setting could make the instructional activity doubly effective. First, the instructional activity may involve goal-setting in terms of time on task, tasks accomplished, along with learning objective and outcome goals. Second, the activity could provide the learner tools to help decision-making in his or her own life. The National Council on Economic Learning has created a robust array of learning objects which can be woven into an online course. For example, the EconEdLink series of lessons provides a unit entitled “Buying vs. Renting” ( ). Part of its “Millionaire Minute” series, the unit helps learners acquire the analytical skills they need to both pass tests and to make sound financial decisions in their own lives

Point 5: Affiliation Needs: Online can be a very lonely place

McClelland (1975) and McClelland and Burnham (1976) discussed how power, affiliation, and achievement are basic motivators. In an online environment, affiliation needs are often satisfied by means of an interactive discussion board or chat area. Instant messaging also often satisfies that need. Any learning object that helps improve collaboration and interactivity among learners is likely to help one achieve affiliation needs. Further, any instructional activity that encourages learners to want to identify with the identity of the institution, and to improve self-concept through affiliation is also likely to increase an individuals sense of power and achievement.

List-serves, if not abused, can be an excellent way to share and disseminate information. Communities of practice can form around the instructional activities, and individuals can share methods of implementing them and incorporating them in courses. This could involve sharing content and learning objects. For example, the Getty Museum’s education site ( offers a robust education program on their website, which includes lesson plans and art objects. In addition, the education staff host a list-serve for sharing information, providing new insights into effective instructional strategies, and the use of new technologies.

Stephen Downes ( discusses the way that instructional designers are reconceptualizing how to incorporate learning objects. He discusses collaborative approaches, which also reinforce affiliation needs as they develop communities of practice. In addition, he asks the reader to reconsider how we relate instructional strategies to what we now are coming to understand about the intersections of cognition, linguistics, behaviorism, and other theories.

Point 6: Self-Actualization: Trying to be everything I’ve ever dreamed of being.

Maslow (1943) created his highly influential hierarchy of needs (Maslow’s hierarchy), with basic food and shelter needs at the bottom, and self-actualization at the top. Alderfer (1974) expanded and streamlined Maslow's Hierarchy into the following: Existence, Relatedness and Growth (hence 'ERG'). Instead of a hierarchy of needs, Alderfer maintained that they were a continuum of needs. All hinge upon the notion of self-concept, and the basic core idea that anything that helps an individual develop a better sense of self will be motivating.

An example of shared content is the following learning object that helps a student imagine herself as a concert pianist, and in control of a repertoire of baroque music can be found in the gorgeous resource, “The Well-Tempered Clavier: J.S. Bach” by T. Smith and D. Korevaar.

With respect to instructional activities, it is important to utilize them to reinforce notions that a learner might hold about himself or herself, such as, “I am a successful student,” or, “I accomplish tasks in a timely manner, and I do it effectively.”


Learning objects, when incorporated into an online course in an outcome-focused and learner-centered manner, can enhance learner motivation. It is important to review of motivation theories that are especially pertinent to online course development, design, and instruction and it provides examples of how to implement learning objects in accordance with the theory. Learning object repositories such as MERLOT ( and CAREO ( are valuable sources of learning objects. Once taxonomies such as Stacy Zemke’s “Living Taxonomy Project” ( have been further developed, it should be much easier to find the perfect learning object for the desired application and motivational need.

Note: A slightly different version of this appeared in This is the podcast version.


Alderfer, C. (1972). Existence, relatedness, & growth. New York: Free Press.

Campus of Alberta Repository of Educational Objects.

Deci, E. L. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. New York: Plenum.
Deci, E. L. and Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum Press.

Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. (1991). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. In Steers, R.M. & Porter, L.W. (Eds.) Motivation and Work Behavior, 5th Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., pp. 44-58.

Downes, Stephen. Stephen’s web.

Festinger, L. (1957) A theory of cognitive dissonance, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Festinger, L. and Carlsmith, J. M. (1959) Cognitive consequences of forced compliance, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203-211.

Festinger, L., Pepitone, A. and Newcomb T. (1952). Some consequences of deindividuation in a group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 47, 382-389.

Festinger, L. Schachter, S. and Back, K. W. (1950) Social Pressures in Informal Groups: A Study of Human Factors in Housing, New York: Harper

Heider, F. (1958) the psychology of interpersonal relations, New York: Wiley

Levine, Alan. Cogdogblog.

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation, Psychological Review, vol. 50, 1943, 370-96.

Maslow, A., & Lowery, R. (Ed.). (1998). Toward a psychology of being (3rd ed.). New York: Wiley & Sons.

McClelland, D. C. (1975). Power: The inner experience. New York: Irvington.

McClelland, D. C., & Burnham, D. H. (1976). Power is the great motivator. Harvard Business Review, 54(2), 100-110.

Multimedia Educational Resources for Learning and Online Teaching. (MERLOT)

Smith, T. and Korevaar, D. (2002) Well-Tempered clavier: J.S. Bach. Learning modules.

Tetlock, P. E., & Kim, J. (1987). Accountability and judgment in a personality prediction task. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition, 52, 700-709.

Zemke, Stacy. Living Taxonomy Project.

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