Encouraging Academic Motivation in a Distance Learning Environment

by Cat Brooks

Despite the devastation and negative connotations associated with the handling of life in the era of COVID-19, one of the more beneficial changes in the world of academia during this time would certainly be a heightened focus on and formal re-evaluation of the distance/virtual student learning experience. While online learning is not a new concept, through these re-evaluations, modifications have progressively broadened accessibility and platforms for remote engagement, laying a stronger foundation of learning opportunities for diverse bodies of students. Whether in a traditional or remote class setting, a course will be made up of students with varying strengths and skills. However, this fall 2020 semester, I perceived a far greater discrepancy in an online learning environment, as the students whose participation reflected intentional thought and effort seemed fewer and further between than what I would expect for a physical classroom. These observations appeared to indicate a divergence in motivation, heavily emphasizing the presence or lack of personal self-discipline for approaching one’s coursework. If having the authoritative, accountable environment of a physical classroom strongly contributes to success rates of student work, how, then, can the distance/online learning emulate these characteristics on a more personalized basis?

In my experiences of both physical and online course environments, I truly believe the answer lies in a combination of factors that include finding your own personal motivation(s) and creating connection to the material, self-discipline, communication, and a genuine surrender to the idea and fear of failure. Distance learning requires a great deal of discipline in self-guided time management, something that can be difficult for many students to easily manage without the presence of a watchful educator in the room. In finding personal reasons for academic motivation and unique ways to connect to the material, students can potentially develop a stronger focus and greater patience for approaching educational subjects. As such, a change in material format in online courses also provides broader opportunity for students to explore their own responsiveness to auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learning style(s). Comfortability and fluency in academic communication appears to be a larger struggle for distance learners, while, ironically, it may be the largest and most important component of success in an online environment. Intentional social engagement with classmates and instructors through remote formats such as Zoom conference calls, group discussion, and other projects can cultivate a practice of seeking assistance and make communication less intimidating. Lastly, in addressing the fear of failure in a distance learning environment, it helps to have support from instructors in redefining failure. Understanding that “failure” is part of a process of acquiring knowledge and that it can reveal how not to do something may reformat the stereotypical assumptions about failure and how students approach unfamiliar subject matter, creating a healthier, more encouraging learning environment for many nontraditional students.

Among the many expectations attached to education, it can be far too easy for students to feel overwhelmed, compromising their potential for success in virtual forums. For a new era of remote learning, I strongly advocate for an overall academic shift to address and strengthen student confidence in all stages of learning, not just for the ones they do well in. Through my experience as a student and observations of peers, I personally believe that a large percentage of students who may appear uncaring or unmotivated in their educational journey simply need a better-fitting system of learning and support to encourage their sense of understanding among various subjects. While it is impossible to cater individually to each student, offering a wider mixture of approaches and resources increases the opportunity to grow individual and collective academic success when using distance learning platforms. When students can find connections with course content—whether in a physical or virtual learning environment—a special kind of confidence emerges, providing rich, fertile ground for learning.

Cat Brooks is a nontraditional third-year student attending the University of Mississippi. She is currently working on her BA in multidisciplinary studies, minoring in psychology, neuroscience, and gender studies. Cat aspires to meaningfully contribute to creating more understanding and education surrounding the intricacies of cognitive development and mental health in adolescent-age young adults.