Fletcher-Wood on Motivating Students when Teaching Online

Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, CIRL

How can we motivate students to learn when teaching online? This question is taken up by Harry Fletcher-Wood in an excellent recent blogpost, ‘Motivating distant learners: schools under coronavirus’. His post puts forward five online teaching strategies that aim to increase student engagement and perseverance with distance learning tasks. Each is based on one or two psychological principles and describes ways to apply each principle. This blogpost summarises and discusses those strategies.

Fletcher-Wood’s strategies can be described as follows:

  1. Prioritise fundamental goals and turn them into habits
  2. Show students the value of participation
  3. Plan when and how to do things
  4. Make the first steps easy
  5. Help students to form good work habits

1. Prioritise fundamental goals and turn them into habits

The psychological principle behind this strategy is that any significant change in work or lifestyle habits requires a lot of effort. So when we’re trying to motivate students to engage and persevere with the tasks we set them, we’re adding to the tasks that require significant effort from students. If students are already fatigued by the effort they’re putting into maintaining new work and lifestyle habits, it can be difficult to motivate them to put additional effort into learning and it can add to their fatigue.

A way to alleviate this issue is to limit the amount of effort required by teachers and students to change work and lifestyle habits. To do this, it helps to prioritise the most fundamental challenges and try to develop habits which overcome them.

When applying the principle, Fletcher-Wood recommends that we focus on supporting students in their development of two good work habits:

  1. attending every lesson;
  2. completing independent tasks regularly.

These habits are connected with the two most fundamental aims when teaching online: ensuring that students attend online lessons and complete work.

The second habit is related to regular reviewing of learning by students, which can be done daily, weekly or monthly. On reviewing, see an earlier blog post.

2. Show students the value of participation

This strategy is based on two psychological principles. First, when people respond to situations, they respond not only to the situation itself but also to the way it is described. The ways we describe situations can change the way we perceive them.

For example, when a student received an undesirable grade, rather than describing this as a failure, they could describe this as a failed attempt at success. The latter is more likely to help to motivate students to try to improve. (This way of perceiving failures can also be used as a strategy for helping students to develop resilience.)

People tend to be more worried about losing what they already have than missing out on something new. Fletcher-Wood recommends that by emphasising the message of not missing out, we can apply this principle to encourage students to attend lessons and complete work.

Almost all students enjoy something about school which they will miss during lockdown, even if classes and work are not among the things they miss. In particular, students will miss their friends and the social community. As we described in an earlier blog post, a class is an intellectual and social community: classroom environments foster intellectual and personal bonds between students and between the teacher and the class. Such bonds and the kinds of interaction facilitated in the classroom can also be facilitated online, by fostering an online community, imitative of the classroom community.

We can use online interaction to develop an online community which students would miss out on by, for example, not attending lessons. Emphasise the opportunities that online lessons and online interaction offer for intellectual and social engagement between students and between teacher and students. Online classes provide an opportunity for students to see one another and an online class forum provides opportunities for students to talk to their friends. As Fletcher-Wood describes it, emphasise the message, ‘Don’t miss out – don’t miss your friends – don’t miss school’.

The second psychological principle underpinning this strategy is that we are strongly influenced by social norms – that is, the behaviour expected of us and the behaviour we see around us. To apply this principle in online teaching, Fletcher-Wood recommends three methods:

  1. Emphasise expected behaviour. For example, attendance in lessons and timely submission of work.
  2. Highlight positive prevalent behaviour. For example, ‘some excellent essays were submitted last week’ (rather than highlighting negative behaviour, such as ‘some of you have not yet submitted your essays’).
  3. Create positive peer pressure. For example, as an online lesson is starting, point out how many students are present or on time, rather than who’s missing or who’s late.

3. Plan when and how to do things

The psychological principle behind this strategy is that we are more likely to act if we plan when to do things and pick the best times to act.

For example, evidence suggests that the completion of homework relating to the content of a lesson is most effective for retention when completed soon after the lesson finishes, because the lesson content is fresh in a student’s mind, so more content can be retained (over time, more is forgotten). So, if students can create a schedule where they plan to complete their homework soon after the lesson where the material relating to that homework was learned – say, during the late afternoon of the day the lesson was taught – this can support the likelihood that the work is completed (and completed well).

To apply this principle, Fletcher-Wood recommends four methods:

  1. Set clear schedules for what’s going to happen and when.

This applies to what will be covered in lessons, the tasks students will be required to complete independently, and anything else relevant to a course.

2. Apply schedules to both online teaching and students’ independent work.

In addition to lesson timetables and deadlines, recommend schedules to students for independent work, such as daily and weekly reviewing of learning, and checklists of what they should know by certain stages of the term.

3. Either provide students with timetables for independent work or guide them through structuring their own.

A way to do this could be to provide a timetable template to students which recommends good timetabling practice for the completion of independent work, based on general advice (e.g., weekly reviewing, completing homework soon after the lessons relating to the homework, and building in time for leisure and exercise).

4. Set clear deadlines.

Make these clear as early as possible, so students can plan their lives and schedules around them.

4. Make the first steps easy

This strategy recommends that we make the first step (in a task or learning process) the easiest one to take, by making it small, concrete, or something students have already done. This can apply to the early stages of a learning process (e.g. learning a new skill or area of knowledge), or to the initial stages of a new task. Tasks could include general online teaching and learning tasks such as learning how to use new technology.

A psychological principle Fletcher-Wood mentions in this strategy is that people tend to follow the default unless they have very good reason not to. Applying this principle, it is helpful to follow a school’s standard approaches, because students are accustomed to these. For example, set expectations that tasks are completed punctually; start online lessons on time and set the expectation that students are ready to work from the start of the lesson; and encourage students to be present in videoconference lessons and approach their study in the ways they would do so in school, such as putting phones away and on silent. Fletcher-Wood recommends setting such expectations early and reinforcing them throughout the term. This all has to counterbalanced, of course, against the fact that this is an extremely stressful and difficult time for many students.

The principle that people tend to follow default procedures can also be applied to using educational technology. Fletcher-Wood advises that we start with the simplest and most familiar technological platforms – e.g., those that students are already familiar with in their educational institution, such as Blackboard, Moodle or Microsoft OneNote, and build from there, adding unfamiliar platforms if and as necessary.

While email is the default form of communication, it is pedagogically beneficial to communicate with students on a forum, such as the ‘posts’ area of Microsoft Teams and the ‘collaboration space’ in Microsoft OneNote. As described in an earlier blog post, communicating in a forum rather than email (i) reduces the volume of emails; (ii) supports teacher presence among a whole class; and (iii) supports peer learning, as students can see the questions and responses posted by their peers and can assist one another in answering them. For the final of these, the teacher can thereby develop expectations among classes that students support one another, which can help students learn and supports the development of an online community.

5. Help students to form good work habits

Fletcher-Wood’s final strategy applies two psychological principles. First, achieving small gains creates a feeling of progress and success. Second, it’s hard to form habits.

Applying the first principle, Fletcher-Wood recommends that we focus on small successes in the first few lessons of a course. For example, set simple tasks which are well within students’ comfort zones to show that students can work successfully in an online setting (this complements the fourth strategy). This can provide a helpful learning platform on which new approaches can be more readily adopted. He also recommends that we highlight successes every time we make an online lesson work and every time students succeed in something new.

Applying the second principle, Fletcher-Wood recommends that we persist at trying to foster good working habits and ways of working in students until they are formed as habits. This will take some time and the teacher may need to return to earlier stages of helping to foster habits, perhaps several times, until habits are formed. For example, the teacher might need to return to highlight progress students made early in a course or return to emphasise the importance of timely completion of work and coming to lessons ready to work, until these become habits.

Fletcher’s-Wood’s checklist for engaging students

Fletcher-Wood concludes with a checklist for engaging students in distance learning:

  • Clarify the habits students should pursue.
  • Encourage students not to ‘miss out’ on seeing friends.
  • Emphasise what we expect from students and what’s being achieved.
  • Help students plan what to do and when to do it.
  • Simplify everything.
  • Create and highlight small wins.
  • Develop habits and return to develop them from the beginning when students struggle.

For Harry Fletcher-Wood’s work, see his blog and Twitter page. His most recent book is Responsive Teaching: Cognitive Science and Formative Assessment in Practice (David Fulton, 2018).

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