Staying Motivated as an Online Student

by Meg Embry

Updated September 1, 2022 • 4 min read

Over a year into the pandemic, there's a new name for that vague, "ugh, can I just not?" feeling you're probably experiencing right now.

It's called languishing, which is essentially a trendy term for unmotivated. You're not depressed, exactly. But you aren't inspired, either. You know what needs to be done but you don't have the drive to do it.

For online students, that in-between place where motivation goes to die can be a major challenge.

"Sometimes you get to a point where you struggle to care," said Angel Porter, a University of Denver student pursuing dual master's degrees in communication management and web development.

"Online learning can turn into a slog," said Tamara Meredith, who just completed her master of education at University of Texas at Arlington. "No one is standing over you making you do it."

Motivation Is a Problem for Most Online Students

As of 2018, over 35% of postsecondary students were enrolled in at least one online course.

According to a 2020 survey, 76% of undergraduate respondents and 56% of graduate respondents identified lack of motivation as their biggest online learning obstacle.

The internet is full of helpful, if fairly obvious, advice for how to stay motivated in online classes:

  • Set up a workspace.
  • Give yourself rewards.
  • Remove distractions.
  • Make a schedule.
  • Set goals.

But relying purely on extrinsic motivators won't help you bootstrap your way out of the blahs for good.

What will? A little bit of self-determination theory.

This theory emphasizes the power of intrinsic motivation, which is all about enjoying activities for their own sake. Harness it, and your mental toughness and creativity will get a turbo boost.

The Two Types of Motivation

1. Extrinsic

Extrinsic refers to behaviors driven by external rewards or punishments, like grades, awards, titles, degrees, prizes, and praise.

While we often rely on extrinsic motivation to do things that don't interest us, external rewards can actually have a negative impact on motivation over time.

2. Intrinsic

Intrinsic refers to doing things because we find them inherently interesting or satisfying. Imagine a songwriter writing songs, or someone researching a topic they are independently curious about.

Studies show that intrinsic motivation leads to greater persistence and better performance over time.

Tips for Staying Motivated as an Online Student

For those of you who can't imagine loving online learning for its own sake, don't despair. Here are three tips to help you build intrinsic motivation as an online student.

1. Make It About Ownership

Intrinsic motivation requires a sense of control, or autonomy, over what you're doing. That can be tough to find in online learning, where curriculum, meeting times, and deadlines are decided for you.

But there are things you do have control over:

  • Why you are learning the material.
  • Your beliefs about the material and how it can benefit you.
  • Your level of interest in the material.
  • What competencies you want to acquire.

The trick is to figure out what matters to you and create a learning experience around that.

For Porter, that means asking, "How will this material get me closer to a career I love? If I can identify that answer, I can decide what success looks like to me and what steps I will take to get there. It gives me ownership and motivates me to do good work."

2. Make It About Mastery

Once you've carved out some autonomy, you can shift your focus away from merely checking off tasks –– which can make online school feel like a series of chores –– and toward mastery goals instead.

That means setting goals to get better at things you care about and enjoy.

Are you in a web development class? Focus on learning to write elegant code. A marketing class? Concentrate on perfecting your pitch, or honing your storytelling skills.

Mastery goals facilitate long-term learning and increase intrinsic motivation. They create a satisfaction loop: That great feeling you get from developing competence motivates you to set a new mastery goal and rise to the next challenge.

"It can be easy to lose your drive if you're only focused on grades and participation points," said Meredith.

"But when I was in my online program, I understood that I also needed mastery of very specific objectives. I went into each class determined to identify those objectives and get everything out of them I could.

"Ultimately, that's what kept me focused and productive when everyone else was losing steam."

3. Make It About Relationships

Another solid intrinsic motivation hack? Make friends.

Research shows that even very basic feelings of connectedness raise student motivation and persistence dramatically –– in one experiment, by 70%.

As an online student, connecting can be as simple as emailing classmates to commiserate over an assignment or taking advantage of your instructor's online office hours.

Relationship building online can take time, said Porter, but it pays off. "There are a lot of people in my classes this quarter who I've met before. It's starting to feel like a community; there is real accountability."

She has taken her own quest for community a step further by joining a Black student group online.

"It's easy to feel disconnected when you don't see people who look like you very often," said Porter. "Coming together with this group over Zoom has helped a lot. It makes me proud to be at this school, to be part of something. I'm more motivated to succeed."

Social connection increases happiness, and happiness is a major indicator of academic success. So reach out, meet people, and prioritize happiness in your online learning journey.

Portrait of Meg Embry

Meg Embry

Meg Embry is a Colorado-based writer for covering higher education. She is an award-winning journalist who has lived and worked in Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States.

Header Image Credit: Pete Ark, Stuart Murray | Getty Images

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