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5 Ways Students Can Stay Motivated in Online Courses

Dr. Angelita Howard shares 5 quick tips on how students can feel more connected and motivated in their online courses.

I’m going to be completely transparent—no judgment allowed, right?

Okay, here’s what happened one day when I was a student: I walked into a classroom (one, I might add, where I was super excited to hear the content being taught).

But because of a previously scheduled meeting, I didn’t get to the class until about 30 minutes after it started.

Here’s where I’ll pause and give us visual learners a picture.

As I walked into the classroom, more than half of the students were resting their heads on the table, looking at their phones, or distracting themselves in one way or another.

Keep in mind: This was just 30 minutes into the class—but the instructor was just lecturing. No interactions and no engagement with the students.

Now, 30 minutes may not sound like a long time if you’re watching your favorite TV show—but when you’re just listening to someone lecture for 30 minutes, it feels MUCH longer!

Did the students in this instructor’s class lack motivation? No!

I’m a highly motivated learner, but as I sat there for the next 30 minutes listening to this lecture, I slumped down in my chair and looked at my watch counting down the minutes until it was over.

Like I said earlier, don’t judge me! You’ve probably found yourself in a similar situation.

Now, translate this same style of lecturing to an online course, where you can simply turn the recording down or off.

It can be tempting to scroll through your phone in an online class if the professor can’t see you—but are you really getting the information you want and need?

Oftentimes, students lose motivation due to several factors: information overload, a preoccupied mind, illness, not understanding one’s learning style, or maybe the information doesn’t feel applicable to real life whatsoever.

With that in mind, I’d  like to share 5 quick tips on how you can feel more connected and motivated in your online course.

Create or join a small class group chat.

Talking to others can be therapeutic. I recommend creating a small group through text message, GroupMe, WhatsApp, Discord, or a similar platform.

Your group can set the rules of engagement, and it’s a great way to stay connected outside of class. And not everything has to be related to school work! Send the occasional TikTok or meme to keep the group smiling and motivated. Groups can also be used to bounce ideas off of each other or simply collaborate on a difficult assignment.

Don’t be afraid to set boundaries in group chats, though, so you don’t feel distracted (like no messages after 10 p.m., or even better, put your phone on Sleep mode if you have that feature, so that it doesn’t buzz at night).

Connect with your instructor outside of class.

Instructors are human, too, and they actually WANT to communicate outside of class and get your feedback!

Don’t hesitate to say hi or let them know when you enjoyed a lecture. Knowing when we do something right and when we can improve lets us know when we can make adjustments in real time. After all, we’re here to support YOUR learning—help us help you!

I recently had a student who met with me concerning her grade on an assignment. She didn’t think I graded her fairly according to the rubric. While grading tends to be subjective, rubrics help to be more objective. After meeting with the student, I understood how she came to her conclusion, and although I didn’t quite agree (which is okay), we came to an agreement on her grade that was appropriate. Conversations matter. Talk to your instructor; we are concerned and we listen.

Plus, you never know when you will need a letter of recommendation or a networking opportunity. View your instructor as a trusted resource, which means if you are having trouble with an assignment, let them know. If you need extra time or have fallen behind, communicate that to them.

You’ll be surprised at how much instructors really understand that life happens to the best of us and they are willing to work with you.

Write down your why.

Remind yourself with a sticky note your reason WHY!

As a student going through multiple programs, my why changed. My why has been because I wanted upward mobility, job opportunities, and monetary gains. Other “whys” included expanding my knowledge in a particular field or to better equip and brand myself. Your why doesn’t have to stay the same. It can evolve as you discover what connects with you.

What is it about your field of study that inspires you? Why must you keep moving forward towards completion?

This might be a good time to also create a reward system for completing certain milestones within your course or degree programs. These rewards can be as simple as an ice-cream or a favorite restaurant or a weekend road trip. You create these benchmarks.

Take breaks.

I promise, it’s okay to take breaks. If you have 300 pages to read in one week, nobody is expecting you to read it in one sitting—unless you are a voracious reader!

Set a timer for yourself every hour so you know when to get up and stretch.

During your breaks, go outside and take some deep breaths, listen to your favorite song (the one that hypes you), grab a snack (preferably one with less sugar so you don’t crash), or simply sit and meditate (just make sure you set your alarm, so you don’t fall asleep).


While journaling may appear to take more time and may feel like more work, this helps to show you how far you have come and the feelings that you’ve experienced through each learning experience to help you navigate moving forward.

Online learning is different and can be exhausting especially for those who are a little more extroverted and need more face-to-face time; however, with intentional strategies for staying motivated, you can do this.

Ultimately, you as the student have much more control over your learning than anyone else. You have the ability to decide how much you will put into your learning journey so that you can maximize the opportunities that come along the way.

About the author

Angelita P. Howard, Ed.D, MBA, MA, MS, is Founding Dean for Online Education and Expanded Programs at Morehouse School of Medicine. She’s a senior leader serving thousands of students across multiple schools, with expertise in development, implementation, evaluation, and continuous improvement of challenging and inspiring academic support programs/services.

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