Published on 2012/10/18

Insights into the Motivation of Online Learners

There are a number of advantages that adult students bring to an online classroom, from the ability to help mentor and guide younger students to the influence of their hard-working and determined attitude.

Every student approaches college with a variety of needs and motives. The average teenager may be there because his/her parents expect it. The exceptional teenager may love learning and want to pursue education for the sake of learning. Almost all of them come to college with one thought in common, though: they need that piece of paper to get a job. The adult learner, however, approaches college a little differently. He or she is there not because his or her parents expect it, but rather because he or she has experienced the working world and wants more out of it than what a high school diploma will allow. So adults, too, often want the piece of paper, but that desire is caused by different needs, and, therefore, adults and teenagers pursue learning and their degrees in different ways.

Both Internet and written journals have been rife with talk of cheating in online courses and how to prevent it. Rather than concentrating on how to prevent it, I think our time would be better spent in figuring out what causes it and which students are more likely to cheat. This is where the difference between the average teenage college student and the adult learner really stands out. Adults, for the most part, don’t cheat. This is not to say that all teenagers do cheat; obviously, that is untrue, but it seems that the reasons the students come to college has an effect on who is most likely to cheat. Plainly stated, those who come to college of their own volition are, in my experience, less likely to cheat than those who are there only because they think they must be. But it is not simply cheating that’s the problem; more fundamentally, it’s finding the motivation to work hard and achieve something worthwhile rather than just doing enough work to squeeze by. So how can one instructor motivate the “slackers” to work and do more than the minimum while still offering work that is stimulating for the more interested, usually adult, students?

One way to do this is creating a “hidden” mentor-mentee relationship between an obviously motivated adult student and a possibly less-than-motivated traditional student. One way that this is accomplished is through discussion boards where students are not only required to respond with an original thread, but also to respond to at least one classmate’s thread. Insightful posts on discussion boards are one way that adults stimulate the online classroom.Plus, adults are more likely to go back to see how their posts have been received and continue the discussion. Adult students are more likely to comment on more than one thread and often serve as a “cheering section,” commenting to compliment a good idea that a student presented. Everyone loves praise, so this encourages the less-motivated student to write more.

Another chance to use this hidden mentor-mentee relationship comes through peer review of papers. While the initial peer review matchup is random, a student who is struggling with his or her writing can later be matched with a more talented and motivated student, often an adult student, who serves more like a peer tutor than just a simple peer review partner. This challenges the adult mentor student to exercises his or her skills to help another, thus sharpening them, while it also assists the more needy writers in the class. Each benefits in a different way from this relationship. Similarly, when doing group projects, a mixture of adult and traditional learners can ensure a smoother outcome since adult learners often function as natural leaders of the group and have a higher motivation to get a good grade than do some of the teenage students.

The mixture of adult and traditional learners in a class, whether online or face-to-face, can present some unique challenges. In a face-to-face class, there is more flexibility on a day-to-day basis to make changes to the syllabus as needed to accommodate different learning styles. Since this is not really possible in an online class, building the mentor-mentee relationship into the curriculum can offer enrichment for a serious adult student and much needed help for a weaker, less-motivated, and often younger one.

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Readers Comments

Greg Allan 2012/10/18 at 9:14 am

I really like Ms. Shabbat’s insights here as to the value of a multi-generational classroom, but I do disagree with one aspect of her argument: She suggests that an online learning environment is not as flexible as face-to-face classroom when it comes to adapting to different learner styles, whether with syllabus changes and other adjustments.

I think this claim simply doesn’t do the online classroom justice. More and more, online instructors who use online discussion boards and other online resources to their fullest feel that they actually feel more connected to their online students than to those they meet face-to-face in a lecture hall. Sure, in theory, if you see an individual twice a week, you can get a sense of what they are like, but in a realistic college environment, where lectures are being delivered to auditoriums of 100 + students, how well can you really know those faces out there?

In an online discussion board environment where, as Ms. Shabbat describes, students are required to add comments to a discussion and respond to their classmates, an instructor can very quickly get a sense of a student’s writing abilities, strengths, and areas of interest. Just wanted to give online learning credit where credit is due.

Heather Peters 2012/10/18 at 2:54 pm

I think that the mentor-mentee relationship that Judi describes is very insightful and full of potential– especially in an online learning environment. For adult learners who are in higher education alongside “traditional” learners (straight out of highschool), it can be hard to navigate a traditional classroom– to participate, to connect with your fellow students with whom in fact you may have very very little in common, personally and motivation-wise (as Judi herself says).

That’s why I think the online classroom can be somewhat of an “equalizer” for adult learners. Everyone interacts in a set way (discussion board, chat, Second Life, what have you) and there is no body–nor set of preconceptions–attached with any voice in the classroom, old, young, male, female (at least it is diluted); in theory, at least, it puts everyone on a somewhat more equal footing. This semi-anonymity may also make a struggling “slacker” student more likely to accept this mentor-mentee relationship that Judi described, if they aren’t made to interact face-to-face with someone who, perhaps, in their view, is “old enough to be their Mom”. If this person is simply an online presence, just a fellow classmate and a strong writer with some advice to give, it may eliminate some of the awkwardness and hesitancy in accepting the help offered.

Simon Quattlebaum 2012/10/18 at 2:54 pm

Great article!

As an adult learner in the virtual classroom, learning is more of a journey and less of a focus on the outcome. As younger learners, the objective is to see the end and as an immediate gratification.

For a adult learners the experiences gained, the ability to network with like minds and being immersed in shared conversations and goals are tantamount to a meaningful and continued lifelong learning and fulfilling relationships.

I fully concur with the mentor – mentee concept. It builds a rich communication and understanding between each participant and increases effective and meaningful results.

Thanks for sharing and revival of the lesson: each one, teach one!

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