As author Joel A. English notes in his book Plugged In: Succeeding as an Online Learner, “your personal purpose for your academic and professional life should provide you with the motivation you need to rev up in your classes” (p. 9). When students retain a strong sense of personal purpose, they can stay fixed on their goals and remain motivated even when the material seems challenging, the schedule gets hectic, or the goal still feels far away.

Some of a student’s motivation and sense of purpose may spring from an intrinsic (or, internal) desire to succeed, while other motivations may be driven by extrinsic (or, external) factors, such as support from family and friends (English, Plugged Inp. 11). Both types of positive motivation can be instrumental in a student’s ability to persist and achieve his or her goals.

If students have chosen to take courses or complete an entire program online, another set of factors regarding time, cost, availability of needed classes, or distance may also be at play. In addition, online students may feel isolated from other students in their situation, and they may face resistance from friends and family who don’t understand their need for quiet time, a space devoted to study, or significant hours logged into the computer (English, Plugged In, pp. 11-12). For this reason, it’s especially helpful for online students to develop a clear understanding of their motivations and purposes, which can serve as an encouragement as they proceed through their studies.

If you teach an online course, and want your students to understand the motivations that led them to take part in an online learning experience, encourage them to complete this “Motivation Inventory,” a guided writing assignment from the Instructor’s Manual accompanying English’s book:

Ask students to take 5-8 minutes to catalog all of the reasons that they became motivated to come to school, enter the program they have selected, and to take courses online. Students should consider this an open brainstorm of every motivating factor that comes to mind on why they are pursuing their education.

When the students have exhausted their motivating factors, discuss the differences between internal motivators and external motivators. When they clearly understand the difference, ask them to go through their inventory of motivators and label each one as to whether it is primarily an internal or external motivation. When all motivators are labeled, ask the students to count how many factors were internal and external, and lead discussion about the implications of these motivators. (English, Instructor’s Manual, pp. 30-31)

The discussion that comes about as a result of this exercise may prove enlightening to both you and your students!


English, Joel A. 2014. Online Instructor’s Manual to accompany Plugged In: Succeeding as an Online Learner. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

English, Joel A. 2014. Plugged In: Succeeding as an Online Learner. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Do you teach online? What are some of the most common reasons your students were motivated to enroll in your course or program? Share your ideas below or submit them to [email protected].