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Motivating students to learn remotely: Seven key ideas

This article draws on behavioural science to suggest seven strategies that teachers can use to motivate students to learn remotely.

1.    Prioritise: Ask students to pursue a few simple habits

The first goal is to help students (and parents) build effective study habits by giving clear, simple guidance about what students should prioritise.  You can begin by asking students to do just two things:

  • Complete assigned tasks and submit them (daily or weekly)
  • Attend online lessons (if these are happening)

These habits lay the foundations for success: if students do both, then, they’ll benefit from ongoing improvements in remote teaching and learning.  It also means that teachers need not worry about anything else until most students are attending and responding: don’t make videos or develop another pack of work until you’ve got most students engaged in what you’ve already sent them.

2.    Plan what to do, when

It’s easy for students to put off a task all day or all week, particularly if they don’t know when schools will reopen.  The best way to overcome procrastination is to commit to a convenient time to get on with schoolwork and to share this commitment to others.  Teachers can help students to do this by:

  • Setting a schedule for students (the easiest would be to leave them with a modified version of their normal school timetable), or asking them to set their own schedule
  • Asking students to pick where and how they’ll work (‘at my desk, with my phone off’ would be a good start)
  • Setting clear deadlines to complete work

Asking students to share these commitments with their parents makes it easier for parents to hold them accountable to it.

3.    Encourage students to be part of their community: ‘Don’t miss out’

This combines two psychological principles: first, people need to feel that they belong to a community.  Second, they respond to the way a situation is framed, not just the situation itself, and the idea of loss is particularly motivating: for example, people work much harder to avoid a five dollar loss than to make a five dollar gain.  Combining these, a crucial message is that engaging with remote learning is a chance not to ‘miss out’ and to be part of the school community.  As students get increasingly bored and fed up at home, the chance to see their peers and teachers should become ever more tempting.  Three possible ways to connect as a community online include:

  • A quick catch up/mood check at the beginning of an online lesson; you might ask every student to describe how they’re feeling today, in three words
  • An online ‘tutor time’ which gives students the chance to catch up with their classmates
  • Whole-school events – like Jo Riley, a primary school headteacher, who encourages every family in the school to watch her read a children’s story over video at 6pm on a Friday

4.    Emphasise social norms

People are strongly influenced by social norms, or the behaviour that’s asked of them, and the behaviour that they see around them.  For example, people litter more if they see others littering, and less if they see signs forbidding it.  Teachers can use this to motivate students by:

  • Emphasising what you expect: ‘School is still running, we still expect you to attend.’
  • Emphasising how many students are turning up (assuming you’re happy with it): ‘Last week, 90% of you submitted your assignments.’
  • Emphasising that things are improving: ‘We got more assignments in than ever last week.’

Conveying similar messages to parents may prove powerful too: ‘Almost all students submitted work last week, we just wanted to check how Johnny was doing with his task.’

5.    Make the first steps easy for students

If the first step is difficult, it’s easy to get derailed and find something else to do.  Making the first step easy should help give students a sense of momentum: they should conclude, ‘I can do this’.  There are two ways to do this: first, make accessing the work as easy as possible.  That means using the simplest technology platforms.  Second, design work for students so the first task (and maybe those during the first few weeks) cover familiar material and tasks.  By ensuring students succeed, you can help students gain confidence, build momentum, and form good habits.

6.    Highlight small wins

Big goals are motivating, but they’re often too distant to provide an immediate spur to action.  What keeps people going is small wins: little boosts which make them feel like they’re making progress and heading in the right direction. Designing the first tasks to be the easiest is a powerful way to make small wins possible. You can also look for and celebrate small successes: the tech worked for you, more students than ever turned up, someone gave an informed answer or shared a good joke (this also reinforces social norms).

7.    Relaunch habits

On average, it takes six to eight weeks for people to form a new habit, and that’s without all the potential barriers students may face. Don’t blame yourself if student attendance or quality of work is initially disappointing.  (Likewise, don’t blame yourself if you can’t keep up your normal intensity or quality of work, particularly if you’ve got your own kids at home). You can expect things not to work initially: it’s fine to use milestones (a new week, or a new term) to relaunch, giving yourself and your students a fresh start, and too keep relaunching, taking what worked in previous attempts and refining what hasn’t, until your students form habits that stick.

Three future posts will discuss three of these ideas in much more detail: the motivating effects of social norms, planning the best times for action, and forming habits.

By Harry Fletcher-Wood

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