Helping students boost their motivation through online learning

Notepad of ideas

Many of the students in my examination classes are struggling to engage in online learning and need ways to boost their motivation.  They are unsure of the merit of spending time learning new content and practicing examination questions, as they feel that their grades will be generated from data that has already been collected.  It is as though they have lost their end point, and with it their focus.  I have found that using competitions can be a useful way to give students back a purpose to their learning – rather than just intellectual curiosity.

Boost their motivation: Competitions

One way to use competitions is to deliver a topic in a sequence of lessons, activities, and formative assessment, with the understanding that this is laying the foundations to make a fabulous competition entry.  Why not try:

The Special Species Competition organised by the Linnean Society asks for people to design a special species and give it its scientific name.  This fits in perfectly with AQA GCSE Trilogy

The Creative Earth Competition, run by UN COP26 Climate Change Conference in collaboration with WWF asks that under 16s are encouraged to create a piece of art work and a 30 word statement about how they would like the world to look in the future. 

An example of an entry for the COP26 competition
The reality of home learning in our kitchen as Zac shows his entry for the COP26 competition.

MathWorks Math Modelling (M3) Challenge is a contest for sixth form students in England and Wales.  Designed to allow students to experience teamwork and face real-world problems under time and resource constraints.  This fits in for any post-16 STEM student, drawing on skills from many subjects.

Boost their motivation: Rewards Systems

A mainstay in most homes, primary classrooms and secondary schools is a reward system.  It can be easy to get bogged down with the fast-changing teaching and learning situation now.  Sometimes, procedures like administering the reward system get forgotten but they are a really important tool to encourage motivation, especially with younger years. 

An example of receiving a reward postcard
School rewards with postcards home are a great way to keep younger pupils motivated.

You could consider having a virtual form time where successes are celebrated, such as the student with the highest house points and the student who has had the biggest improvement of house points earned.  Maybe make a certificate and get it posted out to the student, so that they can have a physical reminder of their success as well as the pleasure of receiving post.

If you have chance, once a week (ideally a Friday) send an email to just one student’s parents.  Make sure that you copy in the head of year and celebrate their success and achievement for that week.  This will improve your reputation with the student and parent body and start a young person off to a fabulous weekend.

Boost their motivation: Accredited Courses

If students are motivated by clear goals, accompanied by certificates or qualifications, it is also worth considering encouraging students to work towards completing online learning modules. For those over 13, a great resource is Future Learn, a platform with lots of free content which allows the student to gain accreditation for learning and developing their skills. 

For those students who are looking to take their next steps into the job market, you could consider encouraging them towards completing courses which lead to workplace qualifications, such as First Aid or Fire Marshall. One example is the St Johns Ambulance who are offering blended learning solutions.

Boost their motivation: Enrichment Activities

Keep your eyes peeled for live lessons and lectures which can peak the interests of students and spur them on to study, examples include:

  • Natural History Museum Live Talks
  • Smart Edu Club Astronaut Training
  • Science Museum Climate talks
  • While students are having their daily torture walk, (I mean exercise!), this too could be an opportunity to re-ignite the passion for learning.  Students could be encouraged to listen to podcasts with a science focus like:
  • BBC Radio 4 More or Less is a programme that features Tim Harford explaining the numbers and statistics used in political debate, the news and everyday life.
  • BBC Radio 4 Material World is a science programme reporting on developments across the disciplines. Each week, scientists describe their work, conveying the excitement they feel for their research projects.

Virtual work experience is another great way to encourage students to gain skills and get an insight into work life.  See Get Career Confident for more details of these opportunities.

Take a Pause

School is often like a treadmill and students are encouraged to consider the next steps within the confines of education.  However, now this is all up in the air as exams have been cancelled for this academic year and no-one really knows what the future of school will look like for a while.  We need to scaffold students to find their own vision and discover what they would like their future to hold.  We can then help them track back and consider the learning they must do, experiences they should try to get, as well as qualifications that they need.

Considering the future
Use some of the lockdown time to encourage students to soul search and discover their direction and motivation.

UCAS educational activities

UCAS is a great place to start, with their Buzz quiz, which helps people analyse their abilities and innate traits, suggesting possible careers.

Many universities are offering workshops and live lectures to encourage students to consider their future.  For example, Portsmouth University is offering live workshops with activities to explore their identity, consider their future and gain skills in time management.

Just remember, if you have tried your hardest and kept everyone in the loop from home to school staff, and students still aren’t engaging, it’s not your fault or responsibility.  We are living through unusual times and this is having a diverse impact on everyone.  We may need to consider the mental health of the youngster and each other, before seeing any engagement in teaching and learning.

Photo of Sam Holyman


Sam Holyman 
is Second in Science at Aylesford School in Warwick, and formerly West Midlands ASE President. She is also the author of a number of best-selling science textbooks for KS3 and GCSE (including the AQA GCSE Foundation: Combined Science Trilogy and Entry Level Certificate Student Book), and a keen advocate of innovative teaching and learning.

Sam was nominated in the Teacher Scientist category for the Science Council’s 100 leading practising scientists, is a Chartered Science Teacher, and holds a CPD Quality mark.

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