July 22, 2022

Motivating online students to support each other

There are a variety of strategies to help students feel engaged and motivated to participate in online distance learning (ODL) programmes, but perhaps none are more powerful than finding ways to motivate students to interact with their peers.


Even though our ODL students will never physically step into the same class as each other, will never be able to drop into the café with each other after class, and may never even have real-time conversations with each other, it is possible for ODL students to form strong bonds, and to develop a sense of belonging to their cohort of students and their university.


Consequently, ODL students become committed to their own studies and success as well as gaining satisfaction from seeing their peers succeed. In fact, it is arguable that creating this kind of shared ownership of learning is the most important thing we can do as educators and learning designers to ensure that our students persist with their studies and achieve successful graduate outcomes.


Students supporting students online

It is an educator’s goal to have students who can encourage each other to carry out challenging, meaningful tasks, while being encouraged themselves.


We want our students to be motivated and capable of interacting with each other in ways that will help them learn better. We also want our students to be able to fulfil many of the roles a tutor might carry out – to provide feedback to each other, to correct and direct each other, to stimulate thinking and to lead to deeper understanding. We know the truth in the adage that, ‘To teach is to learn twice’, and that peer learning is beneficial to all participants. However, for this to be successful, students have to know that the time and effort is worth their while.


Give students reasons to work together

There are many beneficial reasons for students to work with each other, for instance:

  • Classmates will have different knowledge that they can share.
  • Classmates will have different professional, personal, cultural, and contextual experiences that will help shift the perceptions and understanding of the individual.
  • The collective understanding of a topic will always be bigger and better than individual understanding.
  • The collective ability to solve problems is better than the individual ability.
  • The act of communicating and collaborating at a distance is developing a range of skills and attributes that are of benefit in education and professional life.


If you are designing peer learning activities because they bring any of these benefits, make sure that you make your reasons clear to the students, so they understand and are motivated by the positive outcomes. Indeed, it is a good idea to build the skills developed from peer learning into the learning outcomes for your module and your programme.


Make their interactions meaningful

Students studying in ODL programmes are typically mature and in employment, meaning they are time poor and strategic in their approach to learning. For them to carry out activities and make efforts to collaborate, they need to know that what they are doing will be of benefit to them.


To make activities meaningful, ensure that you clearly connect the task to the learning outcomes as this will help students achieve. Also, try to ensure that it is clear to students that, in addition to gaining subject-specific knowledge and skills, there are many other benefits they will gain, for example, life and professional skills development. However, be mindful of doing this in a way that is not patronising to the mature learner demographic.  If you design an activity well, the way in which it connects to the students’ learning goals will be built in and easy to clarify.


Make their interactions achievable

For the same reasons – time poor students will be selective about which activities they choose to complete and therefore it is important that what is required of them can be successfully completed with the time and tools available.


Think about the scale of a task, can this realistically be completed within one week, or should it be stretched out over two, or perhaps even be built out as a project running over several weeks? Consider the steps and stages needed – for instance, if students need to carry out individual research or problem solving before collaborating with their peers, should these be split as separate tasks over two weeks?  Moreover, consider whether the students will be able to communicate, connect and collaborate in the ways that are required?


Of course, perhaps allowing your students to make decisions about how and when to communicate is part of the learning experience, developing multinational professional collaboration skills. Let them know that!


Make their interactions rewarding

Motivation for so much we do in life comes from challenge and reward. As humans, we are prepared to take on challenges, and work hard to succeed in them, if we know that there is sufficient reward to make the effort worthwhile.


Rewards students gain from peer learning include:

  • Improved learning
  • Feedback received from peers
  • Working towards learning outcomes
  • Being better able to pass assessments
  • More enjoyment through social learning


Design the peer learning activities with these rewards in mind and make them explicit to your students in the instructions you give.


Start with very clear instructions

If we want students to interact with each other in their learning activities, we need to be very clear in our instructions. Let them know:

  • Do they do a task individually, in pairs, in small groups, or with the whole class?
  • Do they need to do individual preparation work before collaborating with their peers?
  • How much work is expected? (This might be number of words produced, minutes presented, or how much time to complete the task.)
  • How long do they have to complete the task?
  • When should each stage of the activity be completed by?
  • Why are they doing it? – What learning outcomes are developed? What assessment will it prepare them for? What workplace advantage will they gain through completion? Why do you think this is a great thing for them to be doing?
  • What is the benefit of doing this activity with other people, rather than working individually?
  • What is their reward?


Of course, the need for clarity is true of all online activities, not only peer learning activities and assignments.

Create the expectation and be consistent

Design peer-to-peer learning into the basic principles of your programme and make that expectation explicit to your students. If they know from the outset that it is necessary to work with their peers to complete the programme, then they will join each module or course ready for the peer learning experience.


Work with your colleagues when designing the whole programme of study to decide what kind of collaboration can, and should, be built into the learning experience. Remember, if you are developing students for workplace skills, then the ability to work with peers and colleagues is exactly the kind of skill students need to develop. Decide together what kinds of interactions will best prepare your students for professional life in your discipline.


When writing your programme and course specifications, you have the opportunity to write learning outcomes that specifically address peer-to-peer interactions; hence, to be successful in the programme, students will have to be prepared to work with their classmates. Can you write learning outcomes that include:

  • collaboration,
  • group work,
  • teamwork, or
  • communication?

Consider, could the use of action learning sets, group project work, collaborative problem solving, or peer-led discussions be a pedagogic principle that runs across your whole programme, or perhaps a defining pedagogy for specific modules?


Once your principles and approaches are established, be consistent in applying them. Ensure that all course developers are aware of and know the methods for designing and instructing peer learning activities. If you achieve this, you are giving your students a great opportunity to engage with other learners and develop knowledge and skills that would not be available to them working purely individually.



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