Engaging and Motivating Students in Online Learning

Lynette TAN Yuen Ling
Residential College 4 (RC4)

Lynette reflects on the effectiveness of online platforms for engaging learners and suggests three ways educators can increase online student engagement.

Photo courtesy of Fraser Stuart Morrison

In an unprecedented move, on the 2nd of April 2020, the National University of Singapore (NUS) shifted all teaching, including one-to-one consultations, onto online platforms. The reason is all too familiar to us—the spread of Covid-19 has led to a pandemic the scale of which we have not seen in recent history.

The question that often arises as a result of such a move is this—how effective are online platforms for engaging learners when compared to the face-to-face (F2F) experience? Or to frame the question differently, what do we lose of the F2F learning experience when we migrate our teaching online?

Apart from the very obvious need of access to technology and having the skill to use online platforms, one key area in which we fear the online environment cannot match up to F2F teaching is that in the physical classroom, we are able to see our students at all times and adjust our teaching pace and style to engage their attention.

What follows in this blog post are three ideas to effectively engage and motivate our students online, in this case via Zoom in LumiNUS.

Make it compulsory for students to activate the video function during an online class

The concern of being able to see our students F2F, and adjusting our pace and style based on changes in students’ body language and facial expressions, is partially allayed when the video function is made compulsory. This allows us, as teachers, to gauge facial expressions and some body language cues as we would in a physical classroom situation. These expressions and body language cues are however a function of something much larger—they are about how we engage our students and motivate them to learn what we are delivering.

Make use of online tools which enhance our students’ learning experience

The engagement of students on an online platform, rather than motivating them, is the easier of the two. We can ask questions and get answers, conduct a poll, show them a video that we scaffold with questions that we want them to think about as they watch it, and get students to write answers to a question on the virtual whiteboard.  Here’s an example of using an online tool to get our students to participate. (Click on the image below to play the video)


Make our students feel competent and confident

Motivation, whether in a F2F or virtual classroom, is less tangible. According to Deci and Ryan (2000), motivation has three components—competency, autonomy and relatability. In the online environment, students must feel competent for them to be motivated—based on the assumption that we are covering the material in a coherent manner and at a pace that they can manage. This also means that students are able to navigate through the conferencing tool that you are using with ease.

Thus, the first 5-10 minutes of the first session where we are using the online platform should be dedicated to showing students how to use it, that is, to achieve competency of the platform. Even if students are familiar with the platform, they might not be aware of the features that we are using for the session.

The second quality that is conducive to motivation is autonomy. Here, whether we are online or in a classroom, our students will experience autonomy when they are given the ability to share their own thoughts about the content, to apply it and discuss it with their peers, and with us. There are various ways to do this, some of them are already listed above (such as asking questions, conducting polls and quizzes, and using scaffolded videos). However, where this is most effectively addressed, with Zoom, is via the platform’s “breakout rooms”. Here students, in small groups, can share their perspectives with their peers and with us.

The third component of relatability, in my experience, arises from a few factors, including the trust that students have in us. As their teacher, the social dynamic that we create in the class, and also how the material is made relevant to them. On the online environment, this emanates from the persona that we have, and is more likely to be established when we exude a deep knowledge and passion for the course material, show great skill in delivery, and welcome students’ questions in a non-judgmental environment where they are free to voice their opinions while maintaining a level of respect for everyone present.

I find the virtual space to be exciting and sense that we have only touched on a fraction of the possibilities that it offers when it comes to teaching and learning. Honing our expertise in this arena can only enhance our versatility as teachers.


Lynette TAN is the Director of Studies, Associate Director of Student Life and Senior Lecturer at Residential College 4 (RC4), NUS. At RC4, her teaching on Systems Thinking explores the philosophies and work of the Systems Pioneers and empowers students to be humane change agents as they navigate global issues that are critical in the 21st Century. She has a strong interest in technology enhanced learning.

Lynette can be reached at rc4lynette@nus.edu.sg.


Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist 55(1), 68-78. Retrieved from https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2000_RyanDeci_SDT.pdf.

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