Barriers to Motivation in eLearning: Three current motivational barriers in an online learning environment are isolation, frustration, and academic persistence. Instructional designers need to eliminate these barriers as much as possible.

Students in online learning environments often feel isolated from their peers and instructors. Every effort must be made in the design of these environments to enhance student-student and student-instructor communication. Students need to know exactly what is required of them. They also need timely feedback on assignments and clarification requests.

  • Students can easily become frustrated in online environments. Some conditions that lead to frustration, such as lack of access and technological frailty, are beyond the direct control of the designer. Other issues, such as low technological literacy and/or self-management skills, must be addressed in the identification of prerequisite skills for the instruction.
  • Under direct control of the designer is the amount of information and assignments that must be generated by the online learner.  In the initial parts of courses, students in online learning environments should have reduced content loads, so they can adjust and adapt to the new environment. Simple tasks should lead to complex tasks to accommodate this.
  • Online learners must have excellent time management skills to succeed. Other skills, such as cooperative learning and active reading, also seem quite important to online learning success, and should be carefully considered by the designer as possible prerequisites.
  • Finally, some students may not like the public exposure online environments can bring to any product or thought they post online. This is an issue that must be resolved between the designer and the instructor.
  • Another area of concern in distance education for adults is academic persistence, or motivation to continue a course. Moore & Kearsley (1996) report that traditionally a dropout rate of 30 to 50 percent in distance education courses was common, but this figure is now nearer the lower edge of that range.
  • Learner persistence is often affected by the learning and personal environment of the learner. Job and domestic pressure, and courses perceived as too difficult also contribute to dropout rates. While a designer cannot predict or account for job and domestic pressures, as mentioned previously it may be possible to scaffold tasks in such a way that courses are not perceived as too difficult to complete.


Models, frameworks, and taxonomies for proactively integrating motivational constructs into instruction do exist, and should be used when designing instruction for online learning. While these models, frameworks, and taxonomies rest on a fairly sound related educational theory research base, in truth very little direct empirical evidence exists to support most of them. In addition to these proactive models, barriers to motivation exist as well. It is possible for the instruction designer to address some, but not all of these barriers.

Several themes emerged from the review of the literature:

  • Capturing and sustaining the learner’s attention is a key motivational need. The materials must be appealing and be presented in a variety of ways. This will arouse sensory curiosity. Activities should be challenging but not too difficult to accomplish.
  • The learners must perceive the relevance and importance of the instruction to their needs. Clearly stated goals will help accomplish relevance, for they allow the student to understand what is expected of them. Integrate the learner’s prior learning and life experiences into instruction wherever possible.
  • Learner confidence can be developed by using clear rules and procedures, clear learning examples, clear feedback, and ensuring a “safe” learning environment, where challenge is optimal for each learner, and failures are anticipated in advance and accounted for in the instruction. The teacher should attempt to develop a bond with the learners so they know the teacher will be there for them in difficult times.
  • Make the learning experience a satisfying one. In addition to providing challenging experiences that include learner’s values and perspectives, give learners some control over their own learning. Control is important to the student.
  • Use fantasies to enhance a student’s satisfaction with the instruction, to boost self-esteem, and to provide ties to past experiences.
  • As much as possible, enhance the conditions for flow to occur. Attempt to develop an environment that engages the learner to the point where outside stimulation is ignored, an environment that is perceived as “real” to the learner.

The models and barriers described above, and the resulting discussion demonstrates the clear need for more research on motivational constructs. What works, with what audience, under what conditions? Even though these models/frameworks (largely) rest upon accepted motivational theories, there is precious little quantitative or qualitative data to support any of the assumptions they make. Thus, instructional designers following these models/frameworks should proceed with caution, when incorporating motivational constructs within developed instruction.

It is apparent that a great many areas and theories concerning motivation exist. While individually these theories may account for a portion of the true picture of motivation, in reality it is difficult to separate these items out, examine them individually, and draw valid conclusions about them.

In reality, it is possible that these various theories of motivation interact with one another, perhaps supporting each other in an individual, perhaps canceling each other out. What can be stated with some certainty is that motivation may be unique to each individual. This logically leads to the concept of a learning environment that adapts to the learner’s motivations. The concept of instructional adaptability is not new, but perhaps motivation should also be considered in the still- developing models that do exist. Online learning environments and games hold the potential to become this type of environment.

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