How to motivate students using course design

Stepping stones heading out into a lake under an orange sunset

A lack of motivation is one of the most common reasons why a student does not complete an online course. This causes problems for an online orientation program, as such programs typically have no clear, inherent motivator. Unlike an academic course, the work that a student puts into an online orientation program does not result in a grade or academic credit; it simply helps set them up for success. While students in a for-credit course may persevere through boredom or being uninterested, all in pursuit of that grade and credit, in an online orientation, that perseverance likely doesn’t exist. An online orientation must, therefore, be well-designed and engaging in order to motivate a student to complete.

Keller’s ARCS theory of motivation defines for major conditions that have to be met for a student to become and remain motivated: attention, relevance, confidence, and satisfaction. While this theory was not designed explicitly for online learning, but for instructional materials more broadly, it can be extremely useful in the design of an online orientation program.


The attention condition asks you to consider how you can both capture and sustain attention throughout the learning activity or course.

  • Create conflict the student will desire to resolve. Remind students of the questions they might have, so that they want to stick around to find out the answers. Create a sense of conflict in any scenario-based activities (i.e. Someone needs your help!)
  • Use concrete examples. Students hate being given generic information. They want to be able to see themselves at the institution. They want to be able to paint a picture in their mind. Concrete examples and stories are much more engaging then generalizations and vagueness. Plus, they generally add value beyond what is already available on your institution’s website.
  • Vary the format and medium of instruction. A student who is asked to do the same thing over and over again, whether it’s read text, watch video, navigate a scenario, or answer multiple-choice questions, is much more likely to get bored than a student who is constantly being faced with new activity types. Even activity types that may seem trendy in the moment won’t sustain attention if they are overused.
  • Give your program some personality. Just because you’re creating a program for an institution, doesn’t mean the program has to feel institutional. Be friendly throughout, sprinkle in some humour, and throw in a few small, unexpected surprises. It keeps the program from feeling routine, and inserting small pieces that are unexpected or cause your students to react in a positive way recaptures your students’ attention. 
  • Create activities in which the student must actively participate. This may include activities such as games, role plays, and simulations. It’s much easier to capture and sustain a students attention if they are actively engaged, rather than passively participating. These activities should feel purposeful, however, or else a student may simply feel like they are being asked to do meaningless busywork.
  • Make navigation easy. The easiest place to lose a student’s attention is often in the transition from one activity to another. While this is sometimes inevitable, as this is a natural pausing point,  the simpler the navigation to the next activity is, the more likely a student will remain engaged with the program without even questioning whether they should continue. If they can simply end up at the next activity without having to actively think about it, they are much more likely to keep completing activities.


The relevance condition asks you to ensure that the course and learning activities seem relevant to the learner, both in the present moment, and in relation to their future.

  • Make it apparent how what they are learning builds on previous skills. Higher education isn’t an entirely new experience for most students, where they need to build a whole bunch of new skills from scratch. Most students already have basic academic, social and wellness skills and habits. Emphasize that they are bringing all kinds of positive attributes to this new experience, and then explain how their previous skills and experiences might be useful, and might need to be altered slightly in their new environment.
  • Explain how program content connects to current needs. It’s important that a student understand why they are learning about a certain topic. We clear how each topic is relevant for a student, and what the goal in completing the learning activity is. This also means you should carefully consider the topics and activities you include in the program; if the topic does not pertain to current needs, but instead addresses some perceived future need, your online orientation program may not be the best place for that content.
  • Provide choice in how a student can engage with your program. Forcing students to learn about a topic they are uninterested in, at a time when they are uninterested, is practically a guaranteed way to ensure that a student will not be motivated to complete the program. Consider any decisions around gatekeeping content carefully (i.e. requiring students to complete Activity A or Module A before gaining access to Activity B or Module B). We gave students access to all program content at the same time, without any restrictions, as we didn’t want a lack of interest in finances, for example, to stop a student from being able to access content about preventing sexualized violence.
  • Sharing stories of current students, alumni, or even professors. You can tell students your content is relevant all you want, but ultimately, “you” are the institution, and your opinions are a little suspect. Stories shared from current students, alumni, and even professors provide examples of the relevance of your program’s content in a way that is unarguable!


A student needs to feel as though some level of success is possible if they are going to invest their time in a learning activity or course. In the case of an online orientation program, they need to believe that both completing the program is possible, and that succeeding in university is possible. This is what the confidence condition asks you to consider.

  • Clearly state learning goals and criteria for evaluation and/or completion. A student should know what they are aiming to achieve by completing the program and/or learning activity, and understand what completion looks like. If you require students to complete all parts of the program, be clear about how many topics there are, and the fact that they all need to be completed to achieve program completion. It can also be helpful to explain how to tell if an activity has been completed within the system. In Brightspace, for example, an activity will display with a checkmark once the student has met the completion criteria.
  • Be clear about the time commitment. This applies to both the entire program, and to each module and activity, and can help a student create realistic expectations. If a student feels as though an activity is taking longer than it should, they are more likely to get frustrated and give up. Honestly, if they even ask themselves the question, “Am I almost done?” while doing the activity, the likelihood that they will abandon the activity is increased. Helping them understand that an activity could take a significant amount of time can help prevent the impatience to be done. This is especially important for any activities that might be longer than your average activity.  
  • Deliver material in order of increasing difficulty. Start with the easier content, and build towards concepts that are progressively more difficult. This helps a student to build confidence incrementally, and decreases the likelihood that they become frustrated or overwhelmed.
  • Share stories of students who have struggled, then achieved. It’s easy for a student to think that if they are struggling, they are not good enough, will never succeed, etc. We know, however, that this is not true. So let your students see that it’s not true too! It’s important to help students understand that challenges are inevitable, and can be overcome!


Every effort should be made to make students feel good about their accomplishments throughout the program, and about their participation in the program as a whole. If a student is satisfied and enjoying their learning experience, the chance that they’ll continue to participate is pretty high!

  • Provide feedback as frequently as possible. In my opinion, there is very little that is more frustrating then being expected to learn something, but being given no feedback on how you’re doing. Incorporate informative, helpful, and motivating feedback into your activities as often as possible. Try to go beyond simple checkmarks and X’s where possible. This could be as simple as providing explanations of why an answer is wrong, or adding a message that says “Great job!” or “That’s right!” to a correct answer.
  • Incorporate unexpected rewards and experiences. Surprise and delight your students! This doesn’t have to be something elaborate or time intensive, but sprinkling in unexpected surprises has a positive effect on a student’s satisfaction with your program. In one of our scenario-based activities, the student in the scenario quite literally got on their skateboard and rolled off the side of the screen at the end of the activity… and students loved it enough to bring it up specifically in our feedback questions. Small things sprinkled throughout really do make a difference!
  • Provide a sense of achievement. Completing an online orientation should be rewarding and rewarded in some way. Track a student’s progress throughout the program, and make sure it is displayed for the student to see. This may mean ensuring completed activities are checked off, or having a widget that indicates what percentage of the program they have completed so far. Badging and certificates can also help promote a sense of achievement, whether they are provided for completing certain combinations of activities, completing individual topics, or completing the entire program. 
  • Don’t patronize the student by over-rewarding easy tasks. New students often have a real aversion to being treated as “children,” so feedback positive encouragement, and even surprises need to avoid creating that feeling in students.  It can be a fine line to walk, and if I’m being honest, you probably won’t get it right for absolutely every student.

The ultimate goal of incorporating the ARCS theory of motivation into the design of your online orientation program is to ensure that a student does not become disillusioned with your program. We want to prevent a student from getting bored, frustrated, or questioning why they are completing the program while in the midst of doing so. A student who is engaged throughout the entire process of completing the course is much more likely to get to the end than a student who constantly has to be putting effort and energy into continuing!


Keller, J. M. (1987). Development and use of the ARCS model of instructional design. Journal of Instructional Development, 10(3), 2.

Kim, C., & Keller, J. M. (2008). Effects of motivational and volitional email messages (MVEM) with personal messages on undergraduate students’ motivation, study habits and achievement. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(1), 36–51.

Featured image by Sam Barber on Unsplash

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