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Research School Network: Engagement and Attrition in the online classroom A brief look into what the research has to say about engagement, motivation and attrition in the online learning environment


Engagement and Attrition in the online classroom

A brief look into what the research has to say about engagement, motivation and attrition in the online learning environment

by Durrington Research School
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During these unprecedented times, the virtual classroom provided by the likes of Microsoft Teams and Google Classrooms has been vital in allowing schools to provide some form of educational provision to their students. If you spoke to the majority of teachers back on the 20th March, the conversations likely centred on concerns of how to access and use the technology, while many of these anxieties have now been alleviated, they are commonly being replaced with frustrations and concerns regarding student’s engagement with the online material.

With the novelty of the online classroom having faded and the uncertainty/​stresses being faced by many of our students, teachers are reporting drops in the number of students logging on and completing work to the standard that would be expected in the face to face classroom. As school teachers have minimal experience with online learning, many are looking to the research for strategies to develop student motivation and engagement in the online classroom. Unfortunately the research does not provide the silver bullet that we would perhaps like.

Firstly it must be noted that there is a dearth of research into the online schooling of young people, with much of the little research there is focusing on graduate and adult learning courses. Anecdotal evidence collated by Carr (2000) suggests that attrition rates (the loss of students on a course) is 10 – 20% higher in distance/​online courses compared to face to face teaching. In surveying adult learners Nash (2005) found that the most common cause for drop out was time management issues caused by work and family commitments. While such issues are unlikely to be relevant to our young learners, other reasons given by learners may be. Common reasons given included assignments being too difficult, direction for assignments being unclear and students not being able to access the help they require. Hara and Kling (2001) report that students often report confusion, anxiety and frustration that contributed to poor engagement, when feedback was overly delayed and ambiguous and support from online instructors was difficult to access.

Moreover there is a degree of emerging evidence that suggests student emotions contribute significantly to student engagement and higher order learning in the online classroom (Pentaraki, 2017). Emotions, defined as academic emotions, such as hope, pride, relief, anxiety, anger, shame, boredom and hopefulness are significantly related to academic achievement, student motivation/​engagement and student self-regulation. You (2012) in a study of 535 online students, found that student’s enjoyment fostered self-regulated learning in students, while negative emotions such as frustration did not. You, also found that task value”, the individual’s beliefs about the various reasons for engaging in a task, is intrinsically linked to emotional states and therefore student engagement.

What the research therefore suggest is that we need to establish an online learning environment that fosters positive emotions (and avoids negative emotions) so that intrinsic motivation, self-efficacy and regulation are enhanced. The strategies suggested by researchers cannot guarantee to get students that are not logging on currently into the classroom, but they may help reduce attrition rates and create a culture that others may wish to join. One of the most commonly referenced strategies for creating a positive climate is the use of audio with online teaching – whether this is live or pre-recorded. This increases the social presence of the teacher in the classroom, and allows you to convey a greater degree of personality to the online material, to which students can relate. Audio recordings can also be used to encourage students to interact and communicate with their peers and you as the teacher via comments on the classroom stream and/​or by email through school systems – this can reduce feelings of isolation common with online learning and has been shown to increase engagement (Dixson, 2000).

Pentaraki also refers to the use of self-referential feedback in the online classroom. Frustrations with online learning and the absence of face to face support means that students may struggle to engage with academic performance orientated feedback. Research has suggested that self-referential feedback which focuses on the progress made by the individual versus previous performance is likely to create more positive emotions and therefore install a higher degree of motivation. To further encourage higher intrinsic motivation, teachers should ensure that they task set have a high task value. It is unlikely that teachers will ever intentionally set a low value task, however we must consider what we set from the perspective of the student and their perception of the value. Ensuring that when setting the work the written or audio instructions clearly outline the reason for doing this work and the value of completing it/​understanding it should help with this. The instructions for completing the task should be clear and avenues for support well sign posted so that students do not become frustrated – setting out your instructions in a simple step by step process may be a worthwhile approach.

Motivation can also be cultivated through the use of rewards. When distance teaching this reward may need to take a more formal approach via phone calls or emails home, rather than through verbal praise during the lesson – the SME team at Durrington have created a certificate that teachers are emailing to parents to praise students that have been working hard online. Public rewards can be used to stimulate vicarious reinforcement , in which students that are not engaging or doing the bare minimum may be motivated to increase their engagement when they see others being praised/​rewarded for doing so. The Art Department at Durrington have achieved this excellently through the use of a Virtual Art Gallery” in which examples of outstanding work are displayed in a video/​photo slide show which is put onto the online classroom at the start of lessons and is shared via the schools social media platforms.

While none of the above strategies guarantee that student engagement will increase, nor can they promise to get those students that may not be logging on currently suddenly online for every lesson, however it important that as teachers we are considerate of how the materials we create and the culture we develop online can influence student emotions, motivation and engagement.

Ben Crockett, Head of Geography and Research School Associate, Durrington High School

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