Motivation and the Design of Online Learning Platforms

Photo of Jed OdermattThis post is written by Jed Odermatt, Lecturer at City Law School who was studying the module EDM116: Technology Enabled Academic Practice last academic year as part of the MA in Academic Practice. Encouraged by his module tutors Jane Secker and Julie Voce, Jed agreed to write up his final project as a blog post, to share his findings with other teachers at City and beyond. His particular focus was on student motivation and online learning and Jed tells us about how he redesigned his Moodle module to improve student motivation…..


With teaching and learning moving online during the COVID-19 pandemic, a key concern has been the lack of student motivation. Even before this, motivation had been an issue when analysing online courses, in particular massive open online courses (MOOCs) which often require more self-directed study (Hartnett, 2016). One of the key challenges with online learning is keeping students engaged and motivated, and concerns have been raised that “the shift to online learning could severely hold back some students, including those from poorer backgrounds, care leavers, students with caring responsibilities and those with disabilities” (Hall & Batty, 2020). There has been particular concern about lack of motivation in online learning, especially as this tends to require more self-directed study (Hartnett, 2016).

This short post reflects on my experience of making a digital learning environment easy to use in terms of navigation, access and engagement.  The project focused on redesigning a Moodle page for ‘International Human Rights Law’, a third-year elective module in the undergraduate law programme. I sought to integrate elements of learning design and visualisations (Toetenel & Rienties, 2016) so that the page would be easier to use and more engaging, in order to improve student motivation.


Literature on teaching and learning has focused on the role of emotions and their impact on student learning outcomes (Mega et al, 2014). Pekrun et al (2011) developed instruments to measure student emotions, including enjoyment, hope, pride, relief, anger, anxiety, shame, hopelessness, and boredom, and their link to learning outcomes. Daniels et al, (2009) identified the link between feelings of anxiety and poor student outcomes. These emotions can reduce a student’s motivation to engage with online learning (Moos and Azevedo, 2008). This research identified students’ belief in their ability to use technology as important part of motivating learners. Artino (2008) shows how students have a greater control of their learning in an online learning environment, but that this can be a de-motivating factor for students who already lack motivation and self-regulated learning skills.

One key emotional reaction has arisen in informal feedback: the presentation of information is ‘overwhelming’. Escamilla (2015) identifies some sources of frustration in online learning, including the feeling of being ‘bombarded’ with information. This occurs when learners feel inundated with materials, and images at one time, and the student feels that it is hard to manage. This also leads to less enjoyment, and lower motivation (Escamilla, 2015). Moreover, the increased availability and use of online learning tools (including online polls, Padlet, videos, quizzes, notebooks, wikis, etc.) can also lead to students feeling overwhelmed, especially when they have to learn continually how to access, use and engage with new technology.

Literature and Theory

How, then, can educators design online learning spaces that reduce these emotions and prevent the feeling of being overwhelmed?

In Salmon’s five-stage model of online learning, the first step is ‘Access and Motivation’. This part focuses on making the online environment accessible, welcoming and encouraging (Salmon, 2001; Salmon, 2011). The project addresses this first stage in the scaffolding. If students do not feel that the online learning environment is easy to use and access, then this will likely inhibit motivation and successful learning. When examining the first stage, Salmon stresses the importance of ensuring that a student is able to gain access to and use the systems quickly and easily (Salmon, 2011). Salmon emphasises that this stage is not just about the student’s technical ability to log in and access information, but also their emotional and social capacity to learn (Salmon, 2001).

The importance of the foundational aspects of online learning design are also important in Bloom’s taxonomy in the domain of cognition (Anderson et al, 2001). Before being able to move through the ‘stages’ of learning – remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate and create – a student must be comfortable and able to engage with the online platform.

Another useful theory, connected to the five-stage model, is Fogg’s behavioural model (FBM), which looks into the relationship between motivation, ability and trigger (Fogg, 2009). This is not only used in education, but also looks at ways of motivating users in other contexts, such as in marketing. The ‘flow’ model (Csíkszentmihályi, 1996) focuses on the mental state of a student when learning, and seeks to reduce anxiety and boredom and to increase ‘flow’. Thus, a student might be able to access and use a particular learning platform or technology, but this may create speedbumps by contributing to stress and anxiety, thus making it more difficult to focus on the content of the module and engage in learning.

1       Guidance Tools

In addition to academic literature, I consulted guides and best practices from online sources.

I consulted the City Teaching Online Checklist and Module Page Checklist for further information on best practices and ideas. The Teaching Online checklist refers to the issue of information overload: “[c]onsider the amount of information you provide in your materials in order to minimise information overload.”

I also spoke informally to students and other teaching staff about their experiences with Moodle pages. A source of frustration from students was that they often did not know what they were required to do at each stage of the course. Another issue is that students had already engaged with Moodle pages in the past (and saw it as a repository) and were not used to using it as the main method of engaging with the module.

I also consulted blogs and websites on good practice for design of course pages. These highlighted the need for a clear and logical learning pathway, and to “[e]nsure content is coherent and logically structured, with a clear beginning, middle and end.”

A learning resource from the Open University also stresses the importance of having a set of highly structured tasks with discrete outputs.

From the academic literature and the guidance tools, I identified a number of issues to focus on:

  • Giving clear guidance on how students are expected to use the Moodle page
  • Giving the Moodle page a consistent layout and structure
  • Presenting the module in a logical format e.g. by using the Present – Apply – Review process or by providing a clear ‘path’ for learning at each stage
  • Using quizzes and activity completion

1.1 The application of theory and design principles

I included the section ‘Module Materials’ at the top of the page, so that they are visible each time a student accesses the Moodle page. The rationale for this was to highlight the importance of these documents and to make them easier to access.

Image of Module Materials

1.2 Three-stage model

I designed each unit of the module so that it had a consistent structure and layout. Each section is numbered and has a brief introduction to what we will cover in that part of the course.

Image of Moodle

Underneath the introduction, I introduced three steps that students should follow. In this part, the first step is to read the relevant sections of the textbook. I have included a link to the relevant part of the Reading List Online, so that students can access it directly, without having to navigate to another section.

Image of reading list

The second part is to watch the lectures. I have added activity completion so students will know whether they have watched the video. I could have given some instructions here, such as ‘watch the video’ or a list of questions to think about when watching the video.

Image of video lectures

The third part involves an activity to review knowledge from the lecture and readings. I noted that it should be done ‘after watching the lectures’ so that students know when to do this exercise, but realise that this might have been be too vague.

Image of quiz

The quiz also follows the same structure for each part of the course (5 multiple choice questions that test knowledge from the lecture/readings) so that it would be more predictable.

Image of quiz 2

2      Conclusion

Many of us may never have given much thought to the look and feel of our digital learning spaces, as they were often seen as repositories of information, not as part of the learning environment itself. I was influenced by learning theories that emphasised the different stages of learning, and thought about how this could be applied to the Moodle page. The project will continue to be one of trial and error, changing and updating the Moodle page to take into account the views of students, experts and peer reviewers.



‘Teaching checklist’

Moodle, ‘Participation and Engagement Overview’:

Moodle, ‘Participation and Engagement Overview’:

‘Fogg Behaviour Model’,

‘Learning Theories: Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom)’

E-learning innovation: research, evaluation, practice and policy

Conole, G. (2014) ‘Good practice in the design and delivery of MOOCs’ in e4innovation blog,

Escamilla, Y. (2015) ‘Why E-Learners Become Frustrated (And What You Can Do About It)’


Csíkszentmihályi, M., Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention (Harper Collins, 1996).

Salmon, G., E-Tivities: The Key to Active Online Learning (Taylor & Francis, 2001).

Salmon, G. E-moderating: the key to teaching and learning online (3rd edn, Taylor & Francis, 2011).

Articles and chapters

Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., Airasian, P. W., Cruikshank, K. A., Mayer, R. E.,  Pintrich, P. R.,  Raths J. and Wittrock. M. C. (eds), A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Pearson Education Group, 2001).

Artino, A. R. (2008). ‘Motivational beliefs and perceptions of instructional quality: Predicting satisfaction with online training’. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 24(3), 260-270.

Bawa, P., Watson, S., William Watson, W. (2018) ‘Motivation is a game: Massively multiplayer online games as agents of motivation in higher education’, Computers & Education, Volume 123, August 2018, Pages 174-194.

Daniels, L. M., Stupnisky, R. H., Pekrun, R., Haynes, T. L., Perry, R. P., & Newall, N. E. (2009) ‘A longitudinal analysis of achievement goals: From affective antecedents to emotional effects and achievement outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology’, 101, 948 –963

Fogg, B. ‘A Behavior Model for Persuasive Design, Persuasive’, Persuasive Technology, Fourth International Conference, PERSUASIVE (2009) 26-29.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001) ‘The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions’ American Psychologist, 56, 218–226

Hartnett, M., ‘The Importance of Motivation in Online Learning’ in M. Hartnett, Motivation in Online Education (Springer, 2016).

Laverty, S. (2003) ‘Hermeneutic Phenomenology and Phenomenology: A Comparison of Historical and Methodological Considerations’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods 2(3), 21-35.

Linnenbrink, E. A. (2007) ‘The role of affect in student learning: A multi-dimensional approach to considering the interaction of affect, motivation, and engagement’ in P. A. Schutz & R. Pekrun (eds.), Emotion in Education (pp. 107–124). San Diego, CA: Academic.

Mega, C., Ronconi, L., and De Beni, R., ‘What Makes a Good Student? How Emotions, Self-Regulated Learning, and Motivation Contribute to Academic Achievement’ (2014) Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 106, No. 1, 121–131.

Moos, D. C., & Azevedo, R. (2008). ‘Exploring the fluctuation of motivation and use of self-regulatory processes during learning with hypermedia’. Instructional Science, 36(3), 203 – 231.

Pekrun, R., Thomas Goetz, Anne C. Frenzel, Petra Barchfeld, Raymond P. Perry (2011) ‘Measuring emotions in students’ learning and performance: The Achievement Emotions Questionnaire (AEQ)’ Contemporary Educational Psychology, Volume 36, Issue 1, January 2011, Pages 36-48.

Pekrun, R., Goetz, T., Titz, W., & Perry, R. P. (2002) ‘Academic emotions in students’ self-regulated learning and achievement: A program of qualitative and quantitative research’ Educational Psychologist, 37, 91–105.

Pekrun, R., Elliot, A. J., & Maier, M. A. (2009) ‘Achievement goals and achievement emotions: Testing a model of their joint relations with academic performance’, Journal of Educational Psychology, 101, 115.

Rowe, A. D., Fitness, J., & Wood, L. N. (2015) ‘University student and lecturer perceptions of positive emotions in learning’ International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 28(1), 1–20.

Toetenel, L. & Bart Rienties, B., ’Learning Design – creative design to visualise learning activities’ Open Learning 3 (2016) 233–244.

van Manen, M. (1997) ‘Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy’ (2nd ed.). London, Canada: The Althouse Press.

Wang, H., & Sun, C. T. (2011, September). Game reward systems: gaming experiences and social meanings. In Proceedings of DiGRA 2011 Conference: Think Design Play (pp. 1-12).


  1. Hall & D.Batty, ‘I can’t get motivated’: the students struggling with online learning’ The Guardian, 4 May 2020
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