How to support learners

The theme of this week is how to support learners. From the literature I have read and from discussions in the PBL group I have found two important areas for supporting learners; (1) enabling social activities and (2) learning motivation.

Enabling social activities
The structure of the course should enable social activities (synchronous or asynchronous). I strongly believe in social learning. According to Wenger “meaningful learning in social contexts requires both participation and reification to be in interplay.” Reification is the shared experience of an object. How we, as a group, understand and see the object. This week I prepared a presentation for the PBL group. To read and try to understand the theme of the week was an important preparation. However, after discussion of the theme in the group I have got a deeper understanding of it as we participated and reificated what I presented.
In on-lines courses social activities are sometimes difficult to organize in a good way. It is important that facilitators or group leaders reminds and help participants to engage in the group activities, especially in the start of the course. I think that in most on-line courses some social activities should be mandatory, such as weekly reflections on each other´s presentations.

Learning motivation
Another way to support learners is motivation. One theory on motivation is to identify learners´ strength. Boniwell suggests nine points to practical strength approach in initial contact with a new learner:
1. Emphasise the positive during initial contact
2. Focus on existing assets and competencies
3. Draw out passed successes and high point moments
4. Encourage “positive affect” (hope and elevated thoughts)
5. Identify underlying values, goals and motivation
6. Encourage narration (life story, life in perspective, making sense of it)
7. Identifying resources, protective factors and potentials of learners
8. Validate effort rather than achievement
9. ONLY THEN, if possible, talk about uncertainties, fears, lack of skills
As the list-lover I am I save these nine-points list for future teaching situations.
Another important theory on motivation for learning is the “Self Theory” due to Dweck. Very schematically the self theory means that there are two ways of viewing learners. The first way is “entity”, which means that intelligence is largely fixed and cannot be changed by effort. The other way is “incremental”, which means that intelligence could be changed by effort. Both for learners and teachers it is important to be aware of how you see on self theory, whether you are mainly an entity-theorist or incremental-theorist. This is important to know when motivating a learner.
According to Simpson there is ”little research on… how learner motivation can be changed by institutional activity”. As far as I know there is not much research on learner motivation in on-line courses. Simpson presents a theory of learner support for motivating learners in on-line courses. The theory is called “Proactive Motivational Support” (PaMS). Simpson argues that in on-line courses the institution needs to take initiative to contact with the student and be pro-active. PaMS would be (1) individual, (2) interactive and (3) motivational (using “identify learners´ strength” and “self theory”).
I think when doing an on-line course it is tempting to leave motivation for learning to the learners themselves. It is tempting to believe that on-line learners are motivated from the start because the course requires extra effort and motivation to join in on-line, and to plan the time for attending the course. However, drop out from on-line courses are very high. Reading the literature for this week I have been convinced that pro-active motivation, especially in the start of the course is important. To contact the “slow starters” early and see if any help is needed. Also to motivate social activities early in the course is important. It is important to ensure that participation and social activities gets started during the first weeks. After that I think that it will roll on easier and more by itself.

Wenger, E. Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept

Boniwell, I. Positive psychology in a nutshell. 2006

Dweck, C.S. Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia, PA: Taylor & Francis. 1999

Simpson, O. Motivating learners in open and distance learning: do we need a new theory of learner support? Open learning. 2008


3 thoughts on “How to support learners”

  1. Hi Anna,
    I agree that engaging in social activities should be supported by teachers/facilitators early in an online course. That will help to create a community and enhances collaboration. Probably it also will increase the motivation among students.

  2. Dear Anna,

    Thank you for sharing your reflexions. According to one of the papers I read (have to find back the source) there are two way of reinforcement positive (compliments on work) and negative (group pressure, not letting the group down). What is your opinion are both types of reinforcement ‘wanted’ within PBL groups or should negative reinforcement be limited? I think negative reinforcement is a dangerous thing which can rapidly demotivate if the student is not able to deliver and fulfil his/her expectations.

  3. Jan, there is a risk with negative reinforcement by group pressure. In my own teaching I have seen some learners that have totally lost motivation for learning (which is the worst thing if you should learn something) by negative reinforcement in learning groups. The power of social learning is strong! I think that group discussions on ones work are an exellent way of learning, It is a motivation to do a good work. On the other hand it could be a catastrophe for learning if leading to lack of motivation.
    A group work including risk of ” letting the group down” is bad I think. That should be limited.


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