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Motivating online students who experience high anxiety

Students who experience high anxiety can have difficulty controlling attention, can take longer to complete tasks, and often expend more effort to achieve the same results as fellow students. With these challenges, and the daily reality of living with high anxiety, it’s understandable that for some, motivation for learning can fluctuate or be obscured.

Although motives are situated within the learner and are highly individual, teachers’ actions have the potential to positively influence students’ experience of four key motivational elements: goals, desire, attitude and effort. 

When I’m highly anxious I feel…
Nervous, fearful, tense, worried, irritable, anxious, perfectionistic,
impending danger or doom, slighted by feedback, unworthy,
unconfident, silent, unmotivated,
unable to concentrate ……

Using John Keller’s ARCS Model as a framework, the strategies below can support students to sustain their motivation to learn.


Designing for attention and engagement sustains learning, makes it enjoyable and memorable and builds loyalty and commitment to the course, thus reinforcing motivation.

While boredom is a big de-motivator, activities which engage students, and which acknowledge who they are, and where they are as learners, have a high chance of gaining and sustaining the commitment necessary for continued learning. 

Try: games; video; guest speakers, especially inspirational and former students as well as those working in the field, guest lecturers, friendly challenges, stimulus questions, debates, surveys, virtual field trips


Adults learners do best when the content is relevant to their past experiences and/or present concerns, and the learning process is relevant to life experiences.

Relevance enables students to personally connect to the content and can affirm the goals and outcomes they are motivated to achieve.

Do:  know key data about your student cohort; support students to reflect on their relevant life experiences within the course; make strong links between content and its use in the world; frequently invite students to align content to their personal goals


Although student confidence can ebb and flow as new learning is mastered and other learning challenges begin, supporting students to feel confidence in their institution, their course, their teachers and in themselves as students, contributes to sustained motivation.

For many students, as initial motives are replaced over the course of their study, a sense of confidence in their capacity enhances goal setting and underpins their motivation.   

Promote:  feedback which combines realism about specific tasks with overarching optimism about capabilities in general; discussion about developing a growth mind set; access to resources for assistance and support; stories about other students’ experiences and successes, connection with mentors and fellow students; strategies which enable students to become self-aware learners.


Satisfaction relates to the extent to which a learner’s goals are being attained and is, therefore, closely linked to motive. For many students, their feelings of satisfaction derive from the formal and informal interpersonal aspects of learning, as well as their academic achievement. 

Ensure that: timely feedback is consistently provided to students, students feel part of a supportive learning community, celebration and acknowledgement of success and achievement are integral to the course, students know how they best learn; students know both how to improve and what improvement looks like, students know what lies ahead in the course and so can plan for learning as a part of their lives.

Tips about motivation for your students 
Know what drives you.
Consider writing your goals down so that you can see them.
It’s ok and usual for motives to change over time.
It’s normal to experience both intrinsic (I love this subject) and extrinsic (I want to get a good mark) motivation together.
Our sense of motivation usually has a social need which we often don’t recognise.
Motivation doesn’t flow at a constant level; be self-knowing about how and why it ebbs and flows for you.

Author: Lyn Dunn

February 2021


Brundage, Donald H 1980, Adult learning principles and their application to program planning, Ministry of Education, Ontario.  

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