Motivation: The Key to Engagement in Online Learning

By Guest Contributor Steve Tardrew, VP of Assessment and Research, McGraw Hill School

For the past two years, online technologies have allowed students to engage in learning tasks from home, often asynchronously and without direct teacher oversight. And although schools have predominantly reopened and returned to in-person instruction, online learning is likely to continue to be integrated into day-to-day instruction through various blended learning models.

Thousands of schools around the world relied upon McGraw Hill’s Achieve3000 Literacy for virtual learning during the pandemic. Researchers from MetaMetrics closely analyzed data from virtual learning experiences (MetaMetrics, 2021) in Achieve3000 Literacy. They found that, although overall usage declined, students who engaged in the program experienced learning gains as strong as before the pandemic. Why did some students engage and others not? And what can be done to make online learning experiences more engaging?

What motivates students to learn?

Engagement in a task means doing it with focus and commitment, not just “going through the motions.” In online education programs, usage data such as logins and time spent in the program can show which students appear to be engaged. However, this data can be misleading. We found that some students logged in and completed assignments regularly but demonstrated poor performance on associated assessments of learning. These students have a superficial level of engagement, possibly indicating a lack of motivation. Other students, however, have high usage and strong performance on assessments, indicating a deeper, more productive level of engagement—the kind that comes from some inner drive. These students are clearly motivated to do the work.

Motivation is generally thought to be either intrinsically or extrinsically oriented. Intrinsic motivation derives from deep feelings of interest in and identification with an activity. The personal satisfaction obtained from the activity is the inspiration and reward for doing it. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” to describe the state in which we are completely absorbed in a challenging yet accomplishable task that we have chosen to do (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

But in most aspects of life—such as schooling and work, to name two of the biggest—we engage in many activities not because we are deeply interested in them, but rather to satisfy an externally imposed need, such as to pass a course, graduate from high school, or earn a paycheck. Yet most of us somehow manage to be motivated enough to successfully navigate through a world of external expectations and criteria. Are we intrinsically motivated by all the tasks entailed in meeting these criteria? Of course not. Then why do we do them, and are there conditions that can improve our motivation to do such tasks?

The Keys to Motivation: Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness

University of Rochester psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan offer a very useful framework for helping to answer these questions. In their self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), they describe three psychological needs that, when met, tend to increase motivation to accomplish a task, even when the primary motivation is extrinsic. The first psychological need is the need for autonomy: getting to choose which activities to engage in and the method for completing them. The second is the need for competence. We tend to be more motivated when we feel a sense of competence in the task, or at least believe in the importance of becoming competent in the task. And the third is relatedness, or a sense of belonging and connectedness to others. We are motivated to do activities that are valued by groups to which we want to belong.

Deci and Ryan and other researchers have shown that meeting these three psychological needs causes the locus of control for a task to become more internalized; to put it another way, we care more about the task. In the context of school, we call this “ownership of learning.” When a student has internalized the importance of a learning task and feels a sense of competence and autonomy, the student becomes motivated and will engage productively in the task.

There are many ways for teachers to help students satisfy these psychological needs around tasks in which students may have little intrinsic interest. Giving students meaningful choices can foster a sense of autonomy. Connecting tasks to desired future outcomes (graduation, career, etc.) can help students value the importance of becoming competent in them. Teaching a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006) can help students develop confidence in their ability to become competent, even if their level of competence is currently low. And providing opportunities for students to interact with others who value competence (peers, parents, teachers) can reinforce a sense of belonging and help the student work through challenges posed by the task.

How to make educational technology motivating

Returning to our original question: How can we make educational technology more motivating? In short, by designing student experiences through the lens of self-determination theory. Here are some ideas:

  • Autonomy
    Allow students to choose from among several tasks related to the same learning objective. Provide a variety of topics and content to make the task relevant to students’ lives.
  • Competence
    Provide frequent feedback not only on progress (e.g., lessons completed, percent correct, Lexile Measure, etc.), but also on effort. Provide frequent messaging to support a growth mindset (for example, a pop-up that says, “Did you know that our brains get smarter even when we struggle?”).
  • Relatedness
    Include content that is culturally relevant to students from a wide variety of backgrounds. Provide frequent opportunities for meaningful collaboration between students, teachers, and parents. Make learning tasks relevant to students’ own lives to help them engage more meaningfully.

Learning only happens when there is engagement, and engagement only happens when there is motivation. The self-determination theory can help educators and educational technology companies create conditions for motivation to blossom and learning to flourish.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper and Row.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books.

MetaMetrics, Inc. (2021). National Lexile Study Impact of Achieve3000 Literacy Usage on Student Reading Growth.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.

Steve Tardrew has worked in educational research and technology for the past 24 years. As Vice President of Assessment and Research at McGraw Hill, Steve leads a team of analysts focused on analytics, reporting, and research (efficacy, market, and assessment). Before joining McGraw Hill, Steve has held various senior leadership positions in research, product development, and technology at Achieve3000, Rowland Reading Foundation, and Renaissance Learning. Earlier in his career, he served as Economist for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, where he helped launch the agency’s first electronic data collection initiative. He holds a BA from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a MA in Economics from University of Illinois at Chicago. He can be reached at