Engaging and Motivating Students in a Virtual Learning Environment

February 23, 2017

There’s no question that virtual learning is on the rise, helping school districts address the challenges of larger, more diverse student populations and smaller budgets. And online learning, at its best, can help districts provide a personalized learning experience so that all their students can develop strong foundations of knowledge and skills needed to succeed in school and beyond.

Motivating Students in a Virtual Learning Environment

How can districts use technology to facilitate student-centered learning and increase student achievement? Studies have found that motivation to learn is a key factor in student success. The “self-determination theory,” a cornerstone of modern motivational psychology (Deci and Ryan, University of Rochester) holds that we are most deeply engaged, and that we do our most creative work, when we feel that we are acting according to our own will on behalf of goals we find meaningful. At the same time, this theory identified students’ sense of relatedness as a key factor in their motivation. Relatedness refers to our emotional ties. It involves our basic need to feel connected with, and acknowledged by, others.

In fact, many studies have found that encouragement and guidance by teachers as well as real-time feedback from digital curriculum have a positive effect on student motivation and, as a result, achievement.

Student Engagement Leads to Motivation—and Achievement

“The great thing about teaching in a virtual environment is that you have the unique opportunity to individualize your instruction and personalize learning like never before,” says Laurel Beach, an Implementation Success Manager with Apex Learning, who has previously taught secondary English in a traditional classroom and served as a Lead Program Manager for Bay Virtual School.

According to Beach, one of the biggest challenges facing teachers in a virtual environment is to ensure student engagement, and choosing the right digital curriculum is key.

Digital curriculum, at its best, engages in students with a “learn by doing” approach that challenges students at just the right level of learning. The promise of personalized learning has piqued the interest of educators across the country. According to the Center for Digital Education’s (CDE) 2015 Digital School Districts Survey, personalized learning is the number one priority of schools and districts. 

It’s easy to understand why. Effective personalized learning programs:

  • Ensure consistent standards coverage.
  • Identify what students know and are able to do through quality formative assessment.
  • Offer individualized learning plans to address student needs, from those who need more instruction to those who are ready to move on.
  • Allow student choice in pace, place and space.
  • Enable teacher insight into student mastery that is used to drive instruction.


For more information on selecting digital curriculum that supports personalized learning, download our free white paper.

Strategies for Successful Virtual Learning Programs

“While virtual teaching requires many of the same skills needed to effectively teach in a brick and mortar classroom — academic expertise, teamwork, organization, creativity, and of course love for learning and for students — there are strategies that are particularly helpful when trying to reach students with whom you may never see face-to-face,” says Beach. Here are her hands-on tips for teachers to make the most of virtual learning:

  1. Communicate regularly with students. This regular communication and collaboration can take place in person or online through a digital messaging center, discussion group, or even through the feedback provided on teacher-scored activities.
  2. Provide opportunities for students to collaborate with peers. The temptation to “game the system” will be minimized if the student knows they have to analyze, justify, and/or evaluate the content in a group discussion or in a group project.
  3. Set clear expectations. While flexibility is one of the greatest benefits that virtual learning programs can provide, setting clear expectations in regards to participation, pacing, and progress is a key component to ensuring student success.
  4. Work with students to set goals. It’s important that teachers and students are on the same page regarding a reasonable schedule for pace and progress. This gives each student ownership of their individualized learning plan and accountability for sticking to the goals that they have set.  
  5. Use data-driven digital curriculum for individualized learning.
    At its best, digital curriculum delivers personalized content and meets each student at their learning level. That frees up the teacher’s time to analyze student progress and performance in order to determine mastery and understanding. By regularly monitoring and reviewing student data, teachers are able to better guide student learning and provide interventions to struggling students.
  6. Encourage a collaborative learning environment.
    Research indicates that collaborative learning environments, where teachers and students collectively contribute to the content and flow of instruction, enhance learning, when compared with traditional hierarchal teaching methods. This two-way interaction enhances student-centered learning and motivates higher academic achievement.


The bottom line is that great learning is driven by a great teaching—regardless of the method of delivery. Technology is only part of the 21st century education equation. Successful virtual learning programs serve diverse student needs and offer a wide range of opportunities to learn, and just as importantly, support and empower teachers to take full advantage of all that digital curriculum has to offer. The result is a virtual learning environment that engages students, gives them ownership over their learning and continues to motivate them as they master content and experience success.

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