How to motivate your students and meet their psychological needs in an online, Coronavirus educational world


Clearly, these guys didn’t get the “Social Distancing” memo…

Professors are scrambling to find ways to provide content for their students as most universities have closed for at least a week or two as this Coronavirus outbreak suddenly became very real for a lot of people.

Several Facebook groups filled with instructors, advisers and professors with names like “Pandemic Pedagogy” and “Teaching in the Time of Corona: Resources” have provided a place for resource sharing and camaraderie for these folks. How to meet the needs of the students has become a crucial issue for instructors, as they discuss everything from technology to personalized interaction.

I won’t say I have all the answers, but I might have a few key suggestions based on research I’ve been doing for about 20 years now. I’ve been researching college students’ experiences with various forms of education through the lens of Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a motivational theory built on the concept of need-satisfaction.

This post will lay out how SDT works, explain the basic tenets mean to you in this educational environment and provide you with some simple instructional suggestions that can help you help your students.

My first study in this area looked at how students felt connected to classes and felt they learned best based on the tenets laid out in SDT research. The most recent one a colleague and I completed here at UW-Oshkosh looked at how students fare in online courses compared to face-to-face instruction in relation to SDT motivation and psychological need-satisfaction.

I could geek out all day about the scholarship here, but for the sake of simplicity and putting some tools in your toolbox, let’s cut to the chase. (If you have a passion for digging deeper when we all aren’t running around with our hair on fire, get in touch with me and I’ll give you some good citations from people a lot smarter than me.)

Motivation operates on a spectrum: We have things we just love to do for the sake of doing them (intrinsic motivation), things we do because we value the outcomes (internalized motivation), things we do out of “guilt” or other such notions (introjected motivation) and things we do because we are forced to do so (external motivation). The better the motivational driver, the more likely people are to feel their psychological needs are met.

SDT touches on three basic psychological needs: Autonomy, competence and relatedness. When these are fulfilled, people tend to enjoy activities more, they tend to get more out of those activities and they tend to become more successful at accomplishing tasks. Let’s look at each need individually in a quick way:

Autonomy: This isn’t about letting people do whatever they want, but rather allowing people to feel as if they have some sort of control over potential outcomes. Controlling actions undermine autonomy, and thus limit enjoyment and engagement. The best ways to support autonomy are to offer choices when choices are possible and to explain why choices aren’t possible if options aren’t available. Additionally, perspective-taking behavior (“I know you feel this is unfair and I understand…”) can also support autonomy.

Competence: People have an intrinsic need to feel effective in their environment. Competence is attained when people take on and master meaningful tasks. Continued movement toward a goal, even throughout periods of failure, will allow individuals to feel more competence as they continue to understand how to improve during each subsequent effort. When people feel as though they can’t succeed at a task because it is too difficult or because they cannot discern why they are failing at each attempt, competence is undermined and they will give up on becoming good at something. Once they succeed at the task enough for it to become rote, they’ll move on to larger and more complex challenges.

Relatedness: Other researchers have talked about the concept of “belonging” and this fits here in similar ways. People want to make meaningful connections to people they value or want to impress. When they feel a social distance or a lack of connection, relatedness is undermined, thus leaving them less likely to succeed at tasks and progress toward meaningful outcomes.

The three needs work the way that multiple factors contribute to other forms of growth. Richard Ryan, one of the originators of SDT, once analogized the three needs to how water, soil and sunlight contribute to the growth of a plant. One of those might keep the plant barely alive. Two of those will help the plant grow. All three, in an optimum blend, will allow the plant to thrive.

A great deal of SDT research has been done to support these tenets in fields ranging from sports and leisure to education and business. The studies I mentioned initially merit concern for us in this time of Corona-pocalypse for a couple key reasons:

  1. The initial study (Filak & Sheldon, 2003) found that generally speaking students rated their experiences in a class higher if they felt their autonomy and competence needs were met. They rated their experiences with the professor higher if they felt their competence and relatedness needs were met.
  2. A follow-up study Ken Sheldon and I did (Sheldon & Filak, 2008) found that each need mattered and manipulations of the satisfaction of those needs could lead to negative performance outcomes. (In our case, the scores participants in an experiment earned playing a game of Boggle.)
  3. The last study I mentioned (Filak & Nicolini, 2018) found that in general, students in an online setting rate lower on the satisfaction of all three needs than did students in traditional classes, even if they took the online class of their own volition. That matters because online classes essentially have lower need-satisfaction to begin with, even under optimal motivation (intrinsic or internalized). We’re operating under extrinsic motivation, so now we’re coming up to bat with an 0-2 count.

With that in mind, skipping past decades of cite-worthy research, here are some things to think about in terms of ways to support these needs as you build your classes for this “alternative-delivery format” or whatever they’re calling it:


Offer choice whenever choice is possible: Autonomy support relies on the person in the lesser position feeling some level of control. In this situation, it feels like NOBODY is in control. As we move classes online, the goal of standardization, academic rigor and other similar things can lead to much more controlling behavior than we might tend to use in a standard classroom.

Choices in and of themselves tend to be meaningful to performance because the individual feels that sense of self-volition. When Ken Sheldon and I did our “Boggle” study, we had three copies of a Boggle grid available for participants: One pink, one blue and one yellow. In one condition, we controlled the choice (“You have to do the blue one.”) where as in the other condition, we offered choice (“Pick which ever color grid you want.”). The participants couldn’t see what was on the grid until they picked it or got it.

The people who got choice reported higher levels of autonomy and performed better. The kicker? All three grids were the same.

If you can offer students options for learning (“I recorded a podcast lecture and I’ve also provided the notes I’ve used to record it.”) or performing (“You can do the homework, quiz and test whenever you want and in whatever order you want as long as you make the deadline.”), the students will likely feel less controlled and perform better.


Explain when choices aren’t possible: Some classes CAN’T offer choices for individualizing experiences for students. If you have a class of 350 freshmen who are trying to get through an intro class, not every student can get what he or she wants or needs. When choices aren’t possible, simply explaining that in advance and telling people WHY those choices aren’t possible can make a difference. (“I know some of you would prefer a video lecture, but because not everyone has enough bandwidth to download or view those, I am going to have to do audio only.”)

That example includes a key element of autonomy support: Perspective taking. When people feel as if their voices are being heard, they feel as though they are taken into account within key actions. When they don’t feel that, they tend to perceive themselves as little more than a cog in a machine and thus feel less likely to think they matter.


This is the one need that we found connects to both how the students perform in a class and how much value they ascribe to their instructors. The underlying element here is that the students need to feel as though they are getting better at something if they are to feel any level of achievement. Consider the following suggestions:


Minimize potential failures in non-academic areas: The biggest concern my students had (and judging by the posts others have made, I’m not alone) was that they were going to not be able to “do the class.” That kind of broke down into two areas: The ability to be successful in the class outcomes (writing better, reporting etc.) and the ability to successfully navigate this new environment.

Taking the second problem first, you can minimize anxiety here by minimizing potential opportunities for failure. This means thinking about your delivery methods. Do all of your students have high-end internet, or at least high end enough to get the materials you want to give them? Are your students familiar with the platforms you want to use to convey information? (If I hear the “Zoom vs. Better than Zoom” argument one more time, I might scream…) Are your students capable of connecting with you in the time and manner in which you want? (This is why I push asynchronous learning over synchronous options.)

If you can put up the “bowling bumpers” on simple things like this and keep your environment more familiar to them (Canvas, BlackBoard whatever) as well as something simpler (This is in the eye of the beholder, but traditionally in terms of insane complexity VR > synchronous video > asynchronous video > podcasting > text-based stuff) you will help them feel more competent.


Fewer assignments, more drafting: As this is primarily for writing folks, this might already be on your radar, but it bears repeating. The more they obsess about the number of assignments they “have to” (read: extrinsic motivation) do, the less they’re going to feel competent on any one of them.

Ungraded drafts allows you to provide them with corrections without penalty and thus improve (read: gain competence) on a given assignment. This will also help the ones who worry the most feel more relaxed about trying something without fear of failing an assignment. If you had five assignments with one draft each, cut it back to three with two drafts. Same amount of work, but better overall results with improved opportunities for competence-building outcomes.

I have also found that I’m more able to stand firm on the “No, you can’t just rewrite it because you don’t like the grade” argument because they HAD chances to rewrite it. They just didn’t take them.


Positive reinforcement with corrective options: Competence building comes from knowing what you did right, so you can replicate it, and what you did wrong, so you can fix it. It takes longer than just noting “Awkward” on a paper, but it’s worth it in this environment, because the student can’t see or connect with you (we’ll get to that in the next need).

The explanations do not need to be long-winded diatribes on what worked and what didn’t, but rather simple reinforcement. (“Good lead. See how active voice made that sentence work better?” or “Nice use of a quote there. The state rep said what you couldn’t without looking biased.”) You can also explain problems simply as well. (“Passive voice undercut your point. Readers want to know WHO did the deed.”)



This one becomes extremely valuable because the students feel cut off from pretty much everything they knew in regard to their lives up to this point. They don’t have school. Many were shipped out of dorms to go home, leaving behind roommates and friends. They don’t have those “third places” one of my old editors used to talk about where people they knew gathered: The gym, the bar, the dining hall and more.

They are going to be more hungry for connectivity than at any point in life. Know it or not, you matter to them at this point more than almost anyone else for a few key reasons:

  • Most students in our classes (read media/journalism/broadcast etc.) are taking them as part of a major or a minor. This isn’t like that medieval basket-weaving course they had to take as part of their gen eds. The class has value to them and they know they want to be good at it.
  • You are impressive. You have managed to do what a lot of them want to do (write for the media, go into PR, be a reporter etc.) so you are the person to whom most of them want to connect, at least compared to that medieval basket-weaving professor.
  • You already connected. You spent seven weeks with these folks and they formed some sort of bond. Even if it’s not a “Goodbye Mr. Chips” situation, it’s something that they now feel they’ve lost.

Here are some things you can do to create relatedness:

Start “We”ing things: One of the key components of relatedness involves feeling bonded to the people who matter to us. One of the simplest ways in which this happens comes down to collective pronouns like “we” and “us.”

Students who freak out about this new class process and hear “you’re going to be fine,” are given relief initially, but then start thinking, “What does (HE/SHE) mean by that?” When students are told “We’re all going to be fine when this is over. We are going to make it work,” they get a sense of collective identity and shared responsibility. You can lay out what you plan to do and how they can help you accomplish that. You can lay out what they need to do and how you plan to help them accomplish that.

It sounds simple and it is, but it works.

Personally connect in a meaningful way: Professors always worry about the idea of “oversharing” or “getting too close” to students. Those are completely reasonable concerns. That said, there are simple ways to connect with students that will help them feel that their need for relatedness is being met.

For example, if a student emails you and asks about something having to do with the class, it can’t hurt to ask, “How are you doing at home?” Students will often end emails to me with something vaguely personal like, “I’ll try to get this done tonight, but I have to watch my little cousin and that means way too many episodes of ‘Arthur’ on TV…” In my response, I try to reference that when possible:

  • Hi Jane, Hope you didn’t hit “Arthur” overload the other day…
  • Hi Jane, I know what that’s like. Zoe used to watch “Maggie and the Ferocious Beast” nine hours a day when we’d let her…
  • Hi Jane, How cute! How old is your little cousin?

These simple things say that I’m viewing our emails as more than a class-based transaction-style relationship. It’s something simple but it works.

The autonomy and relatedness need are often “handcuffed” in the literature in terms of perspective-taking actions (“Yeah, I know that can be rough…”) but the goal here is to let them know you value them as people and you want to connect with them.

Not all of these will work perfectly and this isn’t all of what SDT has to offer. However, I hope this will give you a starting point as you start working on your classes for the Corona-pocalypse 2020. If you have questions or want more information on how to apply this to your situation, feel freeto contact me here.

Best always,

Vince (a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)




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