Young man smiling at computer

Motivation plays a key part in student satisfaction and perceived learning. Establishing social presence and keeping learners engaged are essential components of motivating remote lessons. Read on to learn about ways to achieve it.

Defining motivation

Broadly speaking, motivation can be defined as ‘some kind of internal drive which pushes someone to do things in order to achieve something’ (Harmer, 2007). It greatly affects success, we need to desire to do something in order to be successful at that or we will not be able to sustain the necessary effort to achieve it. This desire can originate from an inner drive to do the activity (intrinsic) or it can come from external factors like passing an exam or complying with family expectations (extrinsic). As teachers, we can feed learners’ natural curiosity, show them we care about them and create an environment in which they can succeed while ensuring there is an appropriate level of challenge. We can give them choices to develop their agency and we can implement motivating activities while understanding that what learners find motivating can vary from one to another and from one culture to another. (Harmer, 2007). Keep reading to find out about ways to accomplish all this in remote teaching and online learning contexts.

Establishing social presence 

According to Lowenthal (2010), the construct of social presence has been defined in different ways. It can be characterised as the ‘degree to which a person is perceived as being real and being there’, i.e. their ability to come across the screen, to project themselves in the environment in a way that makes others perceive their presence even when they aren’t sharing the physical space. Other definitions focus on the existence of an ‘interpersonal emotional connection between communicators’. Both of these definitions are especially relevant for remote and online learning. Studies indicate that social presence affects perceived learning and satisfaction with instruction (Richardson and Swan, 2003), which impacts learner retention and motivation. This means explicit action should be taken to establish a strong social presence. 

There are a number of strategies that can be used to create this feeling of social presence in remote teaching. For example, looking at the camera so learners will feel you are looking directly at them, exaggerating gestures, promoting everyone’s switching on their cameras so it’s possible to see each other’s reactions. Opportunities to participate and choice on how to do it (using the chat box, using reactions, activating the microphone) are all ways to facilitate learners’ presence. So are the ideas discussed below.

Keeping learners attention

Remote contexts provide many possibilities for distractions, namely, pop up notifications, the chance to work on different tabs, the difficulty to sustain attention on the screen, especially in contexts in which learners don’t have a physical space exclusively devoted to the remote lesson or are sharing the same physical space with other learners or family members, which means there might be noise and overlapping activities taking place in the surroundings, among others. Again, exaggerating gestures, varying tone and pitch and being more ‘theatrical’ than you would be in a face-to-face lesson might help sustain learners’ attention.

We should minimise distractions as much as possible as well as implement strategies to help learners focus. Examples of this include providing visual aids to support and reinforce instructions and content, using a neutral background that doesn’t draw the learners’ attention away from class delivery, and discussing advice about establishing an atmosphere that is conducive to learning in their physical space. Another useful strategy is to implement active pauses when they have been working focused for a while. A brain break activity like coordinating lateralities (see an example, the Nose Ear Switchhere) or other physical response options might be a good way to do this, as they allow them to move around, rest their eyes and relax for a bit. This talk on Using microbreaks in online classes by Lindsay Clandfield is full of short break ideas for online lessons.

Engaging learners

The considerations above are important to keep learners engaged. Some further strategies you can implement:

  • Show learners you care about them. Make the effort to learn their names and notice individual details such as interests or characteristics you can have small talks about. In connection with this, identify and address hot topics i.e. popular topics that are likely to spike learners’ interest and desire to voice their opinion, which allow you to expand on the language you have created the need for and personalise instruction.
  • In connection with the previous point, consider learners’ needs and preferences. Make them feel responsible for the class environment by negotiating class rules and routines with them as well as by giving them choice on different aspects of the course.
  • Nominate learners who do not participate frequently to ensure they are all engaged and show you are paying equal attention to them. One way to do this without singling out learners is to use wheels of names or similar randomised nomination strategies.  
  • Give learners the chance to interact and get to know each other and you. As Rovai (2002) asserts, ‘proper attention must be given to community building in distance education programs because it is a “sense of community” that attracts and retains learners.’
  • Make the class fun and interesting. This can be achieved by using humour, providing an adequate level of challenge, playing games and other motivating activities.
  • Take advantage of the remote scenario: are you and your learners in different cities? That’s a great opportunity for routine exchanges that wouldn’t be as meaningful if you were in the same city: talking about the weather, the traffic, etc 
  • Make strategic decisions on what to do in class. Timing, pace and classroom dynamics tend to be different when working online. Some activities you would conduct in class in face-to-face contexts might not be as effective in online scenarios. Flipping the classroom might be preferable in some situations, such as for extensive reading. 

Some of the factors discussed above were dealt with in detail in this article and in this talk by Graham Stanley.

Using games

There are many activities that learners find especially motivating, games in particular. While there is a tendency to use gamification in EFL i.e. activities that have certain characteristics that are typical of games such as score systems and rewards, the use of games-based learning is less common (check out this article by David Dodgson on this). Both can be stimulating, but we are focusing on the use of genuine games in this entry since they provide opportunities for authentic tasks. Gamification, on the other hand, runs the risk of becoming disguised testing. As Mawer and Stanley (2011) stated, if we could manage to get learners to devote the time, energy, concentration and repetitive behaviour they display when playing computer games in language learning, the impact would undoubtedly be big. There are many ways to use games to our advantage that do not involve actually playing them. Talking about them can be a very engaging activity, especially if your learners are gamers.  Understanding game instructions through reading or listening comprehension, explaining them to other players, discussing strategies to win certain games or solve puzzle-like ones, discussing their favourite games, can all be communicative, memorable activities. A future entry will explore this in depth.

Putting these ideas into practice:

Some examples of lesson ideas that follow the principles described above and can be implemented in remote and online classes:

Have you got any other ideas to motivate your learners? What has worked in your own remote or online lessons? Share your thoughts through our social media channels! 

Keep learning about the subject!:


Harmer, J. (2007) The practice of English Language Teaching. Pearson. Fourth edition. 

Lowenthal, P. R. (2010) The evolution and influence of social presence theory on online learning.  In T. T. Kidd (Ed.), Online education and adult learning: New frontiers for teaching practices, pp. 124-139. Hershey, PA: IGI Global. 

Mawer, K. and Stanley, G. (2011) Digital Play. Computer games and language aims. Delta Publishing. 

Richardson, J., & Swan, K. (2003). Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students’ perceived learning and satisfaction. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7, pp. 68-88.

Rovai, A. (2002). Development of an instrument to measure classroom community. Internet and Higher Education, 5, pp. 197–211.