Recipe: Motivating students working remotely

By Georgy Holden, Senior Lecturer in Design, The Open university

Keeping students engaged and motivated is crucial at a distance – especially to avoid last-minute panics with assignments and projects.

Research shows that distance students more than any other group are particularly sensitive to external factors and life events. But it also reveals that regular, well-timed, and predictable contact can have a huge effect on student motivation.

And it doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated.

Serve to:
All students

Prep: 30-60 minutes
Activity: 5 minutes
Follow-up: 15 minutes

Low / Free

Easy – especially once you get into a pattern of behaviour


  • Platform for asynchronous communication, this might be a forum, a blog, a wiki, a social media space or a combination of these.
  • Images and maybe videos
  • Internet or phone connection



  1. Identify a platform for communication with your student group, this might be a university platform, but a social media platform may be more effective if it is a social media space that students are using anyway (have a look at the Resources page for ideas).
  2. Make sure that all students are aware of this communication platform and give them some idea of how and when it might be used (see Staying Connected). Encourage students to post in this medium too.
  3. Find interesting news, articles or media relevant to current learning.
  4. Even better, team up with other teachers in your subject area to share and federate resources.
  5. (Later) Once you’ve established a patter, involve students in the discovery process: set a rota to share a discovery; design observation; livestream of some design idea; etc.


  1. Regularly post friendly and encouraging posts to keep students engaged. These posts might take the form of reminders or information about tasks they are undertaking, items of design news, or highlighting relevant websites.
  2. Where possible find opportunities for the posts to take the form of conversation starters e.g. questions like,  “What do you think about this idea?”, “Would this work?”, “What would your response be?”
  3. Consider embracing the current crisis by making this a focus of discussion to generate ideas for design responses. You may wish to follow up initial text and sketch responses using a whiteboard session or two (take whatever learning opportunities you can).
  4. If there are any opportunities for livestreaming, embrace them.  Livestreams are a good way to start discussions, critique designs or informally engage student attention. Keep livestreams short and where possible plan in advance what you are going to show or tell, but to keep things fresh use checklists, rather than a script if you need prompts. Link to your livestream and try to initiate discussion as you would for found content.

Follow up

  • Look at who has been engaging online in whatever medium you’ve been using
  • Identify any students who have not been engaging and follow these up individually. Do this informally and with the intention of finding out if things are OK with them – NOT to check up on them.
  • Some students may be ill during this period, one idea might be to ask students to set up a poll each week for students to show if they are well, ill or self-isolating,

Notes and tips:
Post regularly but go for quality rather than quantity, too much poor quality news or information will overload students without any return: but too little will mean they might stop looking.

Watch out for ‘flaming’ and poor netiquette and deal with it swiftly should it arise. The best way to teach good social interaction online is to be an example of it yourself.

Published by Derek Jones

Derek Jones is a Senior Lecturer in Design at The Open University (UK), part of the OU Design Group, and the Convenor of the DRS Pedagogy SIG. His main research interests are: the pedagogy of design and creativity, embodied cognition in physical and virtual environments, and theories of design knowledge.

One thought on “Recipe: Motivating students working remotely

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: