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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

Online Courses

April 2020


What research is available on best practices for improving student motivation and engagement in distance learning programs?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies, and policy overviews on best practices for improving student motivation in distance learning programs. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Berry, S. (2019). Teaching to connect: Community-building strategies for the virtual classroom. Online Learning, 23(1), 164–183. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “A sense of community is central to student engagement and satisfaction. However, many students struggle with developing connections in online programs. Drawing on interviews with 13 instructors, this paper explores the strategies that they use to help students develop a sense of community in synchronous virtual classrooms. Four strategies for building community online are identified: reaching out to students often, limiting time spent lecturing, using video and chat as modes to engage students, and allowing class time to be used for personal and professional updates.”

Borup, J., Graham, C. R., & Davies, R. S. (2013). The nature of adolescent learner interaction in a virtual high school setting. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 29(2), 153–167. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This study used survey data to measure the effect of learners’ reported interactions with content, peers, and instructors on several course outcomes in two virtual high school courses that emphasized interactive learning. Surveys found that the large majority of students viewed all investigated types of interaction as educational and motivational. Students perceived learner—instructor and learner—content interactions to have significantly higher educational value ([alpha] [less than] 0.01) than learner—learner interactions, and viewed learner—instructor interaction to be significantly more motivational ([alpha] [less than] 0.01) than learner—content interaction. Furthermore, nine significant correlations were found involving the time students reported spending on human interaction and course outcomes. Seven of the significant correlations were related to the time students reported spending in human interaction and the more affective outcomes, such as course satisfaction and disposition towards the subject area. Outcomes also indicate that learner—learner interaction had higher correlations with course outcomes than learners’ interactions with the content or their instructor. Students’ perceived learning was not significantly correlated with any type of interaction, and only students’ total reported time spent on learner—learner interaction and students’ social learner—learner interaction were significantly correlated with their grade.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Borup, J., West, R. E., Graham, C. R., & Davies, R. S. (2014). The Adolescent Community of Engagement framework: A framework for research on adolescent online learning. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 22(1), 107–129. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This paper describes the Adolescent Community of Engagement (ACE) framework as a lens to guide research and design in adolescent online learning environments. Several online learning frameworks have emerged from higher education contexts, but these frameworks do not explicitly address the unique student and environmental characteristics of the adolescent online learning environment. The ACE framework consists of four main constructs that make up an adolescent online learning community. The first three (student engagement, teacher engagement, and peer engagement) build on previously established online frameworks that originally emerged from higher education contexts. In addition, the ACE framework recognizes the role of parents in their children’s learning and introduces a fourth construct, parent engagement, which builds on two previously established face-to-face frameworks.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Corry, M., & Carlson-Bancroft, A. (2014). Transforming and turning around low-performing schools: The role of online learning. Journal of Educators Online, 11(2). Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This review of the literature examines online learning as a core strategy for bold, dramatic curricular reform within transformational or turnaround models in improving low-performing K-12 schools. The analysis of the literature in this area found benefits of online learning in transforming and turning around low-performing schools to include: (a) broadening access for all students and providing opportunities for students to recover course credit, (b) the potential to motivate and engage students due to the flexible and self-paced nature of online learning, and (c) providing highly individualized and differentiated environments allowing for personalized learning. As a number of schools and school districts move to online learning, it can be used not only as a curricular reform, but also as a tool to improve student achievement and turning around low-performing schools.”

Curtis, H., & Werth, L. (2015). Fostering student success and engagement in a K-12 online school. Journal of Online Learning Research, 1(2), 163–190. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Although questions exist about the effectiveness of online education, it is a growing part of the pantheon of educational choices available to students in America today. Online education first gained popularity for advanced learners, but at-risk populations are increasingly enrolling in online learning environments. This study explored student achievement in a K-12, full-time, online learning environment and the effect parents had on student success. Themes from semi-structured interviews found that parents of current or former students in a full-time, online school perceived multiple facets of student success in the online environment. Online K-12 schools can provide support to families by communicating, being transparent with tools, and individualizing instruction. Students must be self-motivated, engaged and participating, and accountable for their own learning. Parents should be available to monitor, mentor, and motivate students.”

Dolan, J., Kain, K., Reilly, J., & Bansal, G. (2017). How do you build community and foster engagement in online courses? New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2017(151), 45–60. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This chapter reviews research linking the importance of community in increasing engagement in online courses from an interdisciplinary perspective. Additionally, we identify applicable teaching strategies that focus on the important elements of community building, namely teaching, social, and cognitive presence.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Ferguson, J. M. (2017). Middle school students’ reactions to a 1:1 iPad initiative and a paperless curriculum. Education and Information Technologies, 22(3), 1149–1162. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In this study, 676 middle school students in grades 6, 7 and 8 were asked to complete a survey online, during class time, which asked them their opinions on using iPads in school. Responses to the survey questions were generally positive however comments written at the end were very critical of the initiative. Significant differences were found when comparing the responses of 6th, 7th and 8th grade students. Seventh grade students, who had been using the iPad since 6th grade, were significantly more positive than the 6th or 8th grade students. Also, the younger students in grade 6 were significantly more positive about using iPads than students in 8th grade. Gender differences were also found, with boys being more positive in their opinions than girls. Distraction and technical problems were among the problems students commented on, as well as eye strain from using the iPad for long periods of time. Increased engagement was evident from the high percentage of students who either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that ‘the iPad makes learning more fun and interesting.”

Hartnett, M., St. George, A., & Dron, J. (2011). Examining motivation in online distance learning environments: Complex, multifaceted, and situation-dependent. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(6), 20–38. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Existing research into motivation in online environments has tended to use one of two approaches. The first adopts a trait-like model that views motivation as a relatively stable, personal characteristic of the learner. Research from this perspective has contributed to the notion that online learners are, on the whole, intrinsically motivated. The alternative view concentrates on the design of online learning environments to encourage optimal learner motivation. Neither approach acknowledges a contemporary view of motivation that emphasises the situated, mutually constitutive relationship of the learner and the learning environment. Using self-determination theory (SDT) as a framework, this paper explores the motivation to learn of preservice teachers in two online distance-learning contexts. In this study, learners were found to be not primarily intrinsically motivated. Instead, student motivation was found to be complex, multifaceted, and sensitive to situational conditions.”

Kennedy, K., & Ferdig, R. E. (2018). Handbook of research of K-12 online and blended learning. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon University, ETC Press. Retrieved from

From the description: “The Handbook of Research on K-12 Online and Blended Learning is an edited collection of chapters that sets out to present the current state of research in K-12 online and blended learning. The chapters describe where we have been, what we currently know, and where we hope to go with research in multiple areas.”

Kipp, K., & Rice, K. L. (2019). Building engagement in K-12 online learning. In Handbook of research on emerging practices and methods for K-12 online and blended learning (pp. 171–192). Hershey, PA: IGI Global. Retrieved from

From the description: “Engagement refers to a learner’s interest in their own learning. Engaged students care about what they are learning and spend the time necessary to learn more. Learner engagement leads to increased achievement in a course and also increased satisfaction with the learning experience. This chapter explores elements of engagement from both a researcher and practitioner perspective. The authors explore the definition of engagement along with an explanation of the most influential theories of engagement. They also explain what classroom practices are most likely to build engagement and suggest future research directions.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Kwon, J. B., DeBruler, K., & Kennedy, K. (2019). A snapshot of successful K-12 online learning: Focused on the 2015-16 academic year in Michigan. Journal of Online Learning Research, 5(2), 199–225. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The purpose of this study was to provide a snapshot of successful K-12 online learning in one of the frontrunner states in the field—Michigan. The authors explored the state’s legislative and policy infrastructure; the beliefs, perceptions, and values of various stakeholders; and statewide enrollment patterns and effectiveness for the 2015-16 academic year. With that understanding, the study presented a secondary analysis of student information, activity, and performance data in a learning management system (LMS) in an attempt to explore success factors at the micro-level. The study results revealed the following: (a) the engagement pattern representing students’ consistent and persistent attempts to complete course tasks week-by-week was the most powerful success factor; (b) a more nuanced notion of students’ time spent in the LMS; and (c) a student population who presents unique needs to be successful in the online learning. The paper concludes with discussion about all findings in terms of a way of creating a feedback loop for upper-level systems.”

Lynch, K., & Kim, J. S. (2017). Effects of a summer mathematics intervention for low-income children: A randomized experiment. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 39(1), 31–53. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Prior research suggests that summer learning loss among low-income children contributes to income-based gaps in achievement and educational attainment. We present results from a randomized experiment of a summer mathematics program conducted in a large, high-poverty urban public school district. Children in the third to ninth grade (N = 263) were randomly assigned to an offer of an online summer mathematics program, the same program plus a free laptop computer, or the control group. Being randomly assigned to the program plus laptop condition caused children to experience significantly higher reported levels of summer home mathematics engagement relative to their peers in the control group. Treatment and control children performed similarly on distal measures of academic achievement. We discuss implications for future research.”

Murphy, R., Gallagher, L., Krumm, A., Mislevy, J., & Hafter, A. (2014). Research on the use of Khan Academy in schools: Research brief. Palo Alto, CA: SRI International. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Khan Academy is working closely with schools to explore ways of transforming how instruction is organized, delivered, and experienced by both students and teachers. SRI Education’s two-year study involved nine sites, 20 schools, and more than 70 teachers to investigate Khan Academy’s use as a supplemental educational resource in the classroom.”

Pazzaglia, A. M., Clements, M., Lavigne, H. J., & Stafford, E. T. (2016). An analysis of student engagement patterns and online course outcomes in Wisconsin (REL 2016-147). Washington, DC: Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Student enrollment in online courses has increased in the past 15 years and continues to grow. However, little is known about students’ education experiences or online course outcomes. These are areas of particular interest to the Midwest Virtual Education Research Alliance, whose goal is to understand how to support student success in online courses. Members of the alliance partnered with Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest to develop and conduct this study on how students engage in online learning and how student engagement patterns are associated with online course outcomes. Findings from this study may help inform policymakers, state and local education agencies, and online learning providers as they seek ways to support student success in online courses. This study analyzed learning management system data and student information system data for all core, elective, and Advanced Placement online high school course enrollments during the fall 2014 semester. The data were collected by Wisconsin Virtual School, a state-level online learning program that partnered with 194 Wisconsin districts to serve 5,511 student enrollments in 256 supplemental online courses during the 2014/15 school year. Analyses looked for student engagement patterns in online courses and the percentage of student enrollments that followed each pattern; differences among student engagement groups (groups of student enrollments that followed a given pattern) in course type taken, gender, or grade level; and associations between student engagement in online learning and online course outcomes. Engagement refers to behavioral engagement and was defined as the amount of time a student was logged in to the online course each week. Course outcomes were measured by the percentage of possible points earned in the course (which students’ home schools use to assign a letter grade based on the local grading scale) and the percentage of course activities completed. Key findings include: (1) Student enrollments in online courses followed one of six engagement patterns, with average engagement ranging from 1.5 hours to 6 or more hours per week; (2) Most students (77 percent) steadily engaged in their online course for 1.5 or 2.5 hours per week; (3) Students who engaged in their online course for at least 1.5 hours per week typically earned a high enough percentage of possible points to pass the course; and (4) Students who engaged in their online course for two or more hours per week had better course outcomes than students who engaged for fewer than two hours per week.”

Pearson. (2018). Connections Academy: Full-time virtual school for grades K-12 (Efficacy research report). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Connections Academy is a full-time, tuition-free, virtual public school program that served more than 70,000 K-12 students in 27 states in the 2017-2018 school year. Pearson sought to explore how Connections Academy schools perform compared to the alternatives. This Research Report presents findings from two research studies: one quasi-experimental study with Connections Academy students enrolled in GradPoint credit recovery courses during 2015-2016; and one quasi-experimental matched comparison study with students enrolled in a representative sample of Connections Academy schools during the 2013-2014 to 2015-2016 academic years. Our aim in using correlational and comparative study designs was to seek out possible relationships between the use of Connections Academy and students’ performance to identify areas of focus for potential future research using more rigorous causal study designs. The report also summarizes the context surrounding the findings, including the research that informed the design and development of the product, the history of the product in the market, how educators use the product, and its intended outcomes. The findings are inseparable from their surrounding context and the design of the studies that produced them.”

Pilcher, A. J. (2016). Establishing community in online courses: A literature review. College Student Affairs Leadership, 3(1), 6. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The purpose of this literature review is to examine the evolution of online learning over the last several decades in relation to student engagement. Much has been made of both the successes and failures of online learning and, consequently, much has been written to enumerate the reasons for those successes and failures. After lengthy review, a great deal of the writing indicates that the relative success or failure of a student is caused by a confluence of three factors: the student, the environment, and the faculty. Online learning is unique in that a much greater share of the burden of success or failure falls on the faculty and their strategies for teaching.”

Rice, K., & Skelcher, S. (2018). The effective middle level virtual teacher. In B. B. Eisenbach & P. Greathous (Eds.), The online classroom: Resources for effective middle level virtual education. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The world of middle level education is rapidly evolving. Increasingly, online learning platforms are complementing or replacing traditional classroom settings. As students exchange classroom interaction for online collaboration, pencils for keyboards, face-to-face conversations for chat room texts, and traditional lessons for digital modules, it becomes apparent that teachers, schools, and administrators must identify ways to keep pace. We must identify ways to meet the needs of middle level learners within this digital context. In this volume, researchers and teachers share a variety of resources centered on the growing world of virtual education and its implications for the middle level learner, educator, and classroom.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Zheng, B., Lin, C. H., & Kwon, J. B. (2020). The impact of learner-, instructor-, and course-level factors on online learning. Computers & Education, 150, 103851. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The number of K-12 students taking online courses has been increasing tremendously over the past few years. However, most research on online learning either compares its overall effectiveness to that of traditional learning, or examines perceptions or interactions using self-reported data; and very few studies have looked into the relationships between the elements of K-12 online courses and their students’ learning outcomes. Based on student-, instructor-, and course-level data from 919 students enrolled in eight online high-school English language and literature courses, the results of hierarchical linear modeling and content analysis found that project-based assignments and high-level knowledge activities were beneficial to learning outcomes – though not necessarily among students who took these courses for credit-recovery purposes. The paper also discusses implications for both online course-design practices and future research on predictors of online-learning success.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Additional Organizations to Consult

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute –

From the website: “Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) receives directives from the Michigan legislature to define the areas of research in blended and online learning each year. Research is conducted throughout the state, nation and internationally to incorporate a global perspective. Research is also conducted without regard to the provider to ensure that important findings are brought to light and practiced in our own backyard.”

The National Standards for Quality Online Learning –

From the website: “The National Standards for Quality Online Learning is an ongoing project to continuously revise the National Standards for Quality Online Courses, Programs and Teaching led by a partnership between Quality Matters and the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance with widespread community support.”

The Research Clearinghouse for K-12 Blended and Online Learning –

From the website: “This Clearinghouse is a collaborative effort led by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) and the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute® (MVRLI®) to provide a repository of references to research articles and other publications from the field of K-12 online and blended learning. This project has been made possible by generous financial support from Next Generation Learning Challenges and in-kind support from iNACOL and Michigan Virtual.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “Distance education” “learning motivation”

  • Motivation

  • “Online course” “learner engagement”

  • “Online course” “learning motivation”

  • Online courses

  • Student motivation

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.