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How to Keep Students Motivated During Distance Learning

May 18, 2020

“We learn geology the morning after the earthquake.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Metaphorically speaking, I suspect we all feel as if we’ve taken a crash course in geology after the current earthquake struck earlier this year. For many of us, both teachers and students, we approached this crash course in “geology” (aka, distance learning) with both excitement and trepidation. We were eager to succeed in our new endeavor but also realized how much we had to learn about this new “science.”

The technical challenges came first:

  • How to navigate a virtual platform
  • How to make students comfortable online (see our earlier post on 5 Virtual Icebreakers)
  • How to assign online homework (see our Help Doc that explains how to assign ESL Library’s digital tasks)

These were the basic skills for online instruction. In my case, my students and I tackled them with a mixture of trial, error, and (on our good days) humor. We are now fairly connected and comfortable with the online framework—at least we generally know what to expect.

But now, many weeks later, I am discovering a new set of challenges in my classes:

  • How to keep students motivated
  • How to encourage student attendance

Let’s face it—keeping students motivated and engaged through distance learning is sometimes hard. Add a pandemic to the mix, and this challenge can feel overwhelming, if not impossible. Yet teachers are given the task to do just that. As my own students’ attendance to our class’s Zoom meeting became erratic—and during some weeks, rather sparse—I  had to reconsider my online teaching methods. I’d like to share a few of my observations about the importance of relevance, flexibility, and feedback.


Perhaps you’ve opened your textbook to the unit that is slated for this week on the syllabus only to find that it concerns travel: Did you take a vacation last year? Where did you go? How did you get there? There is nothing wrong with the lesson—it teaches valuable question-and-answer structures—but it falls flat. Students may not be interested in talking about last year’s travels; they are preoccupied with this year’s problems.

Our lives have been affected by the pandemic in unexpected ways. Many students have found themselves unemployed and under tremendous stress, wondering how they will pay the bills. In many cases, they are suddenly responsible for homeschooling their children, and their schedules have been upended.

An English class can be a break from these concerns, but it also needs to acknowledge that these events are all taking place. The class needs to connect to students’ current lives. Here at ESL Library, we have been working hard to keep students engaged with relevant materials in a number of our lesson categories: Expressing Feelings During the Coronavirus Outbreak (blog post); COVID‑19 (Word Bank); The Coronavirus (COVID‑19) and Contact Tracing (Health Matters); and Pandemics, Social Distancing, and Scams (Discussion Starters). You can also find a lesson about the World Health Organization in our Famous Things section.

Of course, everything in class doesn’t need to be about the pandemic, but acknowledging it in some way in every class will validate students’ feelings as they navigate this crisis.


If you teach adults like I do, you have no doubt found that just finding a time to hold a class session is tough now that students’ lives have been upended. Suddenly, the hours between 9 and 11 am on Mondays and Wednesdays might no longer belong to students for their own education.

Changing class times is not always possible, but to insist that 9 to 11 am on Mondays and Wednesdays is the only time for class is to ignore one of the advantages of distance learning: flexibility.

My solution has been to adapt my class times in two ways:

  • First, instead of teaching one class for two hours, I teach the same (shorter) class twice. Two hours is a long time for a single online class, and the shorter class keeps students fresher and more engaged. More importantly, though, offering two times for the class gives students slightly more flexibility to fit their class into their current situation. This solution is not available in all educational systems, but it is worth exploring when possible.
  • Second, I have begun carving out some time from scheduled classes in order to offer a new weekly or biweekly class session at odd times. This might be 30 minutes in late afternoon or early evening or on a different morning. In these cases, this session is not the same as a regular class—it focuses on only one language skill.


Many of us can relate to this experience: You’re the one speaking in an online gathering, and you finish what you have to say. You pause and expect someone to respond, but there is just silence. It is disconcerting. Others might be listening, but we want confirmation. We need a response.

This need for a response is true for teaching and learning online as a whole, not just in a single virtual conversation. But more than in physical classrooms, teachers in virtual classrooms need to be deliberate in acknowledging students’ work and in giving direct and prompt feedback. If students do not sense that their assignments are being read—if the feedback loop is not overtly completed—their motivation will quickly decline. Fortunately, you can now leave comments on all scorable digital task types on ESL Library’s digital platform. (Learn more about this feature here.)

We welcome your own reflections on ways to increase student motivation. Remember that motivation is not for students alone. Teacher motivation is equally important. If I look at what keeps me motivated as a teacher, it is the effort to make connections and to foster students in connecting to a new language and a new culture—no matter what the circumstances, whether in the physical or the virtual classroom.

“Motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.”

—Dwight D. Eisenhower

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Comments (4)

Deborah D.(Teacher)

I have had high class attendance and I think a few things that have worked for me are:
- using humor. We were learning subordinating conjunctions and I made sentences that were funny such as
because - "I like class because my teacher is wonderful."

- calling on people in a predictable order so they know their turn is coming.
- Having a facebook page where people can review the materials we practiced.

Reply to Comment

Ann Dickson(Author)

Hi Deborah!

It's great to hear that you have had high class attendance during these stressful times! Thank you for your helpful suggestions. I really like the tip of having a Facebook page. I'm sure your students love having a place to go to where they can find everything in one spot. Thanks for sharing!

Arthur M.(Teacher)

Thanks for sharing your experiences and advices. It has been an incredibly uncertain time, and any reccommendation can be of great use for teachers!

Reply to Comment

Ann Dickson(Author)

Hi Arthur! Thanks for your feedback. These are certainly stressful times, but just remember—we're all in this together!

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