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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Motivation for and within Online College Courses

  • Author(s): McPartlan, Peter Michael
  • Advisor(s): Eccles, Jacquelynne S
  • et al.

Online courses have been heralded as efficient and cost-effective higher education solutions, but have negative associations with student learning and retention. In light of online learning’s increasing prevalence, yet disappointing outcomes, it is imperative to investigate which features of online courses may be contributing to disparities in student performance. In this dissertation, I focus on a critical, yet understudied predictor of performance in online courses: motivation. I use Expectancy-Value Theory to investigate how motivation impacts who decides to take online courses, how motivation is affected by online courses, and how motivation can be improved within online courses. In my first study, I find that students select into online courses largely due to the need for flexibility, and that motivational, behavioral, and performance differences between OL and F2F students become more apparent once students are grouped by their reasons for selecting into an OL course. In my second study, I identify that by increasing the transactional distance between students, asynchronous online courses degrade belonging, increasing social uncertainty around classmates and a perceived lack of access to the instructor. Furthermore, interview data suggest that students conceptualize belonging differently across contexts, and that quantitative measures designed to measure school belonging may produce misleading results when adapted to the classroom level. In my final study, I address a gap in the theory behind the popular utility value intervention (UVI): the behavioral mechanisms linking greater motivation to greater performance. I was able to utilize click data to discover behaviors that are associated with both motivation and course performance, finding that motivated click behavior (i.e., interest) is best identified by the patterns of spacing one’s engagement with the course across many days, especially days not surrounding course deadlines. I identify lingering questions about the directionality in the strengthening association between motivation and engaged behavior over time, discussing their implications for future intervention work. Overall, this study uses motivational theory to improve performance in online courses, and online course performance to inform motivational theory, demonstrating the potential for a symbiotic relationship between the fields of online learning and motivation.

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