Supporting online students


A little while back a student who is studying online contacted me with the following question.

“I have recently seen your mental fitness program and have started reading. Do you have any articles/programs to follow when students are studying online, they are on their last year, and just need some more guidance on how to stay motivated and perspectives on how to stay strong mentally? Maybe some articles/materials that strictly address this, to even include mature aged students.”

As you’ll see in my answer below, I hadn’t prepared or found any good articles on the topic of how to stay motivated when you are studying remotely. I still haven’t. But the question got me thinking. I replied to the student with my thoughts and asked their permission to publish the question and my answer. My answer is below.

Thanks for reaching out.

No I don’t have any articles on that specific topic but it is a good suggestion – writing something specifically for those studying online.

Here are my free-form thoughts though. I apologise if anything below misses the mark. I am prone to rambling and heading off on irrelevant tangents 🙂

First up, the basics of university study still apply:

  1. Self-care is important for all students, whether online on or campus –
  2. The basics of study skills remain the same also, with the exception perhaps of joining study groups.

Beyond that, it is about your unique situation.

With regards to that, I’ve been thinking a lot about the stories (narratives) we tell ourselves about our own lives and the impact of these on our experience of the world.

There is this narrative going around that online students are disadvantaged – missing out on a range of things that can make sustaining motivation easier – face-to-face connections, access to university services and events. To some extent this is true and we know from the data that attrition is higher in online students.

At an individual level though, I think its dangerous to focus too much on that narrative – i.e. online study as disadvantaged. I think it is more the case that online students are simply taking a bigger risk. They are putting more on the line and they should be encouraged to do so. Attrition is higher cause risk is higher.

Those who study online are typically doing so because they are remote from the university and/or trying to fit study around work and other responsibilities. They are a uniquely driven group because they are knowingly putting themselves up against it, in order to better their prospects, expand their horizons. It is important in the latter stages of a degree (as you have indicated) to be reminded of the motivators that drove you to study in the first place. That is the internal narrative to try and focus on, not the one of diminishing motivation. If you’ve got to your last year, then you need to be commended for doing so, because it is a remarkable achievement, especially if a chunk of your degree has been done entirely online.

If you are studying for career purposes, make contact with the career service – – start the process of imagining the application of the skills and knowledge you’ve gained. Build up the story of the next stage of your life and use that as a driving force to push through those remaining assignments and exams.

Online students that complete their degrees have a powerful skillset, because they’ve managed to tame the impulses for procrastination and lack of motivation far better than those students who were able to rely on simply rocking up at uni as their motivator. If you are feeling the lack of motivation and energy and not feeling strong mentally, remember that you’ve essentially been conquering these thoughts and feelings in an ongoing way to get to where you are. You already have the solutions in your toolkit. You might need reminding of just how much you have achieved already.

And if you can’t pull together a wonderfully motivating personal narrative, don’t feel bad. I remember in the final 6 months of my PhD that I was paralyzed by the internal narrative of ‘its too hard, I want out’. And I ruminated on that narrative constantly. It consumed me. In doing so I lost all the other good narratives that had been sustaining me – interest in my topic, getting into the workforce soon, working on new projects. The best I could muster was ‘I need to get this finished no matter how much it hurts’. Not exactly an inspiring story, but it was enough.

If you don’t have a mentor, consider getting one. My supervisor was critical in helping me get through the final stages.

And if there are things you can clear out of your life temporarily in order to allocate your mental energy to finishing, then I recommend you do so. I used brute force to finish the PhD, ruthlessly cutting everything out of my life I could, just so I could finish.

You took a risk, and you are close to demonstrating it was a risk worth taking. Don’t let a few pesky thoughts about motivation derail you now.

If what I’ve written is off the mark – I apologise. But I didn’t want to respond to you with some generic ‘5 tips for success’ that you could find anywhere online. It is more risky to dig into the intensely personal side of a degree, but that is kinda where the energy and motivation sits. Feel fee to disregard my comments if they are off-base.

Thank you again for the suggestion on topics for the blog/mental fitness course. I will make sure I formally address the plight of online and mature age students in future posts.

Take care


The student then responded to my reply:

 “Thank you so much for replying. This is right on the ‘mark’ for me and has made me feel differently. I am glad something like this is offered to students. I have never really felt disadvantaged as an online student but more feel that I need more support hence why I reached out. It’s true it does take someone to remind you of all you have accomplished so far to push you through to the end. Any other references/articles you may think would benefit me at anytime can you email them through.

Thanks for your time.”

What was great about their reply is that they reframed my theme of ‘disadvantage’ instead as ‘needing more support’ which makes a lot of sense. Flinders University is fairly young as a university in terms of offering purely online courses. This means we have likely have room to develop in terms of the supports we offer. This applies to Health, Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS) as well.

HCDS has done quite well over the past couple of years in expanding our service offering. We have a blog, a newsletter, FLO topic – all of which can be accessed online. We also offer phone and Skype appointments for students that can’t make it onto campus. Finally, we produce a range of self-help materials that can be accessed from our handouts page.

However, I think we probably need to go a step further in thinking about uniquely online opportunities that we can provide. For example, can we run some online events, in the same way we run events like Mental Health Week on campus? Could we deliver more interactive content via mobile phones, so all students, regardless of location can participate? These are questions I’ve started pondering and hope to provide something down the track.

In the meantime, please get in contact with me if you have some further ideas on how we can better support online students, so they feel as connected to the university as those on campus do.

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