In today’s society, our basic physiological and safety needs, as per Maslow’s hierarchy, are mostly satisfied. Consequently, it is challenging to argue that we are making decisions to attain a task or goal to fulfill our low-level needs. Instead, we seek to satisfy higher needs such as  (see, e.g., Uses and Gratification Theory ):

  1. Cognitive needs: Providing new knowledge, information, and facilitating a better understanding of the world.
  2. Affective needs: Offering aesthetic and emotional experiences.
  3. Integrative needs: Enhancing confidence, status, and credibility.
  4. Social needs: Strengthening relationships and fostering social connections.
  5. Relaxing needs: Providing an escape from responsibilities or promoting self-awareness.

When we set a goal to achieve a task, we assess two aspects of possible outcomes: 1) we expect to achieve a certain outcome with some attribute that is significant to us and 2) we assign a value to the outcome (and its gratification). The product of these two factors is known as instantaneous motivation, which dictates our decision to attend the task. Our initial decision to attending a task is based on our best guess. On the other hand, our decision to  continue with the task is a repeated assessment cycle of outcome expectancy and its reevaluated value of achieved or probable gratification (see the work by Rayburn II and Palmgreen) as shown below.


Tasks or activities that offer instant gratification usually have more appeal as they do not require long-term commitment or extra cognitive load to overcome other needs such as relaxing. However, delayed gratification is often more rewarding as it is integrative and socially valued. The difference between these two types of gratification is related to different happiness hormones, as recent studies by Kapetaniou et al. and Gao et al. show and revalidate the earlier results by McClure et al.

The online course dropout rate is relatively high, and several studies aim to understand the underlying reasons for students’ decisions to abandon the course. According to Tinto, who studies higher-education persistence, students have goals that are a combination of social or academic motives. Persistence in achieving these goals occurs when motivation is retained and nurtured continually as shown below.


For online courses, the most widely accepted reason for low retention rate is lack of social interactions. However, the study by Amaijde et al. summarizes that the most prominent, and also logical reasons for drop out online courses as

  1. Dissatisfaction with the learning environment: the learning environment does not meet with the students expectations in quality or method,
  2. Expected outcome incompatibility: divergence between student’s interests and structure of the course,
  3. Low confidence in distance learning: prejudice about the teaching phenomenon,
  4. Lack of time: personal — situational factors take precedence over academic goals,
  5. Insufficient back ground knowledge or skills: in sufficient self-efficacy,
  6. Feeling of isolation: nature of the online teaching might create a sense of lack of social interactivity, which result low emotional regulation level,
  7. Feeling of overwhelmed: improper course design colliding with poor time management inevitably creates feeling of overwhelmed,
  8. Hidden cost: external factors such as work or family may force financial decisions.

The aforementioned factors can be classified in the following groups:

  1. Goal mismatch: 1, 2 and 3
  2. Self-efficacy: 4, 5 and 7
  3. Social interactions (relationships): 6
  4. External factors:  4 and 8

These factors are not always within the student’s control and can lead to demotivation according to attribution theory. However, the gratification approach of attending a task or activity shed some light on how to improve students motivation.

The first group of drop-out reason is the “goal”. The goal orientation theory postulates that individuals adopt either mastery or performance orientation when attaining a learning task. A discord between personal goals and the objectives of a task can lead to a lack of motivation to engage in the task. For example, a performance-oriented person might decide to give up if the task evaluation does not permit comparison with respect to other people attaining the task. On the other hand, a mastery-oriented person assesses the obtained gratification based on cognitive gratification and might decide to give up when the task is not challenging. Since the mastery orientation is usually increased with experience, courses must be designed differently when they are targeted to higher degrees (mastery) and lower degrees (performance).

Self-determination theory (SDT) postulates that motivation dips when three fundamental innate needs are unfulfilled: autonomy (the need for choice and control), competence (the need for self-belief in one’s abilities), and relatedness (the need to form and sustain satisfactory relationships with others). If we ignore external factors, SDT is prominently recognized in academic literature, especially noted by Badali et al. ., as the prevailing explanation for students’ motivation to complete an online course.  In this perspective, students’ can be motivated by i.) recognizing and supporting their students’ choices, encouraging self-initiation, and minimizing control; ii.) structuring courses in a way that allows students to progressively gain skills and understanding, and slowly stretching their abilities; and iii.)  encouraging interactions and collaborations between them.

One interesting observation is how self-determination needs are modified among successive cycles of sought and obtained gratification. As the gap between sought and observed gratifications decreases, the need for autonomy increases, whereas the need for relatedness decreases. This might be due to consistent satisfaction of the competence need. Therefore, motivation also depends on addressing different self-determination needs consistently but also in a suitable order.

In summary, we persist in attending a task (or activity) if we overcome the temptation of attaining tasks (or activities) that provide instant gratification. Once the initial decision of attaining a task (e.g., attending a course) is made, we must find a suitable environment to execute the task so that our long term goal is supported by the short-term tasks defined for us. This is also valid for students attending online courses. Course designers must address a range of reasons for dropping out, including not only a lack of social interaction but also other factors like goal mismatch and self-efficacy. By designing courses that meet students’ fundamental needs in timely manner according to their gratification evaluation cycles, we can help them stay motivated and achieve their goals.


Motivation and Dropout Rates in Online Courses