Three assumptions that may hamper online learner engagement

The use of online learning materials has many cited benefits in diverse pedagogical contexts (Appana, 2008). However, when designing online courses and materials, educators tend to hold certain presuppositions about learners’ attitudes and capabilities. This article considers three common assumptions and suggests methods for addressing the associated pitfalls.


Assumption #1 – I have the learner’s buy-in

As educators, we often assume that learners have an inherent appreciation for the value and importance of learning (Eggleston, 2017). Sometimes, however, learners may not have bought into the teaching and learning transaction at all. As such, the learning material may be presented with the intention of providing a true ‘gateway to knowledge’ – but this may quickly become a ‘cognitive cul-de-sac’ if learners do not have the attitude required for engaging with the content optimally (Gardner, 1988). Lim (2004: 17) has cited this incongruity as one of the largest barriers to engagement with online learning materials.

Suggested remedies

Educators need to design online learning materials as a pitch. In other words, they should aim to convince learners that their engagement with the content is warranted, by presenting the learning experience as something they want to buy into. There are three recommended techniques for achieving this:

1. Highlight the necessity

Include clear learning objectives. These allow learners to see what they need to accomplish, and why. This should be reinforced by following up on when these objectives should be met. Here, educators could provide an activity or objective-driven interaction.

2. Provide variety

Present content in different forms, using different media. Podcasts, videos and discussion forums help to add variety to the learning experience. This also serves to broaden the appeal of the task at hand for participants with different learning approaches and responses to stimuli.

3. Use simulations

Simulation activities are useful in that they hand control to the learner and empower them to explore the significance of their learning. From a simulated science experiment to the creation of a website interface, learners typically respond to activities and interactions more favourably when they are authentic.


Assumption #2 – Learners know how to pace themselves

Often, online course content is presented in a text-heavy format, and presupposes that learners will be able to pace themselves and pause when necessary. Educators subsequently assume that learners have identified a suitable learning strategy for managing their consumption of the materials – which is seldom true.

In reality, it has been shown that learners respond unfavourably to excessive text, which often leads to cognitive overload, and leaves them feeling overwhelmed and discouraged (Jandhyala, 2017).

Suggested remedies

Chunking is the practice of breaking large sections of content into smaller, digestible portions. Generally, this is done by dividing modules into units, units into sections, and sections into subsections. This reduces cognitive load and helps the learner to retain information more easily. Once these content chunks have been delineated, curated instructional text should guide the learner with respect to the amount of time it should take to work through each chunk, thereby directly influencing their learning strategy.

This should lead to more empathetic content delivery, which facilitates logical breaks and allows learners to accurately estimate the efficiency of their learning and pacing.


Assumption #3 – Learners have an inherent sense of achievement

Educators should not assume that learners are able to recognise when their own learning occurs. They may scroll through the content in preparation for assessment, and assume that they are learning – yet fail to internalise it successfully.

Suggested remedies

Learners should be empowered to authenticate their acquired competencies themselves. This necessitates the concrete application of their new skills, which in turn confirms their progress. Although assessments in an online learning environment aim to serve this purpose, they may not be timely enough. As such, learners should have access to the necessary online tools and functionalities, in order to track their own progress and gain a sense of achievement through meaningful engagement with the content.

The principle of scaffolding requires that educators present learners with seemingly ‘unattainable’ tasks, and then continue to support them until they can complete these tasks on their own (Vygotsky, 1978). In the teaching environment, this process can be broken down into three phases:

  1. I do
  2. We do
  3. You do

In the final ‘you do’ phase, the educator needs to ascertain whether the task has been perfected by the learner, thereby verifying understanding. If there is still a lack in understanding, the process begins again. In an online learning context, the learner must regularly be made aware of their success or failure to demonstrate knowledge, so that the ‘check for understanding’ element of scaffolding is upheld.

The provision of ample and varied activities will aid this process, and should ensure that learners receive rich feedback. Importantly, learners should be shown precisely what they have failed to understand, and how to get it right (McLeod, 2019).



In closing, the three assumptions outlined in this article are by no means exhaustive. In fact, as online education expands to include larger groups and more diverse participants, an ever-increasing number of barriers may become apparent. Nevertheless, educators are encouraged to consider these common hurdles carefully when including online learning materials in their teaching practices – thereby enhancing learners’ prospects for success.



Appana, S. (2008), ‘A Review of Benefits and Limitations of Online Learning in the Context of the Student, the Instructor and the Tenured Faculty’. International Journal on E-Learning 7(1): 5–22.

Eggleston, M. (2017), ‘Getting Buy-In From Learners’. Training Industry [website] <https://trainingindustry.com/magazine/nov-dec-2017/getting-buy-in-from-learners/> accessed 7 July 2020.

Gardner, R. (1988), ‘Attitudes and Motivation’. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 9: 135–148.

Jandhyala, D. (2017), ‘Visual Learning: 6 Reasons Why Visuals Are The Most Powerful Aspect Of eLearning’. eLearning Industry [website] <https://elearningindustry.com/visual-learning-6-reasons-visuals-powerful-aspect-elearning> accessed 10 July 2020.

Lim, C. P. (2004), ‘Engaging learners in online learning environments’. TechTrends 48(4): 16–23.

McLeod, S. A. (2019), ‘What Is the zone of proximal development?’ Simply Psychology [website] <https://www.simplypsychology.org/Zone-of-Proximal-Development.html> accessed 28 April 2020.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978), Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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