Motivation and Time Management as an Online Instructor

time management

As you have probably already figured out for yourself, online teaching is a big time commitment. When you do it well, you're not just tossing some readings and assessments into Canvas and letting the students do their thing.

  • First, you have to adjust your usual teaching strategies—some will work just as well online (maybe even better!), but admittedly, some will not. 
  • Next, you have to master the technology that makes online learning possible: Designing your Canvas modules, adding the activities and assessments, and getting the hang of any extra tools, such as Panopto, Zoom, or VoiceThread. On top of that, you’re asked to make sure everything is digitally accessible, which makes the learning curve a bit steeper.
  • There's the time commitment of teaching: Checking in on students, grading assessments, addressing student questions and issues. When you teach online, that can easily bleed into your entire day and weekend. Your teaching for a given class is not contained within a 1-hour block every M-W-F.

You're juggling all that on top of the rest of your life. You still have other professional commitments: Other classes you teach (which might also be online, in-seat, or hybrid), advising, committees, and research. And, of course, you have personal, family, and community commitments.

Finally, let's not forget that since the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has added a layer of stress that's been in the backdrop of our lives. This has likely dictated some of the other stressors you've been dealing with, whether that's pushing you into learning how to teach online when you hadn't really wanted to or coping with your own illness, possibly even the illness or loss of a loved one to COVID.

So, keep these challenges in mind as you consider strategies to keep yourself motivated as an online teacher.

Keeping (or Relighting) the Spark of Teaching

If you find yourself struggling to engage with your online classes, consider the following:

  • Think about what you love most about your course and your discipline in general. How can you translate that passion into your online teaching? If you are researching, how can you connect your research with your course content and share that with your students? This shows your students a “real world” application of the course content and gives you a chance to share more about yourself—which enhances instructor presence, allowing students to feel more connected to you as a person. Episode 115 of the Lecture Breakers podcast, Being an Engaging Educator and a Productive Scholar, offers more advice on how to integrate your research into your teaching.
  • Remember: Even though it looks different, you can still have rich interactions with your online students. In fact, you will probably have richer interactions with some of them, as you’ll hear more from several who are normally silent in the classroom, either because they are required to participate more directly online or because they feel more comfortable sharing and disclosing online.
  • Keep the need you are serving for your students at heart. Many of them couldn’t pursue further education at all if they didn’t have an online option available.
  • Neither you nor your students are robots, so look for ways to spark positive emotions (and recognize negative ones) in your teaching and interactions. Flower Darby, Associate Director, Teaching for Learning Center at Mizzou, has written and spoken on this topic; see Emotion Science and Online Learning with Flower Darby (ThinkUDL podcast, February 2021) and The Spark of Online Learning: How Technology and Emotion Science Invigorates Every Class (September 2021; slides and video available).
  • If you are struggling with any of the technical logistics, get help! See the Teaching Tools documentation, attend one of the training workshops, or contact Missouri Online for assistance.

Habits of the Efficient Online Teacher

You can find ways to streamline your online time. Some of these will require some up-front time but will save time in the long run (several of these tips are courtesy of experienced faculty who spoke on this topic for an MU workshop in the summer of 2020):

  • Remember that the hardest work is in building your course. You’ll have some updates and revisions each semester afterward, but the heavy lifting will be done.
  • Set boundaries on your availability. Establish times when you won’t be grading, answering course-related messages, and so forth. If you sleep next to your phone, set it to “Do Not Disturb” overnight.
  • In your syllabus, state when students can expect responses to queries and feedback on submitted assignments. If students know they will get their grades in a week, they will be less likely to reach out every day for an update. (If you find yourself behind schedule, post an announcement to the course Canvas site to notify students.)
  • Setting your due dates/times on a consistent, predictable schedule helps you as well as your students.
  • Also, remember that providing clear instructions for assignments can head off questions. If you find you’re getting the same questions every time you teach, address those issues when you revise the course.
  • Use rubrics. Be specific about what you expect students to do in order to excel or to simply demonstrate satisfactory understanding. 
  • Although you do want to personalize your interactions with students as much as possible, let’s face it: Sometimes, you will have the same feedback for multiple students. You can save these “greatest hits” in the SpeedGrader Comment Library and have them handy, so you’re not typing “Please provide a correct APA citation” repeatedly.
  • Similarly, announcements can be scheduled in advance and re-used each semester, though be sure to update them as needed. 

Is It Burnout?

What if you think your issue does run deeper than a lack of “motivation”? The answer to that question will be sensitive and personal, but these resources might help:

Finally, please remember that all four UM System campuses offer employee assistance programs to support your well-being.


~ Laura Foley, Instructional Designer III