Positive Psychology in the Online Classroom

I recently read Martin Seligman’s Flourish where he explains a fivefold approach to well-being called PERMA (described in this video as well).  PERMA stands for positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.  This was not the first time that I had learned about PERMA.  This past summer I attended the Distance Learning Administrator’s Conference and listened to a presentation on Positive Psychology in the Online Classroom.  Looking back at my notes, the presentation revolved around a series of practical ideas on how to increase well-being in the online classroom by intentionally focusing upon each aspect of PERMA  Inspired by the book and presentation, I would love to hear more ideas about how to apply this to creating a “flourishing” online classroom.  In full disclosure, what really excites me is throwing out an entire online course and starting from scratch with a full-blown game-based learning environment.  I realize that is not reasonable or desirable for many online instructors and programs in the short-term, so I’ll start small, thinking more simply about how to apply some positive psychology principles to more traditional online courses. Here are some of my initial thoughts.

Positive Emotion

Seligman notes that a simple and effective way of promoting well-being is to end your day by writing down three things that went well and why.  What would happen if we took this simple principle and integrated it into the online course design?  What if there were prompts, checks for understanding, learning journals or embedded activities that invited students (and instructor) to do something similar on a weekly basis? What went well in your learning and why?


This second principle is also closely connected to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. It is that experience of being lost or absorbed in a focused activity, what some refer to as being “in the zone.”  It is where an activity is challenging, but not overwhelming; when there are clear goals; and when there is persistent feedback.  How can we design learning activities and experiences that align with these three characteristics?  Game-based learning models as well as gamification principles are certainly one way to do this.  Even more simply, what if we look at the activities in our online classes to see whether they are presented as challenges with clear goals rather than simple tasks to complete?  Once we have that in place, what if we add strategies to make sure frequent and meaningful progress as one works on the challenge at hand, celebrating small steps of progress?


The online course need not be lonely and lifeless.  There are plenty of ways to build positive relationships in the online course.  Frequent and meaningful communication is a key here.  Build spaces for relationships to develop (student-student, and student-instructor).  One way to do this is for assignments to require teamwork and collaboration.  With that said, some learners may not know how to cultivate relationships in online environments, so consider providing explicit guidance and tips on how to encourage and support one another.  The instructor can model this by ensuring that messages to students, replies, and posts are personal and include plenty of personalized encouragement and specific affirmations.

At the same time, there is no rule that online learning must be entirely online, and there is power in personal face-to-face contact with others people.  Encourage that and, when appropriate, consider adding assignments that invite students to connect with people through interviews and observations, through face-to-face study groups when they live near one another, and through synchronous communication activities (Skype, Google+, Elluminate, Adobe Connect, phone, etc.).  The instructor can also cultivate a more relational class by reconsidering her own role in the class, thinking of herself primarily as a mentor rather than an instructor.


I recall a qualitative research course in my doctoral work. The professor shared a study that someone did on why students fall asleep in class.  After countless interviews, his conclusion came down to two words, “perceived meaninglessness.”  It wasn’t because they were tired or hungry.  It was because they perceived the course or specific content to lack true meaning and value for them.  Take a look at your next online course.  How much time do you and the students devote to surfacing the meaning and value behind the content? Build a plan to do this at the beginning of the class, but also for the individual units of instruction as well. Consider it your challenge to make sure that each student perceives meaning in what they are doing.  It need not always be fun, but it should still be meaningful. Changing my children’s diapers was never fun, but each time that I did it, it was meaningful…I felt like a dad who was providing a valuable act out of love and care for my child. There is no reason that study can’t have meaning as well.  This may involve the instructor directly pointing out some reasons that it is meaningful and important for the learner, but what most matters is that the learners perceive it as meaningful.  Get them involved (individually and collectively) in discerning the meaning.  Or, when possible, give them choice in how to focus their work, allowing to invest in the portions that are most personally meaningful.


There is great power in the experience of a win or success, even when it is rare.  A trip to a Las Vegas casino is enough to prove this fact.  Wins and successes invigorate and inspire us to continue working, but they also flood us with a positive feeling.  How many opportunities for a win or success are in your online course now?  Is it limited to grades that they get on papers, quizzes, tests and projects?  If so, how can you add more changes for a person to experience a win?  There is no rule that these need to be associated with grades.  Just build chances for them to meet small goals that progress toward the larger ones.  When they reach these small goals, celebrate it in small or large ways. Many learning management systems today (like ANGEL) even allow you to set up automated messages.  When a student finishes a task, that can trigger a message of accomplishment.

Imagine how your online course(s) would look if you did a quick makeover based upon these five concepts.  I see little chance that student learning will decline, so why not give it a try? You might just discover that both the student and instructor will experience increased well-being.