Falling trees, mountain biking and eLearning motivation


Motivation is something talked about in eLearning often, but how does it impact the way we think about, and design, eLearning courses? Raf explains the best ways to use motivation.

Motivation, it’s a funny thing. In order for someone to do something, they need to be motivated. But what that motivation is and where it comes from changes from person to person and task to task.

We hear this all the time, most frequently on resumes.

“I am hard working and self-motivated” is something that seems to be on every resume.

So if everyone is so self-motivated, why is there such a huge focus in eLearning on motivating people to learn?

Firstly; because you can’t force people to learn. What you can do, however, is look for ways to motivate people to do so. Secondly; because different people are motivated in different ways. Therefore it’s important to understand what will motivate your learners. Yes, we are all indeed unique snowflakes with different personalities, perspectives, experience and ideals.

For example: I am well aware of the benefits of exercise, yet I still have to pay someone to yell at me loudly as I pick up heavy things and put them down, and then go jump up and down on other things. I need to invest in external or extrinsic motivation to accomplish the task.

At the same time, weather permitting, I happily pack my bike and riding gear into my car and drive to my local trails where I spend three to four hours riding around in circles. So I am self-motivated or intrinsically motivated to complete the task at hand. In this case, it wouldn’t make sense for me to invest in extrinsic motivation as I am already motivated to go riding. It would be a wasted investment.

Simple right? But here’s the spanner in the works.

I was happy to spend that three to four hours riding around in circles, but I didn’t really feel the need to challenge myself to ride faster, since there wasn’t really a reward for doing so.

Similar to the “tree falling in the forest” philosophical question, “If a rider goes faster through the forest but nobody sees it, did he actually go faster?”

This was the case for me until I discovered a little app called Strava. I’ll keep it short, but Strava is a GPS-based app that allows me to race against myself and others on the trails I ride; it gamifies my riding experience.

With the adoption of this app, my three to four hours became a lot more intensive as I now had a tool that motivated me to ride faster. It motivated me to challenge myself by rewarding my performance improvements and allowing me to race against a community of fellow riders.

So here’s my point; each of my activities fall under the “I want to get fit” banner. But for each desired outcome and activity, there is a different motivation.

If my goal is to get fit efficiently, my approach is going to the gym and I require external motivation in the form of coaching. If on the other hand, my goal is to enjoy getting fit, I will go for a ride and I don’t need external motivation. In fact, if someone woke me up every Sunday morning and told me to go riding, I probably wouldn’t go. And finally, if my goal is to ride faster on certain trails, then I require external motivation in the form of technology and gamification.

And now for the connection to learning.

Very often, we look at how we can motivate a learner too simplistically. We don’t dive deep enough to gain a true understanding of what will motivate our audience to learn something. This leads to using the wrong motivation tools, or even investing in creating extrinsic motivation for learners who are already intrinsically motivated to learn what we want them to.

There are a variety of motivation methods that we can incorporate into eLearning such as gamification, storytelling, interactivity, etc. All of these are extrinsic motivators. Therefore, using them is only appropriate if we know that our learners will not be intrinsically motivated to learn what we want them to.

“But how do we know if they are already motivated to learn?” you ask.

Well, the simplest way is to identify the WIIFM (What’s in it for me?) for the learner.

This concept is something that originates from the fast-paced lands of sales and marketing as is essentially establishing what an individual will gain from doing what we want them to.

If there is a clear WIIFM for the learner, then chances are that they will already be motivated to learn. Consequently, there is less of a need to focus on gamification, badges or complex interactions to motivate them in their learning. On the other hand, if there isn’t a clear WIIFM from the learner's perspective then there needs to be more time spent designing the learning solution in a way that motivates the learner to learn.

Compliance training is a great example of this. From an individual learner's perspective there is often no WIIFM when it come to completing compliance training such as Workplace Bullying. So it’s up to the learning designer to motivate the learner by using storytelling, gamification and making the content relatable.

As I said at the start of this post; you can’t force someone to learn. But you can motivate them to. It’s important to understand that motivation comes in different shapes and sources. As learning designers we can’t assume that the same techniques work for all learning solutions and expect them to be successful.

So next time you are designing a learning solutions, make sure you put yourself in the learner's shoes and ask yourself “what’s in it for me?”. Once you have an understanding of this, then you will be able to employ the right motivation methods in your solution.