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In Designing e-Learning Motivation Makes all the Difference

Ethan Edwardsby Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

This July 4th holiday weekend gave me another reminder about the unique importance of personal motivation in performance environments.  As regular readers of this blog have figured out, in addition to my jet-setting life as designer of e-learning, I ‘m also operating a family organic produce farm in Southern Illinois.  Out of a combination of tradition, choice, and stupidity we continue to operate using largely non-mechanized methods; so naturally the holiday weekend was spent almost entirely working by hand in the dirt in blazing-hot temperatures. My 87-year-old parents toiled away in spite of pain and infirmity, motivated by sense of tradition and values unique to them.  Meanwhile, my lovely visiting nieces and nephews made spotty efforts at helping but didn’t stick with anything more than a few minutes.  The challenge and discomfort was greater than their motivation to help could overcome, in spite of their sincere good intentions to be of use.

MotivationNow I don’t want this to sound like an “In the good old days people knew how to work” argument because I don’t believe that at all.  It really was so much an issue of personal motivation.  No amount of pleading to rest for the holiday or to cut off because of the heat could lessen my parents’ motivation to plant, to weed, to care for the vegetables, in spite of all the environmental factors working against that.  Similarly, no amount of nudging, lecturing, modeling, or even royal edict could motivate the kids to do much.  What was deeply personal to one group was irrelevant and pointless to another.

This is exactly the problem we face so often as designers of e-learning.  Our subject matter experts or project owners live and breathe the content we are to teach. And they expect that the same values that have given significance to the content for them over many years can be directly transferred to the learners.  Unfortunately, that’s impossible.  To get learners engaged in understanding new content and performing new skills, we as designers need to tie the content to some motivation existing in the learner, or to manufacture an urgency (using game design, networking, or simulation aspects) that the learners buy into.  This is important in all learning, but particularly so in e-learning where learners are, for the most part, working entirely on their own.

So equal to the task of analyzing content and designing instruction is the challenge of understanding our learners and designing interactivity that will provide personal motivation.  And if you have to err on one side or another—creating perfectly crafted content or building motivating instructional interactions-- I’d err on the side of creating the compelling interactivity.  With the right motivation, learners will figure out ways to make meaning out of even poorly designed content.  But there’s no way to impose motivation on the most beautifully structured content without considerable planning and insight. 

Here are some ideas for designing for motivation:

  • Ensure learners are aware of meaningful consequences
  • Develop a sense of risk
  • Ensure the learner benefits from adaptive content and branching
  • Draw the learner in by expert storytelling and creation of suspense
  • Appreciate the aesthetic appeal of graphics and media
  • Engage in meta-thinking with questions whose importance is elevated through multiple-step tasks and delayed judgment

Taking the time to really understand one’s audience and what motivates them will reward the designer many times over in engagement and active metal processing that results from powerfully-designed and relevant training tasks.