Motivation is one of the most important learning design principles – but also one of the most difficult to design for. Lots of the things we need to learn aren’t intrinsically motivating, especially if it’s something we just have to learn for work or for our studies. And extrinsic motivators, like rewards and punishments often don’t work.

So, a key aim for learning designers is to maximise the intrinsic motivation in a learning experience. That means fostering self-direction and agency, providing positive feedback on performance, and encouraging perseverance when things get hard (and learning is hard!)

Where does motivation fit into our Learning Design Principles?

Motivation is Principle 1.1. We put it at the top because it’s definitely one of the most important but also one of the most challenging to design for well. Intrinsic motivation is incredibly important for learning, but obviously, a lot of what we learn (both at school and as adults) is not inherently satisfying or fun in an immediate sense.

The basic position is that intrinsic motivation always trumps extrinsic motivation. If the motivation comes from within, that is likely to lead to far more effective or better learning outcomes for all sorts of reasons. As learning designers we need to think about what we can do in the learning experiences that we’re designing to build intrinsic motivation in learners, or at least move them away from simplistic rewards and punishments, the most basic types of extrinsic motivation. 

Evidence suggests the classic types of rewards that you see in lots of digital learning experiences – like badges and leaderboards – don’t really work. They are not in any way related to what you’re learning or trying to achieve. 

What are some ways to develop intrinsic motivation in a learning experience?

We’ve pinned down a few ways to help develop intrinsic motivation. They all relate back to self-determination theory and a couple of other psychological theories that we’ve used to underpin our Learning Design Principles. One of them is to provide opportunities for choice and self-direction, so that learners can choose what’s most interesting and relevant for them. 

Another one is to give positive feedback on performance, so that learners feel a sense of progression and achievement, and that the effort is worthwhile. 

The third one is to encourage learners to persevere in their efforts despite any setbacks, difficulties, or failures, by focusing on their goals and their reasons for learning and tapping into their values of why they’re learning and what they’re focusing on.

What is self-determination theory? 

Self-determination theory is a theory of motivation. It states that there are there two types of motivation; intrinsic motivation, and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is driven by three basic psychological needs:

  1. Autonomy: to feel that your behavior is self-endorsed, that you’re doing something willingly, that you have some control over your life or what you’re doing or learning. 
  2. Competence: the feeling that you’re progressing, you’re feeling able to meet the challenges of what you’re learning and that you can see yourself moving forward. For example, giving positive feedback on performance so that learners can feel a sense of progression and achievement and that the effort is worthwhile. 
  3. Relatedness: how relevant a learning activity is to your life, how you link what you’re learning with your personal values and interests. 

Competence alone won’t really build intrinsic motivation without autonomy, for example, so unless you feel that this is something you’ve achieved, that’s come from within, then that feeling of competence won’t really build intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is highest when all three of those needs are met. As learning designers, we can focus on different parts of those and design features to encourage or increase a learner’s feeling of autonomy, a learner’s feeling of competence, and a learner’s feeling of relatedness. 

Can a learner always be autonomous when there are key outcomes that need to be achieved? 

There are certain things that you need to learn to be able to do that are just not going to be intrinsically motivating, but you still need to do them. So we as learning designers need to move the learner as close to a point of feeling intrinsically motivated as we can. 

One way to increase a learner’s sense of autonomy is by downplaying or reducing the focus on grades and to encourage learners to internalise why they’re learning something so they can integrate that with their own value system and reasons for learning. Try to emphasise the relevance and the value of what they’re learning and how those skills are going to benefit them later in life.

A technique that we’ve used in the past is applying ideal future self theory to help people recognise their possible/ideal future selves. We then include opportunities throughout the learning experience for them to reflect on the vision of what they’re aiming for in the long term.

What is ideal future self theory?

The concept comes from the research by Zoltán Dörnyei. The theory is that the vision of who students want to become is a really reliable factor in long term learning behaviour. If you are able to imagine and feel yourself completing an activity and visualise those emotions and those sensations around reaching that goal, then you’re more likely to continue learning and have a higher level of motivation.

The use of role models is also a very powerful way of inspiring learners. It gives them something tangible to hang the vision or their future selves on. In order for your future self to work as a motivator, it has to be plausible. If you have a role model that you can aspire to, that really helps. It has to be elaborate and vivid, so you need to see somebody in that position. It also has to be relevant, so needs to be something that you can see yourself doing in your life. 

This post is an abridged version of a conversation between LearnJam’s Tim Gifford, Laurie Harrison and Katy Asbury in our podcast, Adventures in Learning Design. Check out the full episode to hear more about motivation and learning design.

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