Engagement and motivation

Improving learning outcomes

20 March 2017 | Rosalind Scott | , , ,

Evan and his girlfriend Irina have decided that their joint new year’s resolution will be to learn a new language: Chinese. Evan is already bilingual and also loves learning new languages so he has suggested this as a perfect way to use his skills, improve and have fun. Irina has not been able to spend much time with Evan recently, due to a demanding new job, and thinks that joining a club together will be a good way of doing this. She is not especially interested in learning Chinese but is happy to go along with Evan’s suggestion.

Here we have two people, both with the same resolution - to learn Chinese - but with their motivations for doing so being very different. Which of them will be more successful?

As we know, motivation often isn’t enough to ensure that people actually learn from a training module. Often the motivation is simple - their boss told them they had to - and this can lead to learners rushing through a course just to say they’ve completed it. As learning professionals we don’t want completing the course to be the end goal; we want people to want, and be able, to learn.

So we pack lots of ‘engaging’ elements into courses (animation, games, scenarios etc.), perhaps hoping to bribe people into learning, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Is engagement really enough to encourage actual learning?


Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation

Evan and Irina’s reasons for wanting to learn Chinese are very different. Irina wouldn’t be trying to learn if she didn’t want to spend more time with Evan. She is therefore motivated by outside factors - she is extrinsically motivated. Evan, on the other hand, simply enjoys learning languages and considers it is its own reward - he is intrinsically motivated.

Motivations come from lots of different places. Knowing about the different types of motivation becomes important when you’re trying to design training programmes that learners will be motivated to take. Intrinsically motivated learners, like Evan, are self-directed and don’t require external incentives. Because learning is their end goal, they’ll do this regardless of any other external factors.

In contrast, extrinsically motivated learners are driven by external factors or rewards. Learning may occur if it helps them achieve their goal (in Irina’s case, spending more time with Evan) but is not their final aim.

It’s important to recognise that many people will not be intrinsically motivated to learn during work-based training situations - they won’t be lining up to hear about the new bit of legislation that has brought about this latest e-learning course. If we want to improve learning outcomes, it’s essential to understand these differences in motivations and what this means for training design.


MAN resizedSelf-determination

In their first week Evan enjoys himself and is already one of the best in the class. Irina finds the class fun as the teacher is engaging and funny, but doesn’t make the rapid progress that Evan does.

Why is this happening? Studies have shown that when people whose motivation comes from within are compared with those who are motivated by an outside factor, those who are internally motivated have more interest, excitement and confidence and therefore perform and learn better. In other words, intrinsic motivation is preferable to extrinsic motivation.

So what do we do when designing training, when the motivation will nearly always be extrinsic? There are many different kinds of extrinsic motivations, and many of them still have value for learning, in particular those which are closer in nature to intrinsic motivations.

This is why, when designing training, it’s so important to include elements that will make learners feel that the training is personal to them, or applies to them. We also want to show learners that they are valued and to give them opportunities to be consciously involved in the learning.

If learners feel that they are more in control of their own learning, this will replicate the effects of intrinsic motivation and translate into more effective learning.


The relationship between motivation and engagement

A few weeks into the Chinese course Irina has really started to improve - she enjoys the laid-back atmosphere in the class and finds the course very interesting, as it incorporates learning about Chinese culture as well as the language. She doesn’t feel motivated to learn very quickly. After all, she only agreed to join the class because it was something Evan wanted to do and she doesn’t need to learn Chinese; it’s just a bit of fun.

Evan is also loving the class. His talent for languages means that he is already one of the best in the class and he practises outside the class whenever he can because he wants to improve quickly.

We can see the difference between motivation and engagement clearly here, in the example of Evan and Irina. Though she is doing well, due to being engaged in the class, he is doing even better as he is both engaged and motivated.

The difference between motivated and engaged individuals can be summed up as follows: motivated individuals are concerned with the outcome – they want to learn and are easily engaged. Engaged individuals are interested in what’s happening – they want to continue to completion, but only because they are interested.

Even though engagement with a course isn’t the same as motivation to learn, it can still improve learning outcomes. If learners are interested in a course and for that reason want to see it through to the end, they may learn incidentally. 


This table, created by one of our Learning designers, Lucy Hodge, shows the relationship between engagement and motivation:

table Figure 2











So which is more important, engagement or motivation?

Where motivation fails, as it often does with compulsory learning, engagement is more important, as this increases the opportunity for incidental learning. If learners aren’t motivated and the subject matter isn’t considered interesting, the training designer must work particularly hard to design an instructionally sound and engaging course.


ARCS model of motivational design

Over time Irina’s Chinese continue to improve, as does that of the whole class. The teacher is funny and really knows how to engage the class. He gives them lots of positive encouragement and makes them all talk as much as possible, role-playing situations where they might need to use their Chinese.

A popular motivational model is John Keller’s ARCS Model of Motivational Design. ARCS stands for ‘Attention, Relevance, Confidence, Satisfaction’, which are the four major conditions that Keller identified as necessary for learners to become and remain motivated. So how can we make sure we’re meeting all of the conditions?

Attention: There are lots of ways to grab your learners’ attention. Why not try surprising them (for example, introducing a fact that seems to contradict the learner’s experience, or playing devil’s advocate)? Or use humour (if the topic is appropriate) and participation (encouraging group work or role play in classroom based training, or interactive exercises in online training) to keep learners actively thinking.

Relevance: Learners must believe that the training is applicable them; either by helping them to do their specific job better, or aligning with their psychological needs. To make a learner see the relevance you need to connect with their interests or past experiences, or demonstrate the future usefulness of the subject (eg use a scenario that shows how someone’s individual goals are achieved by learning the skill).

Confidence: Confident learners are more likely to persevere even when the training gets challenging. To encourage confidence, learners should be presented with clear learning requirements and manageable expectations. You should also make sure to structure the learning so that the difficulty increases over time. This helps provide a challenge while ensuring that learners have the information and skills they need before they move on to more difficult material.

Satisfaction: Learners need to feel as if they have had a rewarding experience and to feel good about their accomplishments. Strategies include natural consequences (encouraging transfer of the skill or knowledge to the workplace as soon as possible), positive outcomes (giving praise for accomplishments and offering immediate feedback) and avoiding negative influences (such as surveillance of learners or external performance evaluation where self-evaluation is possible).


Other motivational tools and techniques

Let’s look at a few more techniques that will help to foster intrinsic motivation, or provide extrinsic motivation.

Personalising the learning

We’ve looked at ensuring learners understand the relevance of the training. Personalising the learning performs a subtly different role. Rather than demonstrating to learners why the course is important to their goals or meets their needs, the learning forges a personal connection with the learner. This can be done in different ways, such as by offering role-specific training that puts the learning in a recognisable context for learners, or profiling the learning so that they only see what is relevant to them. Some Learning Management Systems even use the learner’s name to address them throughout an online training course.


Gamification has been a popular motivational tool for several years. Rather than designing a course as a serious game, gamification uses some of the elements of gaming to engage and motivate. Common features of gamified courses include avatars, achievements, timed elements, accumulated points, leader boards and unlockable rewards.

Rewards for success

From certification to financial or job-related benefits, rewards can certainly encourage learners to complete a course. However, rewards are considered one of the weaker forms of extrinsic motivation. It’s often better to reward the knowledge and skills application that results from effective learning. That way, learners aren’t simply motivated to complete a course; they’re motivated to truly learn.

Vary the learning

The other important thing to do is to vary the types of learning initiatives you offer. Is most training done face-to-face, or through structured e-learning? If so, consider just-in-time resources or support, such as:

  • short videos
  • top tips from colleagues
  • a downloadable checklist

This way, you can keep the more formal learning for the topics that require the highest impact – and learners therefore recognise that every training initiative is important.


Creating a learning culture

The techniques we’ve looked at so far focus on how to improve learning courses, but it will all be meaningless if learning is not valued within an organisation. If a manager doesn’t see the importance of learning, neither will their staff.

If you can, set the tone at the top: if learners see that training and personal development is important to the organisation, they will be more motivated to learn.


Conclusion - no short-cuts - take an integrated approach.


Four months into their Chinese course, Evan tells Irina that he has a surprise for her. - He has booked for the two of them to travel to China for a holiday that summer! There’s the motivation that Irina needed! Over the next few months her Chinese improves almost as quickly as Evan’s and by the summer they both have a good level of Chinese and feel ready to enjoy their holiday.

As we’ve seen, intrinsically motivated learners have the best learning outcomes. They want to learn and are willing to engage with the material. Extrinsically motivated learners can do well too, as long as you can tap into their intrinsic motivations.

But even where motivation fails, learner engagement in good quality courses can improve outcomes. If an engaging training programme is well designed, incidental learning is likely to happen.

There isn’t a quick way to create motivated learners, but these suggestions can help you achieve your goal:

  • Design training that is relevant – if you can’t make a case to learners, you’ll struggle to motivate them
  • Focus on measurable learning outcomes, not course attendance or completion
  • Create a learning culture – let learning be built into your learners’ schedules and provide the support they need
  • Celebrate successes – recognition can be a powerful motivator

No single suggestion will work in isolation - and there are no easy fixes. You need to take an integrated approach; give learners a reason to learn. Make it easy and have a supportive organisational culture that fosters learning. Then you will create engaged and motivated learners.