How to design motivating eLearning: Introduction

By December 13, 2021January 4th, 2022ADDIE, eLearning, Instructional Design

In this 4-part series, we will examine the problem of motivation and suggest ways to design eLearning your trainees actually want to do. 


It’s one of the major problems faced by L&D departments globally.

It transcends cultures and industries. It hampers even well-designed, perfectly executed eLearning initiatives. Clients usually avoid making it part of the formal agenda; instead they prefer to talk to us about it in the cafeteria, or even on the way down to the lobby, after the official meeting is over.  

“Our people just aren’t motivated to engage with eLearning.” 

What’s the answer? Thankfully, science has known it for years. Game designers have listened, making the video game industry the biggest grossing entertainment gig in the world (even bigger than movies). But for some reason, learning designers ignore it. 

Force people to spend time on learning? No. Promise them monetary rewards or days off? No. Give them lots of fancy graphics and video? No. None of these will work.
Motivational design is more complex than that.  

Below are a few details about the 3 elements that must be present in order for an individual to feel motivated to stick with a learning task. 
If you want to design eLearning that is truly engaging, all of its features must promote these 3 elements, or, at the very least, not suppress them. 

Autonomy, or being the master of your own fate 

Autonomy is the sense that what I’m doing is not a strictly predetermined task, but rather something which am in control of.  

Imagine you need to learn about a topic (any topic), and you are presented with these choices: 

First, a course with a linear format. You start at A, you go through each and every letter, and you finish up at Z. All people that take it will have exactly the same experience, they will read exactly the same texts, watch the same videos, and do the same interactivities – in the exact same order.  

An alternative course still starts you off at A and ends you up at Z, but the journey is yours to plot. Interactivities will often ask you about what you already know, what you’re more interested in, and what you’re in the mood and have time for. You will choose, and the learning experience will branch out into several different situations that suit you.  

Mastery, or feeling that you’re getting better 

In motivational theory, mastery does not mean that you become ‘a master’ of something. Rather, it means that you’re feeling that you’re getting better. When you feel that you’re improving, you stick with a task. It’s that simple.  

How can eLearning promote the sense of mastery? One way is to assess a learner’s progress and accordingly fine-tune the next task they have to tackle (usually make it slightly more challenging). Another is to visually inform the learner about their progress; for instance, by using a progress bar which fills gradually as they approach the attainment of a learning objective. Many other techniques exist – and we’ll look at some of them in subsequent parts of this series. 

Purpose, or feeling that this is bigger than me and you 

Purpose is perhaps the most self-explanatory of the three pillars of motivation. It refers to the sense that the reason I’m doing something is important and useful, and that my success will have impact on myself and on those around me. When we manage to create eLearning that gives trainees a calling, they’re much more likely to persevere. 

Much of the eLearning content we see out there neglects to inform the trainees of this possible impact. A lot of it simply includes a WIIFM statement (What’s In It For Me) at its very beginning. But there are very few examples of eLearning that communicate and maintain the sense of purpose throughout the learning experience. 

Impact statements for every learning objective, that outline the effect that my newly acquired knowledge will have on me, my colleagues, my organization and my clients must be integral in your content.  

Watch this space for more 

In our following three blog posts, we will outline more ways to instill the senses of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in your eLearning design.

The discussion will often talk about gamification; that’s where these three senses come into their own and become the foundations for effective and actually engaging eLearning.  

Next article: Autonomy! 

In the meantime… 

Watch Dan Pink give a richly entertaining talk about autonomy, mastery and purpose on TED!  

Unless of course you want a chat with one of our eLearning designers? Get in touch! 🙂

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