How to design motivating eLearning: Mastery

The sense of Mastery, or the sense that you’re getting better at something, is what makes people stick with difficult task. Its lack is what makes them quit. In this article, we discuss this all-important feature of engaging eLearning. 

What is Mastery? 

Mastery doesn’t mean you’re ‘perfect’ at something. 

Mastery is that feeling you get when you’ve been practising the guitar for weeks and weeks, and you’re finally able to play the chords to Smoke on the Water.

That moment, when after three failed attempts to make lobster thermidor, you finally serve your guests an unbelievable seafood dish for which you get countless ‘yummy’ sounds and congratulations. 

It’s the feeling that what you’re doing is worth sticking with, because you’re getting better and better at it. 

Along with Autonomy and Purpose, it’s one of the three main pillars of motivation

Any attempt at eLearning motivational design should keep it well in mind, and try to bring it out in the trainees. 

Instructional design elements that promote Mastery 

Here’s a generic hint: you can get lots of insight on how to design motivation into your eLearning through thinking about and examining what motivates you or people you know well.

What makes you never give up an arduous or time-consuming task? 

But for now, here are a few techniques instructional designers use to make their trainees feel that they’re getting better at what they’re doing. 

  • Badges, trophies, and personal trophy cabinets. Badges are awfully overused in gamified learning, but if used appropriately they can be quite a powerful feature. Award them as recognition of progress. 
  • Increasing difficulty. Just like ‘levels’ in games get ever so slightly harder as players get better, so should challenges in a learning experience. Neglecting to do this and giving trainees tasks of equal difficulty throughout makes them feel as though they are stagnating, and the learning experience becomes flat and unmotivating. 
  • ‘Then and now’ comparison. Occasionally, remind trainees where they started and how far they’ve come. Make them appreciate the distance they’ve covered and pat them on the back with a message or a badge. 
  • Personal learning portfolio. A section of your eLearning system where trainees can view units or chapters they have completed along with corresponding knowledge and skills they have acquired (often referred to as Now I know… or Now I can… sections). These function as strong reminders of achievement.  
  • Advanced content unlocking. Content that has advanced knowledge or skills as prerequisites shouldn’t be available from the outset. Make trainees aware of its existence but lock it, and allow them access only when they have completed all requirements. Announce their newly gained access in an eye-catching way.  

At the very least, remember to design eLearning that consistently gives trainees a sense of where they were, where they’ve got to, and how far they have to go!

Mastery must be earned 

Do not design eLearning experiences that constantly reward users, even if they don’t deserve it. Getting recognition for minor accomplishments or, worse, when not much has been accomplished, will have a negative effect on trainee motivation. 

Next article: Purpose!  

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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