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Learning & Development Blog

Intrinsic Learning Motivation in eLearning Development

The carrot and stick model of learning motivation is known to work in the short run, but how can you motivate learners to continue interest in eLearning for the long run without the constant need to dig up more rewards?

The book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion provides a few persuasive principles that apply to intrinsically motivating learners. While the book provides six "Weapons of Influence," the three below apply to motivating learners.

1. Commitment and Consistency

"Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision."

In the mid-1960s, psychologists Jonathan Freedmand and Scott Fraser conducted an experiment that showed the power of consistency. They sent researchers canvassing door-to-door in a residential suburb of California, asking homeowners if they could put a giant billboard that read "DRIVE CAREFULLY" in their front lawn. 83% of the homeowners rejected their request.

With a similar group, they took a different approach. At first contact with the homeowners, the researchers asked the homeowners to sign a petition that favored "keeping California beautiful." Two weeks later, a different researcher asked them if they'd be willing to put the DRIVE CAREFULLY billboard in their front lawn. About half of these people agreed to it despite the earlier request having nothing to do with driving safely.

Signing the earlier petition changed the view the homeowners had of themselves. Suddenly they saw themselves as the type of people who were advocates on behalf of causes. To keep a consistent view of themselves, they agreed to put up the billboard in their lawns when they wouldn't have before.

Using commitment and consistency with eLearning:
  1. Send out a small questionnaire before the eLearning module asking learners to rate a variety of things, including something like, "Becoming more skilled at my job is important to me."
  2. Enable the learner to see the progress they're making. Show how many courses they've completed, videos they've watched, or skills they've acquired.
  3. Get written feedback for the eLearning courses. If feedback is critical, it shows where you can improve, but if it's positive, learners will act in a way that's consistent with that feedback. If Jon Q. Learner writes that the course is an excellent way to learn the new software, this commitment to belief is likely to be self-perpetuating. He'll be more interested in future courses because it's consistent with his belief that the lesson was helpful. The act of writing down positive feedback also plays into social proof.

2. Social Proof

"In general, when we are unsure of ourselves, when the situation is unclear or ambiguous, when uncertainty reigns, we are most likely to look and accept the actions of others as correct." "We will use the actions of others to decide on proper behavior for ourselves, especially when we view those others as similar to ourselves."

Many studies have been conducted on the topic of social proof, including the bystander effect, but the elevator experiment is a favorite. The video below displays the pressure we all feel to conform with the behavior of others, no matter if the behavior seems ridiculous to us.

Using social proof with eLearning:
  1. Highlight employees (in a newsletter or wiki) who have completed the most courses.
  2. Share the average course score, which learners will be motivated to beat.
  3. Highlight course numbers that show positive momentum in learner adoption (how many people started taking a course, how many people completed a course, etc).


3. Scarcity

“Opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited.” "People seem to be more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value." “As a rule, if it is rare or becoming rare, it is more valuable.”


Ever wonder why the McRib at McDonald's is so popular? When it was first introduced nationwide, it wasn't a hit. Eventually McDonald's retired the mostly porkless pork sandwich. A decade later, McDonalds gave it another try. The only difference is that this time they limited its availability. Instead of the McRib being ubiquitous, it was only available in select markets certain times of the year. No one knew how long it was going to be around so people felt motivated go out and buy it before missing the opportunity.

Using scarcity with eLearning:
  1. Experiment with only allowing access to an eLearning course for a few weeks at a time.
  2. Limit access to courses to only people who have completed pre-requisite courses.
  3. Limit course access to the first (insert number or percentage) people to sign up.

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