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Breakthrough Ideas on Learner Motivation? Or Just Looking More Deeply at What You Already Knew?

  1. Pen Ron Zamir
  2. Calendar April 29, 2010

The January/February issue of Harvard Business Review this year addressed a few “breakthrough ideas” for the year. The first one, “What Really Motivates Workers: Understanding the Power of Progress” by Teresa M Amabile and Steven J Kramer really stood out. As a training company, we base a lot of the success of our courses on learner engagement and learners are often engaged when they are motivated.

Mostly, the article validated what we have already known, but maybe didn’t want to admit. A couple of passages express these breakthrough ideas on learner motivation and I’d like to apply it specifically to training.

“It turns out that being recognized for your hard work by your boss or having incentives to complete something doesn’t actually make employees feel as good about their job as progress does.”

Source of motivation isn’t just someone recognizing you—it is being successful. Everyone knows what it takes to be successful. You are assigned a task, you complete the task, you feel pleasure in completing the task. This means you are successful, but it doesn’t mean you feel successful. While it is important to offer incentives for success (whether it is recognition, prizes, what-have-you), if that employee isn’t being successful in fulfilling his/her job, then recognition for what the employee does accomplish isn’t going to resonate.

People want to encounter something that is pleasurable to them, or avoid something that’s distasteful. This is what motivates them to make decisions. At that basic level, from a training company perspective, we want to make sure people want to take the training. If people don’t want to take the training and instead are made to take the training—like many compliance areas where it is just a tick on the box, then yeah, they’ll take it, they’ll pass the competency test—but the transfer of information to knowledge through to performance (i.e. that the company will have less regulatory problems or an employee will anticipate a problem, or that the people will recognize signs before there is a problem) may not happen.

You are counting on fear—yes, you are motivating through fear of losing their job—so yes, you have motivated them to take the training, but you haven’t motivated them to actually learn about the topic.

“When workers sense they’re making headway, their drive to succeed is at its peak.”

You can pressure them, provide incentives, recognize them, etc. but these are skin deep. This could be positive or negative (as in, if you don’t take this training, you will get a negative review.), but if employees do not feel they are making progress, then they are missing the drive to actually learn.

There have been some models that try to go deeper. When it comes to design, the ARCS model is one of them—it relies on four basic motivations that focus on the learner: Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction. What ARCS model doesn’t do is help us understand the context the training is taken in.

For our company, we use a blend of Gagne, Merrill, and Keller. These models contribute to the structure within the web-based training or classroom activities that help us make learning more receptive, help us engage the learners. These models act as catalysts, enzymes that will induce psychological processes that make learning more receptive to good training i.e. learning and transfer.

But I found these models a bit unsatisfactory because they focus on the learning activity itself and not on if learners are ready for training, or if they are ready for the learning engagement. If we are not careful, these models, rich in detail and approach, will become something akin to a pleasure/pain approach.

“As managers or trainers, this means you can further progress by removing obstacles and providing valuable information like resources, encouragement, and clear feedback”—maybe even get your own hands dirty to really cultivate that helpfulness.

So what motivates learners isn’t their tie to employee/manager relations, but to an interpersonal process. What is considered a good day, what is considered a good week, is tied to when learners achieve something and how managers have helped/hindered that process. It really has nothing to do specifically with managers or co-workers, though these will play an influence on learners’ satisfaction.

We need to make sure that when we design our specific training projects that they are tying into important learning drivers within our target learning population. This will be the motivation learners are searching for and will impact any training event.

At the end of the day, if we are sensitive enough to it, we can project the success of the training activity by the learning environment it is delivered in.

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