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The Basics of Motivational eLearning Design

When we think of the word, motivation, instantly two things come to mind. First, when we are young, many outside things motivate us, a desire to do something, the reality of punishment from our parents, positive and negative reinforcement of what we are doing, etc. All of these things help to motivate children, and in some case, it has a positive effect, and in other cases, it does not. The more proactive the motivation, the more positive the response to that motivation, the more reactionary the motivation, the more negative the response. The second picture that comes to mind is a learned reaction to something. Like Pavlov and his dogs, which would salivate when he rang the bell, motivation can be at times subconscious.

However, there are much more things that drive the motivation on human beings, and in the arena of learning, there are some critical pieces to the puzzle that have to be developed so that learners feel the value of what they are learning and how it will benefit them. The rewards of their success must be considered from a variety of sources and satisfy them on a variety of levels, and as instructional designers of e-learning programs we must not only understand these factors but be skilled in utilizing them in the courses that we design.

In 1984, John Keller published his now seminal work on motivational and learning called the ARCS Model of Motivational Design. He posited that there are four critical factors that translate as motivation to learn.


1) Attention

There are two realities concerning the attention factor of learning motivation. First, attention must be gained. Incentive and rewards are often the force behind this factor, and the learner sees the value of taking part in what is being presented. The key, however, is not that the attention of the learner has been captured but that the motivation to learn keeps the attention of the learner so that he or she completes the process of learning all the way to the point of success. This ultimately means that what is promised must be delivered.

In a world where electronic media is the highest quilt ever known to man and in an age where we have more computing power in our cellular phones than was on the Apollo 13 missions, we must not pretend that the learners in an electronic environment are expecting anything less that excellence in our design and delivery of information. The 21st Century learner demands activities that speak to perception and inquiry and must have enough variability that it remains compelling. Without these things, the dropout rates will increase.


2) Relevance

How many times have we thought to ourselves, “When will we ever use this information?” The greatest insult to any learner is when the material is irrelevant to his or her success beyond the learning environment itself. Learners are often very skeptical of what they are being forced to learn, and in many cases, the motivation factor has been the fear of failure, and this exacerbates the frustration of learning content that is irrelevant. The focus must always be to match the learning with the learner's goals and expectations; it should not be assumed that the learner would justify the learning and find a place for it in their matrix of goals if he or she believes that the learning is irrelevant.

So the charge of the e-learning designer is to be sure that the objectives of the course being written match the needs of the learners that will be taking the course. This simple rule is so often broken because the analysis of the needs of the learner or even of the learner herself is not deeply considered and so relevance becomes an issue that creates failure for the learner and the designer. Without a needs and learner analysis, it is futile to design courses.


Also read:

3) Confidence

Your employees must be supported to have the confidence to successfully learn. This support is called scaffolding, and it is the key to the learner feels that he or she can achieve something of significance. In the corporate world, many organizations sponsor differing levels of team building activities that serve to build the camaraderie and collaborative forces of teams by forcing them to scaffold, trust and motivate each other to accomplish daring feats of strength and daring. The team members who are apprehensive or fearful, are given power through their team, and they can achieve these daring feats that they just would never have attempted let alone accomplish.

Learning is the same. The learner must feel the support of a lattice type network of supporters and support systems so that their motivation is not lost to frustration and the fear of failing. This includes design elements that reinforce positive growth and steps forward towards the goal as the learner progresses. Learning should always provide opportunities for challenge and success that keep the learner moving forward, and feedback so that the learner knows what he’s doing right or wrong.



  • How can you create a positive expectation for success since the beginning of the course? 
  • How can you make learners feel confident that they can achieve their goals?
  • How can you make learning requirements seem realistic and achievable? 
  • How can you demonstrate learners their success is based upon their hard work?

Also read: Motivate Employees to Participate in Training: 8 Ideas

4) Satisfaction

In tandem with the other motivational factor of Keller model is the element of satisfaction. Satisfaction will come as completion occurs and the value of what was promised was achieved. This value has two distinct layers for the learner:

Extrinsic satisfaction comes from outside positive reinforcement, which can be reflected in praise, badges, and certificates, job changes, etc. These external realities serve best to finalize the credibility of what was promised and achieved. However, external satisfaction is temporary and in most cases quickly forgotten or assumed into what is average for the learner.

However, intrinsic satisfaction is that motivating factor that makes the learner feels like he belongs and that he has risen above where he was and now holds a different place. The key to this intrinsic satisfaction being achieved is the sense of equity of the learner’s accomplishment in light of the others who are also accomplishing it. From the time that my children were young, we taught them how to play cards. We started out with simple games like Go Fish or Rummy an then as they got older we learned more sophisticated and complicated games like Rook. All along their journey towards becoming good card players, there were times when we would “let them win, ” and they were never satisfied with that, they were only satisfied when they could win on their own by playing the game that they could control.

This is an excellent illustration of the reality behind the intrinsic value of an accomplishment in e-learning. The motivation comes from the idea that, “I did it,” not that it was “given to me” or that “someone else did it for me.” This satisfaction with accomplishment needs to have the feeling of the weight of what was accomplished. Instructional designers need to remember this when designing coursework, especially online. It is important that each learner can finish the journey of the course himself. Support is vital along the way, but a runner must cross the finish line on her own to feel the satisfaction of finishing.


The implications of Keller’s model are clear. As instructional designers, we must be purposeful in what how we design our coursework so that it grabs and keeps the attention of the learner, it is relevant to the learners goals and objectives, it instills confidence in the learner that he can accomplish it through the scaffolding that exists for the benefit of the learner’s success, and it poses a challenge that gives the person a great deal of satisfaction for the value not only of the finish itself but more importantly, the journey to the finish line. This is motivation far beyond simple reaction or behavior modeling, but it takes into account the growth of the learner from a holistic view and serves to create successful humans who can meet their goals and impact the world around them.


REFERENCES: John Keller's official ARCS Website

ARCS Model of Motivational Design (Keller) at

How to integrate learner motivation planning into lesson planning: The ARCS model approach

ARCS Model of Motivational Design

Karla Gutierrez
Karla Gutierrez
Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT. ES:Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT.

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