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Do or do not, there is no try (except there is lots of try): How to motivate learners.

Have you ever tried to make a change?  Whether it’s new year’s resolutions, self-improvement or our mums nagging us, we all go through the process of trying to change our behaviour.

We go on health-kicks, we learn new languages, we try to spend less money.  And it’s hard!  Wherever the motivation to change comes from, we often can’t help resisting it; we can’t seem to motivate ourselves to change.

So how much harder is it to effect behaviour change when the motivation is coming from an external source?  When we design training, we’re trying, on a basic level, to facilitate behaviour change.  We’re being paid to get employees to start following the new process, or stop leaving confidential documents on trains, or lift from the knees, or whatever it happens to be.  But these are all things the learner’s employer wants them to do; in a lot of cases, they probably think they’re doing just fine the way they are.

How can we motivate people?

Well, the first step is to recognise that we’re trying to change behaviour.  The need for training should be properly analysed – why have we decided we need training?  What’s the goal here?

And the second step is to recognise that there will be some resistance to the change we’re trying to introduce.  It’s no use pretending all employees are eager little beavers, desperate for us to pour some more knowledge into their hungry minds.  Nope, even if it’s unconscious, there will be some resistance.

But I am here to help!  In this blog, I’ll look at some of the ways in which people resist behaviour change (anything from going on a diet to using the new CRM system) and how we can overcome them.

“I know I should, but…”

There’s a scale of resistance to change, and it looks something like this:

Now let’s look at this scale of resistance when it comes to training.  Imagine asking someone if they want to do the new compliance training…

I’ll stop there because we’re already venturing into the realms of fantasy.  Basically, it’s unlikely that you’re going to get learners who are super-excited about doing training.  The best we can hope for is a grudging admission that training might be necessary, or maybe it wasn’t as boring as they were expecting.

So trying to persuade people to undergo training for its own sake is a non-starter.  Let’s look instead at how the scale works when you’re trying to change a particular work behaviour.

As you can see, this is much more promising.  Even if some learners might still be attached to the old ways, many will be more ready for change, especially when they can see how it will benefit them.

This resistance scale shows us the importance of tying training into real-world goals.  Training shouldn’t be approached either by learners or by us (the people designing the training) as ‘some training that must be done’; it should instead be approached as ‘a behaviour that needs to change’.

So how do we approach the issue of the resistance scale?  How do we design training that is going to turn level 1 learners (those who disagree with the proposed change) into level 4 learners (those who agree and are actively embracing the change)?

One way to tackle this issue would be to introduce some kind of pre-assessment or survey to sort out the level 3 and 4 learners from the 1s and 2s.  You could then allow level 3s and 4s to skip straight to some practice activities to make sure they’ve understood the new way of doing things and can avoid common mistakes.  Level 1s and 2s would be given some preamble to help persuade them of the benefits of the new way of doing things.  This may be effective, but wouldn’t it be easier just to design training that allows learners, however sceptical or enthusiastic they are, to see the negative consequences of continuing to do things the current way, and the positive outcomes of doing it the improved way?

“It wouldn’t make a difference anyway.”

Have you ever heard anybody say this when a change has been recommended to them?  Or you might have heard, “I already tried every method, I just can’t quit’, or, ‘If I just watch one more episode of Friends I’ll have rested my brain and I’ll be ready to do some work.’

When people experience something that challenges their way of life (for example, finding out that your beloved car is terrible for the environment) they experience cognitive dissonance.  The natural reaction to this is to try and reduce this dissonance, for example by looking for evidence that climate change might be a myth, so your baby might be alright after all.

If this proves impossible, for example, a smoker being told repeatedly and by every source that smoking causes cancer, people sometimes try to find other ways of rationalising their behaviour.  The car owner might say, “Well I don’t drive it that often, anyway”, and the smoker might say, “I can’t always be thinking about the future, I’ve got to live for today.”

This brings up a challenge for us as learning designers.  Traditionally the approach to effecting a behaviour change has been to throw as much ‘information’ at the problem as possible.  Want to make sure your employees don’t accept bribes?  We’ll tell them about the definition of bribery, 25 different types of bribery, the four different bribery laws and the many different ways they can report bribery!  Want your employees to know how to sell whatjamacallits?  We’ll give them the history of whatjamacallits from their origins as whatjamacallems to the new fully automated whatjamacallit 3000!

Unsurprisingly, this approach doesn’t always work.  Many courses begin with the objective ‘We want our learners to know all about X’, but clearly just providing more information doesn’t work.  If evidence was all that people needed there would be no smokers and no climate change, sceptics.

The way that behaviour change is both approached by learning designers and presented to learners is very important.  One of our main goals should always be to show learners how the change that’s being encouraged is going to make a difference.  This means more than just showing them case studies and examples of when the new behaviour led to a positive result – learners need to see and experience this for themselves.  We need to allow enough exploration and freedom to make mistakes in the learning.  And the consequences of mistakes should be more than ‘That’s correct’ or ‘That’s incorrect’, they need to show the learner real-world consequences of making mistakes.

“I just don’t buy it.”

It’s quite likely that there will be some scepticism among learners about whatever behaviour change it is that you’re trying to introduce, as we saw earlier with the scale of resistance.  For level 1s on the scale, no amount of talking up the benefits of the new behaviour is going to change their motivation to embrace it and, as the ubiquitous Simon Sinek has demonstrated, people need to buy into the why before they will embrace the how or the what.

Sinek uses what he calls the Golden Circle to demonstrate how ideas and products are presented to the public by highly successful companies and individuals.

Sinek suggests that, while most of us start on the outside of the circle, successful communicators start at the centre, with the why.  As learning designers, we’re often guilty of this.  We start by talking about what the behaviour is and how great it is, then move on to talking about the how (this is the process, this is how you should act), before finally addressing the what (e.g. by the way, you need to observe these safety behaviours in the workplace because otherwise, you could lose a hand), when a more effective way of presenting the information would be, to begin with the why: Like having two hands? OK, then listen up…

This approach doesn’t just refer to the way we ‘present’ training, however, but to how we design it.  Rather than beginning with content, or ‘information’ we need to start with a problem or a goal; the why of the course.  This could be the need to hit higher sales targets, reduce the number of customer complaints, or speed up a slow process.  We can then design the course around meeting that goal, with every action the learner undertakes in the course being a step towards it.

“What’s in it for me?”

The ‘what’s in it for me?’ attitude is a common blocker for learner motivation.  With some types of training what’s ‘in it’ for the learner is very obvious, such as when they have recently started a new role.  However, there are some types of training, such as compliance topics, that learners have difficulty connecting with.  These are the courses that we often find ourselves throwing lots of extra features, bespoke interactivity, animation and other media at.  We sometimes find however that it’s not quite enough for learners for a course to be a slightly more ‘fun’ experience than they were expecting.

Have you ever looked up a Youtube video to show you how to fix a problem on your computer?  I bet you weren’t impressed by flashy visuals; in fact, I bet you didn’t even notice the visuals.  These videos tend to be very simple, with a screen capture video showing you what to do and perhaps a voiceover explaining it.  The creators of these videos don’t need to worry about the ‘what’s in it for me?’ factor; they’re giving the learner something they want.  What this tells us is that if we can make it very obvious to the learner how their training is going to benefit them, how it’s going to give them something they want, we can save ourselves a lot of time and effort.

One way to make sure learners can understand what’s in it for them is to use scenarios.  Of course, scenarios are used a lot in e-learning, but they’re often not as powerful as they should be.  The scenarios need to be more than just examples of the thing we’re teaching in action, they need to demonstrate to the learner the value of the behaviour change.  It’s also more powerful if learners can figure out for themselves that doing this behaviour change gives a more valuable result.  For example, a scenario where we tell the learner that Jean gets a better performance from her team because she follows the new Successful Team Management model, is less effective than a scenario where the learner plays the part of Jean and makes choices for her, giving them the chance to apply the model and see its benefits for themselves.

And yes, it’s often still hard.  Difficult concepts or complex processes are still hard to understand, and that can demotivate learners.  Luckily, we have a whole repertoire of fun design features, gamification strategies etc. to make it less hard.

These types of features are not enough on their own (going out to buy new work-out clothes is not enough to make you want to exercise more – believe me, I’ve tried) but they can help to make it easier.  An example of this in the real world would be the use of things like pedometers to demonstrate what we’ve achieved in a day.  We can, to some extent, replicate this with things like gamification, which let the learner measure their own progress in a meaningful way, but it’s still not a real-world result so isn’t going to motivate them to do the new behaviour in real life; especially if it’s hard.

It’s important for the changes we encourage in the training to be carried on outside that bubble too.  This could mean putting reminders in the workspace, spreading the training out as a series of short exercises instead of trying to do it all at once (so learners have time to see how things are improving in the meantime), or making resources available all the time which are as easy to use and as easy to access as possible (whether this is through a really well-designed learning portal or by using a chatbot or similar).

In real life, you help to motivate yourself and make difficult things seem less difficult by building up over time, and we should also do this when designing training.  We can start by providing lots of information and support as the learner completes practise activities, gradually reducing it over time until the learner feels confident.

‘Just do it!’

Nike was right on this one.  Unfortunately, no one can change your behaviour for you, you need to do it yourself.  Whatever the excuse is – ‘I know I should but…’, ‘It wouldn’t make a difference anyway’, ‘I just don’t buy it’, ‘What’s in it for me?’ or ‘But it’s so hard!’ – there’s only one way to overcome it and that’s to give it a try.  We can hold learners’ hands and drag them through the training, or we can try to distract them with lots of shiny things so they forget they’re learning, but if we’re going to effect real world change we need to get learners to see the benefits for themselves.  We, therefore, need to make sure the training gives them lots of opportunities to practice, makes the benefits as obvious as possible and makes the process as easy and fun as possible.  Luckily we’ve got lots of ways of doing this!


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