Five E-Learning Design Strategies That Keep Learners Coming Back for More

Written By

Joe McCleskey

August 10, 2009

Here’s one of the biggest problems we face as designers of e-Learning content: without the luxury of face-to-face interaction with our audience, how can we keep our audience motivated enough to not only complete the courses we create, but to actually enjoy learning the skills and knowledge we set before them? 

In this article, I offer a close look at some successful learner motivation methods that for many years have helped instructional designers enhance the learning experience. You can incorporate these into your e-Learning courses.

Strategy 1: Learn the basics of motivation

Before I begin discussion of the practical techniques you can use to increase learner motivation, here’s what the experts have been telling us on the subject for the past couple of decades.

Any serious discussion of learner motivation should include at least a cursory look at the ARCS model. Originally published in 1987 by psychologist John Keller (See the References at the end of this article), ARCS is an acronym that identifies four basic elements of motivation:

Attention This is essential. If you can’t gain and keep the learners’ attention, you have no hope of motivating them, much less teaching them anything. With e-Learning, we must employ tricks like animation, emotional stimuli, and storytelling to maintain learner attention (more on these below).

Relevance There is also little hope of success if the learners don’t know why it’s important for them to learn the information contained in your e-Learning courses. As with traditional face-to-face learning, it’s best to make it clear up front why it’s important to know this information (and “because your job requires it” doesn’t count).

Confidence If learners do not feel they’re capable of achieving the learning objectives, their motivation levels will decrease. To help with learner confidence, always indicate up front how long it will take them to complete the session.

Satisfaction Learners feel a greater sense of motivation when they anticipate some reward for their efforts. This could be a simple certificate or verbal recognition from a superior, or might include steps along a path to a raise or promotion.

Along with the ARCS model, motivational psychologists have also identified two types of motivation, based on the motivating factor’s relationship to the learner. These are intrinsic motivation, which originates from influences within an individual (such as pleasure or morality), and extrinsic  motivation, which comes from influences outside the learner  (such as cash rewards, promotions, punishment, grades, praise, etc.). Of the two, intrinsic motivations are generally more interesting to the e-Learning designer, because designers often have no control over the extrinsic factors that motivate their audience, with the exception of the occasional word of praise or passing grade. Also, research indicates (Malone and Lepper, 1987) that intrinsic motivation is much more successful at reinforcing desired behavior than extrinsic motivation. Put simply, intrinsic motivation is what makes people do the things that they normally would do on their own, whether or not you coerce them with external motivators.

So how do you tap into your audience’s intrinsic motivations when you’re designing e-Learning? How can you create courseware that your audience will enjoy, and want to come back and experience again and again?

Strategy 2: Think structure

A well-structured e-Learning piece is more motivating because it addresses the “C” in the ARCS model: confidence. Your audience will feel more confident about completing the learning session if they can visualize the overall structure of the piece. Put simply, if they can see where you're going, they'll be more motivated to head in that direction.

Also related to learner confidence is the length of the sessions you create. Research (Hartley and Davies, 1978) shows that on average, your learners will only be able to pay close attention to your content for about nine to ten minutes at a time. This means that each segment of your e-Learning content should take no longer than 10 minutes to complete. Does this mean you have to be concise, and stick to the essentials? You bet it does! If your topic requires more, chunk it into multiple nine- to ten-minute sessions, and create reproducible printed materials (PDFs preferably) for a more elaborate reference, if necessary.

There are many different kinds of structures you can use to build your e-Learning courseware. Here are a few examples:

  • Move from general to specific,
  • Move from abstract concepts to concrete examples, and
  • Have an introduction, body and conclusion.

More important than the kind of structure you use, however, is to simply have a structure. A random assortment of facts can be very dull, but interest levels increase rapidly once you put them into a logical, coherent structure.

Strategy 3: Increase visual interest

Perhaps the best way to enhance learner motivation is to make sure the courseware you develop looks appealing to the eye. This can be as simple as a nice HTML treatment based on the principles of good graphic design, or as elaborate as a fully scripted video with professional actors and high production value. In the end, the degree of visual interest you add to your production all depends on your budget and schedule, but the good news is: if you plan carefully, a little bit of visual variety can go a long way toward giving your learners the desire to complete the course.

The most common ways of adding visual interest to an e-Learning program include the following:

Photography The use of photographs – especially stock photography – is one of the most common ways that e-Learning designers add visual interest to their programs. Unfortunately, it's often not done well; in order for a photograph to have impact, it must directly represent one or more key elements of your content. Just putting a pretty picture in each slide won't do the trick. How many times can we look at the same professionally-dressed, “multi-culti” group of people sitting around a table? That's the problem with stock photography: the good images get used over and over, and people get this sense of deja-vu when they view your work ("Didn't I see that woman in a Web banner ad earlier today?"). When done well, however, a quality photograph that actually portrays one of the concepts you're trying to teach can be very effective in enhancing learner motivation.

Video If done correctly, a short video clip greatly enhances an e-Learning production. There are a lot of pitfalls in the video approach, however. Video production is expensive, difficult, and time-consuming. Today’s audience has very high standards – they tend to expect everything to have the same production value as the Martin Scorcese film they just watched. One approach that doesn't work very well from an instructional perspective is the talking-head approach; simply putting someone onscreen to speak the lines your audience could just as well have read for themselves doesn't enhance learner motivation much. The lesson here is to make sure the visuals support the message of the content. Don’t just add video for video’s sake.

Graphics A nice visual display of quantitative information (Tufte, 1983) can be very effective at increasing the visual interest of your work. It can be as simple as a two-dimensional Excel chart; indeed, the best rule to follow with graphics is, the simpler the better. Even more effective is a simple ideogram, or graphic symbol that represents the idea or concept you're trying to get across in your e-Learning content. Think of stick figures and those international symbols you see in airports, and you're well on your way.

Animations Perhaps the best way to increase visual interest while enhancing learner motivation and retention is through the use of simple animations. Jonathan Jarvis's 11-minute animated video about the 2008 financial meltdown (www.crisisofcredit.com) illustrates how animating a set of simple graphics to voice-over narration can be very effective in conveying complex information in an entertaining way. Jarvis's video quickly went viral, and it's now been viewed over a million times on YouTube and Vimeo. While Jarvis's video undoubtedly took a very long time to complete, and making such animations requires mastery of programs like Adobe After Effects and Adobe Illustrator, the good news is you don't have to go this far to make something that's very appealing to your audience. Start simple; start with a voice-over audio narration, make some basic graphics, add a little motion in your rapid e-Learning tools (even fading picture elements in and out is a good start), and start enhancing the key ideas in the narration with a little visual pizzazz.

Strategy 4: Incorporate emotion

Neurologists have grappled with the idea of emotion for many years – what, exactly, is it? And what role does it play in giving humans an edge in survival? The jury is still out on that question, but some neurologists suggest (Medina, 2008) that emotion plays an important role in memory. The theory is this: we tend to experience emotions when we're in a situation that has some kind of bearing on our survival, and this makes the experience worth remembering: fear helps us remember situations that threaten our safety, anger helps us remember situations when others threaten our interests, and love helps us remember the joy we've felt when we've successfully cooperated with family and friends.

Psychologists have a name for an event that triggers an emotion: it's called an emotionally competent stimulus, or ECS. To unleash the power of emotion in your e-Learning content, you simply need to incorporate an ECS now and then – not just any ECS, but one that fits nicely into the subject matter you're teaching. Perhaps the simplest way to do this is to incorporate images that have a mild emotional impact. I say "mild" because, as with many aspects of e-Learning design, it's best to use a light touch. With emotions, a little goes a long way, but a lot can turn your audience against you. Examples of images with mild emotional impact could include a young couple holding hands, a child playing on a swing, or an athlete receiving a trophy.

Emotions don't just play a role in making your content more memorable; they also can help make your content more interesting and engaging. Isn't that at least partly why we sit through films for two hours at a time, or read hundreds of pages of novels in a single sitting? They’ve successfully appealed to our emotions as well as our intellect. And that brings us to our next strategy for increasing learner motivation: telling a story.

Strategy 5: Tell a story

When I tell people that I have a Master’s degree in history, they often say something like this: "History? Really? I never liked memorizing all of those names and dates." And I always reply with an explanation of the difference between history and chronology: the latter is just a list of dates and the people and events associated with them, whereas the former is more concerned with the underlying story that weaves all of those dates, events, and people together. A series of events has no meaning by itself, but the story of how all of those events relate to one another can be very powerful.

One of the reasons why stories can be such powerful tools in motivating your audience is because stories help fulfill the “R” in ARCS: they help people see why something is relevant to their experience by making it more concrete for them.

Here are a few examples of simple ways to bring the power of stories into your e-Learning content:

Anecdotes As you write your e-Learning content, think of examples from your own life that could provide an illustration of the concepts you're trying to convey.

Examples After discussing some high-level concepts and abstract ideas, bring your audience back down to earth with a story of a real-world situation that incorporates those concepts and abstract ideas.

Narrative structure If you're ambitious, you might consider framing an entire nine- or ten-minute e-Learning segment as a story. Open with action; establish some characters; move the plot forward toward a climax. Along the way, you can incorporate the necessary knowledge and skills, then quiz learners on these items after the story's conclusion. It might be a little difficult to pull this off successfully, but it can be very powerful if done properly.

A note on interactivity and game-based learning

It's become a cliche in our industry that interactivity is one of the hallmarks of creating engaging, motivating content. At the same time, we must not forget that it's possible to create an e-Learning piece that's very interactive but not very engaging or motivating. Interactivity by itself is not motivating; just because you're required to use the mouse to complete an e-Learning session doesn't necessarily mean you'll want to. And we mustn't forget that some of the most powerful and motivating learning experiences are not interactive at all. Some of the greatest documentary films, for example, require the viewer to sit and watch for one or two hours at a time, with no opportunity to interact with the content whatsoever.

Having said that, we should acknowledge that interactivity is a very important tool in the e-Learning professional's kit; it gives us a chance to take the constructivist approach to learning, and it opens up many possibilities that only digital content delivery can provide. At the same time, however, we need to acknowledge that these possibilities often come at a heavy price. Interactivity always requires more work in design and development, and it places a heavy burden on the designer to make it work for the audience.

In my experience, many beginning e-Learning designers tend to dream big on their first projects. They've got great ideas for how to immerse their audience in a full simulation of the skills they're trying to teach, yet when they realize that those ideas require hefty budgets and long production times, they get discouraged. And when the opportunity does present itself to develop a game, they find that their audience has those same high standards for games that we mentioned earlier for video productions. You're up against some pretty stiff competition when the audience expects your game to be just as good as World of Warcraft.

In the right environment, and with the right budget, gaming can be an excellent tool for enhancing learner motivation. The U.S. military has embraced this approach in a big way, and with great success. Studies have shown that learner motivation for some military simulation programs is so high that soldiers and officers alike have been caught sneaking into training facilities late at night, just to get another chance to run the battle simulations. Unfortunately, few situations will have the same level of excitement that a state-of-the-art battlefield simulation can provide, and few e-Learning budgets can equal that of the Department of Defense.

The moral of the story: don't worry if your e-Learning pieces don't have the same level of interactivity found in state-of-the-art gaming simulations. Focus on what you can do best, given your budget and resources. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing motivation in your e-Learning development team. And if your development team isn't motivated, what hope is there of motivating the audience?

References

Hartley, J. & Davies, I. K. “Note-taking: A Critical Review.” Programmed Learning and Educational Technology . 1978: 15, 207 – 224

Jarvis, Jonathan. The Crisis of Credit Visualized. 2009. http://www.crisisofcredit.com

Keller, J. M. “Strategies for Stimulating the Motivation to Learn.” Performance and Instruction. 1987a (October), 26(8), 1-7

Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. (Seattle: Pear Press, 2008)

Malone, W. and Lepper, M. R. Aptitude, Learning and Instruction. (Erlbaum, 1987)

Tufte, Edward. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. (Connecticut: Graphics Press, 1983)

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