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Asynchronous Learning and Adult Motivation: Catching Fog in a Gauze Bag

by Christina Fisher

March 13, 2006


by Christina Fisher

March 13, 2006

"Adult learner motivation is an issue in asynchronous instruction because of the lack of interaction to engage the learner, and the lack of controls incorporated into the applications. Concern about adult learner motivation in this on-demand era is also the product of incessant comparison to traditional classroom learning."

Motivation is as ethereal and as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. You could compare keeping adults motivated to complete learning when they are independent of the classroom to the challenge of catching fog in a gauze bag. But true control of motivation is really within the individual learner, and not in anyone or anything else.

Editor’s Note: Parts of this article may not format well on smartphones and smaller mobile devices. We recommend viewing on larger screens.

A frequently asked question is, “Can designers create asynchronous learning content that will successfully motivate adults to finish?” Providing (or inciting) learner motivation seems to be more of a burden for instructional designers who create asynchronous learning content for adults; designers who create traditional classroom training for the same audience do not seem to share this pressure. (If the term “asynchronous learning” is new to you, please see my definition in Sidebar 1.)

Sidebar 1 What is “asynchronous learning?”

Asynchronous learning is learning that happens at different times and locations, usually without an instructor. It is a broad category that includes many learning terms and media: self-paced, distance education, e-Learning, online courses, learning simulations, interactive multimedia instruction (IMI), computer-based training (CBT) and Web-based training (WBT).


Several years ago, Jeanne Meister, at the time president of Corporate University Xchange, Inc., announced the results of a study by her firm. These results attracted a great deal of attention, and writers and speakers on e-Learning topics continue to quote them to this day. Specifically, Meister said that the study showed that e-Learning course completion rates were about 30%, far lower than the classroom rate of 85%. Although there was also some evidence that completion rates online might have been improving year over year, worried articles began to appear, speculating about whether e-Learning was failing, and about how to lower the 70% online “dropout rate.”

Adults find motivation to learn within the demands and desires of their lives, in providing for themselves and for their families, and in satisfying personal dreams and ambitions. These motivations often come from inside a person and also may come from outside, from the environment. Adult motivation to learn also appears to vary across different learning delivery mechanisms such as the traditional classroom, the synchronous online classroom, and the asynchronous e-Learning environment.

I’ll begin this article by discussing current ideas about motivation, and then I will explore the characteristics of both the traditional classroom and the synchronous online setting, as well as methods that work in them. I’ll compare the situation in asynchronous online learning with respect to factors affecting learner motivation, and discuss new ideas about what designers and developers can do to increase and sustain motivation through the use of a self-paced learning product. I’ll offer some “how-to’s” and why you should consider them, and also question the present focus on adult motivation and drop-out rates in the asynchronous e-Learning environment. Finally, I’ll answer the questions I’ve posed in the article.

Fasten your seat belts. We’re going to take a spin among the clouds and try to catch some fog in our gauze bag.


The factors that influence motivation are as diverse as the theories presented by psychologists over the years (see Table 1).

Table 1 Motivation theories
Psychologist Motivation sources
Sigmund Freud Unconscious forces
Carl Jung and Alfred Adler Future goals
Karen Horney Feelings of anxiety
William McDougall Instincts
B. F. Skinner Environmental stimuli
Clark Hull Drives
Abraham Maslow Emerging dominant needs


These theories fall into two groups as to motivation origins: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation originates inside a person, such as from unconscious forces, anxiety, drives, instincts, and basic needs. Extrinsic motivation arises outside the person, from sources that include future goals, environmental stimuli, and tangible rewards.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation play roles in many different adult learning theories, such as those in Sidebar 2. Each of these theories was the result of research leading to the development of key adult education principles that are also examples of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation.

Sidebar 2 Some adult learning theories
Theorist Theory Name Link to Summary of Theory
Malcolm Knowles Andragogy
Cyril Houle
Allen Tough
Malcolm Knowles
Self-directed Learning /Merriam.pdf
Alan B. Knox Proficiency Theory
Jack Mezirow Transformational Learning /Transformational.pdf


In Table 2, I have summarized the adult learning principles from the leading theories, and I have identified the type or types of motivation that supports each principle. As you can see, intrinsic motivation dominates the forces behind the principles.

Table 2 Adult learning principles and types of motivation
Psychologist Motivation sources
Sigmund Freud Unconscious forces
Carl Jung and Alfred Adler Future goals
Karen Horney Feelings of anxiety
William McDougall Instincts
B. F. Skinner Environmental stimuli
Clark Hull Drives
Abraham Maslow Emerging dominant needs


Adult motivation in the traditional classroom

Everyone identifies with the traditional classroom. Most of us spent at least 16 years in one. Traditional classrooms that are effective with adult learners have a number of characteristics in common:

  • Centered on problems rather than on content
  • Permit and encourage active participation
  • Draw on learners’ past experiences
  • Encourage collaboration between the instructor and the learner, and between learners
  • Rely on planning between the instructor and the learner
  • Involve an evaluation agreement
  • Allow prompt redesign and new learning activities based on evaluation
  • Incorporate experiential activities

These characteristics share links to the adult learning principles in Table 2, and to the two types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic. Adults bring a lot of knowledge to the classroom because of their age and experience. Adults need to have a sufficient level of control over, of input to, and of ownership of their learning so that they can apply this experience and knowledge to the current learning situation. Arguably, intrinsic motivation drives adults, while extrinsic motivation is more effective with children. Unlike children, adults filter, manipulate, postulate, share, and apply information to their own needs, goals, jobs, and experiences. Thus, adult motivation comes through the selection of a course of study, through the creation of a collaborative environment by the instructor, and through the contribution of the learner’s own knowledge and experiences.

Adult motivation in the synchronous online environment

The synchronous online environment is similar to the traditional classroom environment in that both are synchronous learning events. Online learning differs mainly in that instructor and learners gather “virtually” via the Internet to participate in learning events. In this way, synchronous online learning shares with the traditional classroom setting some characteristics that influence adult motivation to learn. The main distinction between these two environments is that the synchronous online environment depends on technology to support collaboration and to enable individual control over learning. As a result, the technology and features available in virtual classroom software create a motivational environment that may approach that of traditional classrooms.

Synchronous Internet tools appeared in the 1990s, and software features have continually advanced since then, along with the ability of instructors and users to employ them. An example of this type of software is Centra Live for Virtual Classes, which offers these features:

  • Yes/no polling, instant surveys, hand raising, laughter, and applause
  • Public, private, and moderated text chat
  • Peer-to-peer text chat, allowing participants to send private text messages to each other
  • Audio chat
  • Multi-user interactive whiteboards that can be saved for later review
  • Web Safari, allowing the session leader to take participants on a synchronized Web tour
  • Peer-to-peer interaction, allowing the session leader to open the floor to several participants at a time for interaction and learning

The similarities between these features and the techniques an instructor uses in a traditional classroom are obvious and purposeful. With skillful and regular use of these technologies and strategies, the adult learner’s motivation to collaborate and to contribute knowledge should be the same whether that learner is in a traditional classroom or in a virtual one.

Adult motivation in an asynchronous e-Learning environment

Many studies have proven the effectiveness of self-paced electronic instruction. However, high “drop-out” rates have caused concern in e-Learning, just as they did previously in traditional distance education. Past studies of adult learner attrition in distance education suggest that the major causes are lack of time and lack of motivation. Although instructional designers do not control the adult learner’s time, they can have some influence over motivation. Therefore, a logical conclusion is that improving adult learner motivation would also address the issue of adult learner attrition in e-Learning.

Let’s look at the asynchronous e-Learning environment and at inherent factors in it that affect adult learner motivation. According to researcher Kyong-Jee Kim, by far the number one factor that quells adult learner motivation to complete e-Learning is lack of interaction, whether programmed or human. With little or no significant interaction, no more than half of adult students complete an e-Learning course. “Significant interaction” means going beyond “page turning” — clicking the “Next” and “Back” buttons — or higher than Level 1 Interactive Multimedia Instruction (IMI) as the military specification defines it in TRADOC 350-70.

The learners in Kim’s study were mostly intrinsically motivated. It is possible that the drop-out rate is lower in the case of more extrinsically motivated learners. Military students, for example, are more extrinsically motivated, and, in addition, they must complete their IMI to gain certification in their Military Occupational Specialty (MOS). For them, completion ties to additional pay as well as to survival in combat. But in either case, it is clear that the features that contribute to persistent motivation in an online course are interactive and realistic elements. These include animations, simulation, realistic chunks of software and hardware components, scenarios, and role plays.

As noted with the military students, an important source of adult learner motivation arises when online instruction leads to certification or licensing. However, this condition also affects the efforts of the design and development team. Aside from “complete coverage” of the content, online learning intended to certify an individual or to qualify a candidate for a license is likely to incorporate some additional features. For example, the designer may make completion of each page or frame mandatory by disabling the “Next” button until the learner has viewed all of the interactive elements. When an e-Learning product must meet SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model) standards, the design will have to track learners by name and individual performance by sharable content object (SCO), by time, by number of interactions, by numbers of correct and incorrect responses, and possibly by many other factors as well. This requires additional effort by designers and developers.

In asynchronous learning that does not lead to certification or licensure, designs tend to offer greater learner control. This means the designer and the software allow control to shift away from the e-Learning application. Greater learner control contributes to increases in the dropout rate. This is the reverse of the situation in which control elements increase in order to require completion, and in order to increase the motivation to persist. Again, consider the example of military IMI, where learners simply do not have the option to drop out.

Why the concern about motivation and completion rates?

Although there are many articles and studies regarding the role of adult learner motivation, and regarding the lack of motivation to persist and to finish a prescribed online activity, there is not much discussion of reasons to be concerned about dropouts. I argue that we do not need to be concerned about dropouts at all. Is there any concern in the traditional adult classroom environment about dropouts? Is there any bottom-line effect from low adult learner completion rates? It simply does not matter.

Adult learner motivation is an issue in the classroom only when the instructor cannot get students to participate or to respond to questions. It may also be an issue when the student reaction survey at the end of the course reveals negative comments regarding the instructor’s ability, the quality of the instructional materials, or the ability of the instructor to engage the students. In the last case, if it happens often enough, there is an issue with adult motivation, with management, with customer satisfaction, and ultimately with course design and development. Adult learner motivation would be a larger issue in the classroom if a significant percentage of students started a course but did not finish it. This is rare, due to management influence, instructor influence, and peer pressure in traditional instruction.

If motivation is not an issue (or less of an issue) in the traditional adult classroom environment, why would it be one in an electronic environment? If it is more of an issue in the electronic, online learning environment, does this mean that we are failing somehow as instructional designers and developers?

Adult learner motivation is an issue in asynchronous instruction because of the lack of interaction to engage the learner, and the lack of controls incorporated into the applications. Concern about adult learner motivation in this on-demand era is also the product of incessant comparison to traditional classroom learning. Finally, the concern with adult learner motivation is a sign that we are undergoing the last phase of a paradigm shift from adult learners in traditional classroom environments to adult learners in virtual environments, and to knowledge workers in the just-in-time, just-when-I-need-it environment.

So what are some practical ways to attract a learner’s attention, maintain, and sustain it? Table 3 presents some tips and tricks based on my nine years of professional experience as an instructional designer in the telecommunications, IT, and military training industries.

Table 3 Ten instructional and software design tips and tricks

Instructional Design

Software Design/Programming

1. Gain the learner’s attention through an initial lesson/module screen that makes the learner think about what s/he already knows and what s/he will learn in this instruction.

1. Animation and “Flash” is good here because it attracts attention for a short time.

2. Strive to push the levels of interactivity to one level above the client requirement.

2. Establish templates, scripts, or a set of routines that you can reuse to make programming higher levels of interactivity more efficient.

3. Provide remediation in the form of a lesson review. Tap back to lesson con-tent when review questions and performance measures are incorrect or not met.

3. Design relationships between content.

4. Design using Sharable Content Objects. Tag instruction by SCO name and number to facilitate tracking.

4. Auto-bookmark the content for ease of entry into previously accessed course-ware.

5. Encourage the real-time application of the courseware to work tasks via real hardware, software, etc.

5. Include reminders throughout the courseware for the student to use the courseware as a real-time job aid.

6. Make student interactions with the courseware significant. (By significant, I mean interactions that require thought.) Spoon-feed first in one mode of instruction, and then slowly wean them from direction.

6. Flashy is flashy and most often not significant. Slowly increase the level of free play and discovery, and by so doing, increase the amount of thinking the student does.

7. Make instruction performance-based.

7. Adults are used to performing/thinking. Make them think. Make them perform by learning-by-doing.

8. Design in key words tied to every reusable learning object.

8. Allow searchable content through key words so that students can quickly find the information they are looking for.

9. With performance-based content, design for demonstration (Show Me) and practice (Let Me Try)

9. Program in a Show Me button and routine, and a Let Me Try button and routine, for each practice lesson.

10. Provide instructional text that goes beyond product/content documentation. Include golden nuggets of knowledge from SMEs.

10. Include highlights in instructional text that the student should pay particular attention to.



In summary, here are my answers to the questions that I have posed in this article.

Can designers create asynchronous learning content that will successfully motivate adults to finish? No. Instructional designers, software designers, and programmers can only create asynchronous content that is engaging.

Is there any concern in the traditional adult classroom environment about dropouts? Not really, because everyone considers adults to be responsible for their own learning.

Is there any bottom-line effect from low adult learner completion rates? There is an overall impact on learning for society as a whole, but a student pays for online instruction up-front, not when s/he completes the course.

If motivation is not an issue (or less of an issue) in a traditional adult classroom environment, why would it be one in an electronic environment? In my opinion, it is only an issue created by online learning vendors to market their courseware (“80% of our students complete their courses.”)

If motivation is more of an issue in the electronic learning environment, does this mean that we are somehow failing as instructional designers and developers? No. One cannot control adult learners in a self-paced environment, no matter how well designed or how interactive the courseware. There are too many variables outside the control of the designers and developers including work, busy lives, lack of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and even attention deficit disorder.  A final word of advice: Design well, and let completion rates take care of themselves


Kim, Kyong-Jee. “Motivational Influences in Self-Directed Online Learning Environments: A Qualitative Case Study.” Paper presented at the 2004 International Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT). AECT 2004 Annual Proceedings, Volume 1. October 2004.

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