Designing to Motivate

It can be difficult for learners to stay motivated in an online learning environment, without the support of a teacher or classmates. This article argues that we shouldn’t think of drive and motivation as purely intrinsic traits; instead, a well-designed course should be able to tap into a learner’s personal sense of drive, and motivate the learner with a fun, engaging experience.

Designing to motivate

How do you motivate learners with eLearning? When learning delivery options are being considered, motivation seems to be a sticking point. A good instructor will be able to spot disengaged learners, manage a group’s progress, and keep up the sense of momentum for learners to finish the course. With eLearning, this source of motivation isn’t so obvious: will an online course really be as successful as classroom-based learning if there’s no teacher around to help?

We tend to think of motivation as a personal trait: learners either have an intrinsic sense of drive, or they are fundamentally disengaged. These driven students will be more likely to persist with the course, and to achieve the learning aims; they’ll put a higher level of cognitive effort into each task, and as a result their performance and results will improve faster. In contrast, disengaged students need an external motivator to capture their interest, stimulate inquiry, and guide their motives for learning.

This way of thinking about motivation isn’t really that helpful; nobody is able to sustain their drive without help, no matter how committed they are when they begin, and a great learning environment can only do so much. Instead we need to think about inspiring and maintaining a personal desire to learn, while also providing a satisfying and enjoyable course. Course designers should aim for a more contemporary view of motivation instead; to design a motivating course you need to think about how the learner and the learning environment work together. Motivation doesn’t come from purely internal or external sources, but rather from a combination of the two.

Self-Determination Theory

Self-determination theory, initially developed by psychologists Deici and Ryan, is a theory of motivation which describes this relationship between the learner and the learning environment. The theory argues that there are three particular conditions of experience which contribute greatly to engagement. The first is autonomy; this refers to a person’s desire to experience choice, independence, and psychological freedom during an activity. Autonomy means that a person feels they have some level of control over the task. The second factor is competence; people struggle to stay motivated when they feel overwhelmed by a difficult task. Similarly, learners will become frustrated with tasks that are too easy, and don’t present a challenge. The third factor of self-determination is relatedness; people like to feel connected, that they are being listened to and are receiving responses.

The challenge for eLearning designers is to put these three factors together in such a way that sparks the learners’ intrinsic drive, but ensures that they are also externally motivated by the course. Here are some tips to design courses that motivate your learners:

Design for Confidence

Nothing will frustrate learners faster than a confusing pathway through your course. How does this information relate to the topic? What are the objectives, and where is the lesson going next? Make sure these answers are obvious to your learners: begin each objective with a quick run-through of the expected outcomes. Make sure to include some way-finding markers as you go, such as dropdown menus, and introduce any icons or orientation cues before the lesson begins. It really helps students to give them a map of their position in the lesson pathway, as the structure of the course is a concrete representation of how the information fits together. A high-level view of the course hierarchy will help your learners to grasp the content quickly.



Give your learners a bit of room to make their own way around your course. Tightly-controlled lesson delivery takes away your learners’ independence. An easy way to increase autonomy is to include extra resources or reference material that learners can find when they want; even simple ‘forwards’ and ‘backwards’ buttons give learners the option to repeat material, or skip ahead as they need to. More sophisticated options would be to include interactive elements such as infographics, which allow the learner to discover more in-depth information as they explore. Branching scenarios can really create a sense of both autonomy and relatedness; learners must control their own path through a complex scenario, and each decision they make is immediately rewarded with feedback.



It can be tricky to pitch your course to the level of difficulty that pushes learners’ competence, without overwhelming those who are struggling. Try and aim for some balance: if you set a challenge for learners you’ll really give them a sense of being in control, but it’s important to offer support too. A worked example, or practice with fading help, are great ways to counter struggles and frustration while still keeping the level of challenge high.

Another great way to challenge and motivate students is to include games. Simple steps to gamify your content can make a challenge much more absorbing. Why not put a timer on a routine quiz, to add a little bit of pressure? Or you could include a limit on the number of attempts allowed, illustrated by a lifeline. Badges and leader boards are simple ways to give learners a sense of relatedness—nothing motivates learners like seeing their peers perform better! You could even try a questionnaire to get learners to reflect on their own attitudes; giving control back to the student will give them a feeling of directing the course.


EmotionMotivate your learners by getting them to invest emotion in your course. While this sounds like a lofty aim, simple designs can get your learners to connect their personal experience to your material. Scenarios are a great tool to design an effective and professional course which gives learners control. Your scenarios should relate directly to the learners’ experience, and prompt them to put new knowledge into practice straight away. Complex branching scenarios force learners to make decisions, and provide immediate feedback through consequences. A relevant and engaging scenario will immerse learners in your course, rather than making them passive readers of the content.


People learn by making mistakes. You’ll need to include plenty of opportunities in your course for learners to test their competence, but this can be disheartening for learners who are afraid of getting things wrong. Repeated failure is really demotivating, and it’s difficult to convince these learners to keep going. One way to counteract this problem is to make learners feel that it’s okay to fail in your course. Build in some opportunities for practice which don’t contribute to the overall grade. When learners do fail, give them another try quickly; don’t make them click through pages of content just to return to the same quiz screen.

Try to include a mix of these different tips and techniques in your course; subtle changes, mixed levels of challenge and opportunities to explore will all make sure that learners have to keep thinking, and stop them from getting bored. If learners feel that your lesson is useful and relevant, their own sense of drive will bring them through each lesson; but if you can design a course that stimulates their inquiry, gives them control, and lays down a challenge, then your learners will respond with higher levels of engagement and effort.