Casting the Spell of Learner Motivation

(How Content Writers and Trainers can Weave Magic for the Learners?)

Let me tell you a story from Dan Brown’s novel Angels and Demons, his first book that became famous after The Da Vinci Code took the world by a storm. It is a very small, probably insignificant story in the vast collection of little stories that he has strung together to create the experience; yet, this little story intrigued me. The story begins in the childhood of an extremely intelligent and curious orphan, Vittoria.

Here is the story in my own words…

“Vittoria lay in the rain, feeling the raindrops that fell upon her from the sky, wondering where the next raindrop would fall. The nuns didn’t want the child to remain in the rain, and tried to “motivate” her to come inside by saying that if she didn’t, there would be a very sick child in the orphanage. They failed. But then a young priest Leonardo Vetra came out to lie down by her side, and spoke to her about the falling raindrops. This led to his discovering the potential of this unusually gifted child whom he later adopted. Little Vittoria grew from a precocious child into a genius scientist. This little story would have ended before it had begun, had Leonardo Vetra not “understood” little Vittoria’s curiosity about the falling raindrops.”

I am convinced that this beautiful story is fictional, but the concept of understanding and motivating the audience is not.

The Importance of Motivating the Learner?

Understanding your audience is the first step towards motivating them. If I were to select the single most important factor for the success of any course or training, I would select audience motivation. If you do not have a motivated audience, the richest content may fail; but if your audience is motivated to learn, the most boring of all content could lead to successful trainings. Motivation is the skeleton key – the master key; the key that shall open the doors that lead to the hearts and minds of different audience groups.

This little article is of immense importance for all those who’ve tried to implement all instructional design principles to the letter; yet failed to generate excitement for learning in their audience. The readers who serendipitously stumble upon this article are those who will learn a magic trick. Of course, the trick will need to be perfected through practice. We can learn all the physics and chemistry behind the magician’s skills but to perform magic, we need to practice. Assuming that you will find opportunities to put your magic trick of motivating the audience to learn, this article helps you analyze motivation and learn about its core principle.

Let us begin by understanding motivation.

Motivation - Definition, Explanation, and Examples

Motivation is something that we have all experienced. We’ve all felt this uncontrollable desire to achieve, own, survive, save, give, and so on. Generally speaking, we’ve experienced the “urge to do something in order to achieve something.” Here are a few examples:

  • An urge to learn how to dance – in order to receive the Best Dancer of the Year Award
  • An urge to learn how to type – in order to publish a story
  • An urge to eat – in order to satisfy hunger
  • An urge to read – in order to kill time
  • An urge to read – to converse better in parties

Did you see a glimpse of motivation in the above examples?
I am sure you did, but identifying motivation positively is a bit more than this. We need to pinpoint it. The above examples show us the “trigger for motivation” but not “motivation.”

Let me explain – motivation is not the unfulfilled desire, but the will to act for the removal of the discomfort that the unfulfilled desire causes. When we want something, we experience a void. This void literally pulls at the strings of our hearts, causing us discomfort. How much discomfort an unfulfilled desire causes is probably not quantifiable, nor is there a need to quantify it. However, what we need to recognize is that unfulfilled desires cause discomfort. Some people may be able to take a lot of discomfort, without experiencing the will or the urge to remove the discomfort, while some others may be able to take only a little (discomfort.)

Here are a couple of analogies..

The capacity to take pain varies from one person to another. There are people who cannot stand a small headache, while there are others who can smile through the pain of a broken bone! Their capacities of taking pain vary. Similarly, the capacity of different people to accept the discomfort caused through an unfulfilled desire varies. There are the saints who’ve given up all worldly desires – motivating them for anything material could be a humungous task. Then there are people who cannot sleep in nights because their neighbor bought a Toyota Corolla. These people will appear very highly motivated, to a car-sales man.

As the will to act for removing the discomfort caused by the unfulfilled desire is motivation, and because different levels of discomfort galvanizes different kinds of individuals into action – motivation isn’t a simple phenomenon to understand. Let us look at two main corollaries of the concept:

As each individual is different from another, what may motivate one person may not motivate another.
As each individual begins to feel the discomfort at different levels, even while dealing with a single motivational factor, individuals may respond at different levels.

Practical implementation of motivation is tough! Yet, a very simple trick can infuse life into your trainings and courses.

Think about it.

As a trainer or an instructional designer, if you could ensure that your trainings/courses continually create an inquiry in the learner’s mind (the unfulfilled desire) and you continue to fulfill it, you would’ve motivated your learner to learn! It is simple. At any random point in time, your learner should have an unfulfilled desire (and I would like to underline the term – desire) in his or her mind. At no time, the learner should feel completely satisfied.

Oh yes. I mean it.

The ARCS Model isn't a Motivational Pill - It's a Framework

Don’t look at the ARCS Model of Learner Motivation by John Keller in isolation. Try to understand its intent. Before you satisfy one curiosity, sow the seeds for another – thus ensuring that at any given point in your training time, the learner is on a heady roller coaster; alternating between curiosity and satisfaction of curiosity. If your training or course can achieve this, you can be assured of their attention, and hence of their learning.

A word of caution, which may be unnecessary for many – do make sure that by the time the training ends, your training program or your course has fulfilled all the unfulfilled desires that it had initiated in the learner’s mind! If your training doesn’t douse all the fires that it had set, your audience may feel a bit wired later, and could even say that the training couldn’t meet his or her expectations – quite oblivious to the fact that it was the training that in the first place initiated those expectations!


It is also important that you begin building motivation in your content while you are in the Design phase of ADDIE. If you don't establish what I would like to call the nodes of motivation, early on in the process, you may not be able to build the relevance of your "motivators" with your audience. Such a disconnect is more likely to harm learner motivation than improve it.

Tread carefully, practice gradually, and smile through your training programs/content development assignments. Remember that instructional design principles neither exist nor work in isolation. This is precisely why every theory and model that you come across has to be customized to meet your content’s and your audience’s requirements.

- Author: Shafali R. Anand


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