You've just launched a shiny new online course! How are your learners engaging with it? Do they feel it's “just another course” they are obligated to take, or does it spark excitement? If you see a lot of eye-rolling or hear sighs of boredom, chances are your online course could do with a little motivational support.
As my dear colleague said, "It's easy to jump on an online course, but it's just as easy to jump off". Obligation is never a good motivator, but every one of us has come across a situation where the only way is to provide compulsory training for certain groups.
So how do you motivate learners and keep them engaged in an online training? Rather than dwell on the philosophical nature of motivation, we've come up with five killer tips to help you better engage learners. Let's jump into it!
1. Find out why they’re motivated to learn
We humans tend to be selfish by nature. That's why we learn best when there’s something "in it" for ourselves.
A learner-centred approach increases motivation for any type of training - whether online or offline. It makes learners feel that the information they receive is not just something to be memorised, but something they can actually apply to their lives.
The key is to connect what you teach to your audiences' previous experiences. This means that the topic is in some way related to their work or otherwise relevant to them. Not just something "random" that people don't even know why they're studying it. Emotions also play an important role in motivation: anything that appeals to our emotions is interesting and engaging.
In her book, Design for How People Learn, Julie Dirksen stresses the importance of learning objectives. When designing any kind of training, you have (1) a problem to solve, (2) the people to solve it, and (3) a clear goal to achieve. Right?
So before you start solving the problem with training, you should first understand what the problem actually is (hint: training is not always the only solution). Don't set targets until you have identified at least:
- Why does your audience need information on this particular subject and how will their behaviour change as a result? In other words; what specific things will your learners be able to do after training, and why?
- How do you know if they've learned this?
- What happens if they don't learn this?
By asking the right questions, you can identify a measurable, specific and useful objective for your learners.
2. Your learners want autonomy - Give it to them!
Adults want to feel like independent human beings, capable of making complex and important decisions. This also applies to learning.
Taking away the freedom of choice can destroy learner's motivation. An engaging online course allows learners to choose and make decisions along the way. By allowing learners to make choices, you give them a sense of control, not just force-feed them information.
The simplest example of this is course navigation: are learners allowed to navigate the course freely and choose the content they want (in the order they want), or are they forced to go through every single piece of content before they are allowed to move on?
In an online environment, you can use branching scenarios to create simulated events or assign content to different difficulty levels. Creating personalized learning paths adds flexibility to the learning process and makes learning more meaningful. You can also provide learners with different ways to demonstrate their skills and return assignments, such as videos, blogs or pictures.
As I mentioned at the beginning, obligation is never a good motivator. Forcing learners to go through the material can have a negative impact on their willingness to learn. So ask yourself, are there really compelling reasons to force people to learn?
3. Enhance motivation with meaningful challenges
One of the biggest mistakes I see organisations make is underestimating people's current knowledge or their ability to solve complex problems. Put simply: learners need more challenges and less childish "lecturing ".
Many of the courses I see organisations making are simply too easy and obvious. They don’t add any real value to the learner, nor do they challenge people to think more deeply. Allowing people to solve problems increases engagement and leads to more profound learning outcomes.
However, it’s worth pointing out that it’s just as important to avoid producing too challenging content. Finding the right balance is the key here: if the content is too challenging, learners may find it distressing, while content that’s too easy may seem tedious. In online learning, a “one size fits all” approach rarely works. Finding the right difficulty level requires a deep understanding of your target audience.
4. Use social learning to your advantage
Collaboration is a vital skill for people of all ages and can be practised through discussions, teamwork or group projects.
Interaction between learners creates a sense of community, and community makes learning more interesting and fun. Being able to discuss what people have learned makes learning active. It helps us share knowledge and reflect with our peers, which in turn helps us to find solutions more effectively.
Discussions and collaboration help learners to put what they learn into context. So when producing content, we should consider whether the learner's role is to be a passive "reader" or to learn together with others.
A supportive and collaborative learning community helps learners to acquire and use knowledge. Although we often study the material alone in an online course, we don't usually carry out our learnings in complete isolation from others. At its best, community helps create a sense of belonging that keeps learners engaged and motivates them to work persistently.
5. Grab learner's attention
To have any chance of engaging learners, an online course must capture the learner’s attention. The formula is relatively simple: 1) capture attention, 2) capture interest, 3) maintain interest. This is usually achieved through rich and engaging content. So how about adding visuals, interactivity and media elements to your online course?
Carefully selected images improve the overall attractiveness of the course. In order to appeal to learners, images should be high-quality, visually appealing and, above all, relevant to the chosen topic. In addition, choose a layout that makes the overall appearance of the course look clear and concise. No one wants to join a course that looks confusing and cluttered!
Interactivity is another great tool for motivation (if used correctly). Interaction can be between learners and the trainer or between the learner and the learning environment. Especially in a self-paced course, the interaction between learner and the learning environment is emphasised. Use activities that allow you to provide immediate feedback. In general, activities should be selected to best match the overall learning process.
Keep it simple. You've probably heard this saying before, but it's true! In her book, The Accidental Instructional Designer, Cammy Bean points out that too much clicking can distract learners. Just because your LMS allows you to create "drag and drop" activities doesn't mean that your learners will want to do so.
Videos, podcasts, animations: all of these can generate and sustain interest because they tend to be engaging and move learning forward. The combination of a relevant image, well-written text and a friendly voice can play a key role to motivating and engaging learners with the course material.
"I have to learn" vs "I want to learn"
In a nutshell: motivated learners are more likely to engage in challenging tasks, participate actively and even enjoy learning. So give learners a good reason to participate in training and encourage them to take action.
Remember also to take into account different skill levels and create both visually appealing and rich content. This will ensure that learners have the best chance of staying engaged on your course! 🙋♀️