By: Karla Gutierrez

Print this Page

July 5th, 2016

Designing for Motivation: Three Theories eLearning Designers Can Use

eLearning | Instructional & Graphic Design

Motivation. The word is bandied about too much these days. An entire body of literature has sprung up around it. There are coaches who teach people how to cultivate motivation. There are websites, courses, seminars, and workshops to teach the how-to's, the wherefores, and the what-ifs of motivation. 

So first,  let's address what is motivation? And why should you care about it as an eLearning professional?

What is Motivation?

Simply stated, motivation is what people WANT to do, CHOOSE to do, and COMMIT to do. Motivation is the WHY that makes people do what they do. It is the WHY that makes people choose an object or a goal over another and forego something pleasurable to pursue his object of desire.

You can spot a motivated person from a distance. Apart from the proverbial glint in his eyes, his choices, actions, focus, and perseverance point to a strong inner urge that drives him/her.

As an eLearning designer, you want your learners to be motivated about taking a training program and keep alive the motivation throughout the course.

The Importance of Motivation in Learning

Go back to the time when you were in school. There was always some subject that you found more engrossing than the others. Whether it was because of Miss O’Neil or how the textbooks transported you to a world of wonder, you eagerly looked forward to the classes, prepared your lessons on time, and even went the extra mile to go to public library and pick up new information. You usually scored well in this subject.

Motivation is critical to achieve effective learning. Unfortunately, it is hard to achieve if you cannot address the WHY of the learner. To compound matters, adults are notoriously short of motivation. The curious child of yesterday—the one who never stopped asking questions and wanted to explore and find out for himself—grows up to become a skeptic adult, uninterested in learning new skills and loathe to implement newly-acquired knowledge in practical scenarios. 

The challenge for eLearning designers is to create and cultivate motivation in learners.

Motivation Theories

Knowing what drives people to learn is crucial to create high engagement levels in your eLearning courses. Psychologists and scientists have developed three theories to help explain the way the human mind works. As eLearning professionals, we should apply them to create courses that inspire and persuade people to move forward and complete the required tasks.

Let’s look at the basic tenets of these motivation theories:


1) Flow Theory

Being in the flow is the ultimate manifestation of intrinsic motivation, according to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. It is that state of intense focus when you are so absorbed in the work at hand that you forget the passage of time. You forget to eat. You forget to sleep. Musicians, actors, sportsmen, and writers are familiar with these moments when they are in the zone. Perhaps you too recognize these moments too.

In eLearning, being in the flow happens when the learner is fully and voluntarily engaging with the course and can control the pace and flow of the learning according to his/her needs and preferences. Being in a state of flow maximizes the effectiveness of every training activity. Higher engagement levels aid retention, comprehension, recall, and transfer. When learners are able to lose themselves in the learning, they can effortlessly overcome challenges and master skills. 

Here’s how you can help learners ease into a state of flow:

  • Specify the tasks clearly. Explain what they have to do without leaving any room for doubt. This not only helps learners perform the task efficiently but also establishes the relevance of the task concerning  the overarching learning objective. 
  • Provide feedback. Instant straightforward and direct feedback helps learners advance through the tasks. Feedback ensures that they can learn from their mistakes, if any, right then. Feedback also boosts the confidence of the person; he/she feels safe that he is doing great. 
  • Balance challenges with learner ability and time. According to the Flow theory, optimal learning takes place when there is a perfect balance between the level of difficulty of the task and the skill level of the learner. Csíkszentmihályi emphasizes the importance of this correlation. If the task is too easy or if information is presented too slowly, the learner feels bored and may feel that the course is not going anywhere. There is also a feeling of stagnancy that is demotivating. If the tasks are impossibly challenging, the learner loses motivation and feels he is not capable of acquiring the skills taught in the course. 
  • Provide learner control. Adults want to have control over their environment. You will keep them happy and motivated if you let them wield control over the pace and flow of the course. For instance, in gamified eLearning courses, you can let them choose tactics and strategies. In simpler courses, you can let them skip content or move back and forth between modules. 
  • Provide consistency: Consistent formatting and a “look and feel” that feels cohesive all throughout allows learners to quickly understand the course format, assignments, and requirements. 
  • Minimize distractions. Minimize distractions so that learners can focus on the learning journey. Do not include content or graphical elements that disrupt the natural flow, cause clutter, or create ambiguity.

2) Self-Determination Theory  

You want your learners to approach your eLearning course as the training they WANT to take, and NOT something that they are being made to go through.  Right? You want your learners to be motivated, NOT indifferent to the learning. You want focused, willing learners who are driven by some innate urge to take your course. Truth is self-motivated participants absorb and internalize learning much more efficiently than those who approach a training program with skepticism, unwillingness, and apathy.

The Self-Determination Theory focuses on human being’s natural tendencies and psychological needs. It deals with three basic psychological needs: Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness. These basic psychological needs are familiar to people across culture, gender, and profession. Fulfilling these needs facilitates self-growth and promotes well-being. 

You can apply the tenets of this theory to create courses that appeal to the basic needs of your learners and let them respond according to their innate tendencies. Here’s how to address these psychological needs, so your eLearning courses are well received and eagerly taken.


Freedom is a fundamental urge of human beings. Your audience will be more eager to read your content when they feel assured that they will have the rein in their hands. They will be more responsive to your content when they know that they have the freedom to make choices. 

  • Free-Play Navigation: Your learners can move back and forth between topics and modules if you don’t lock down navigation. They can even skip content.
  • Choose Your Lessons: Let people choose what they want to learn. Let them explore how they can achieve their learning goals; design a course that provides more than one way to fulfill the learning objectives.
  •  Optional Additional Learning: Includes supplementary learning modules that students have the freedom to take or not take. Make sure that you indicate upfront that these modules are additional learning matter and that not taking them will not hinder them from fulfilling the objectives of the course.
  • Ability to Re-access Modules: This ensures learners can revisit modules in future whenever they wish to. Repetition reinforces the learning and cement knowledge. 
  • Choose Your Own Adventure: This is most applicable in gaming courses. Let learners choose their own strategies and play the game in the way they like. 


Adults want to feel valued in the workplace. They are always on the lookout for opportunities to learn new skills and hone existing ones. They want to be able to complete efficiently challenging tasks appropriate to their job roles, make sound decisions, and feel confident in the knowledge that they are doing what they are supposed in the best possible manner.

As an eLearning designer, you have to instill this confidence in your learners. You have to not only develop their competency but also make them believe that they are confident. Would you be motivated to carry on with your lessons if you didn’t believe that you were doing a good job of it?

Competency leads to confidence. Confidence lets learners apply the knowledge to solve their real-life problems. Here are some ideas to help you create courses that help encourage these feelings:

  • Create a scaffolding learning pattern. This instructional strategy ensures that learners build upon their knowledge and develop their skills slowly and gradually till they attain mastery. This ensures that they are never overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge they have to absorb at any given point in time.
  • Create appropriate challenges. Create challenges that are appropriate for the abilities of the learners.
  • Provide feedback. Provide learners with detailed feedback that will help them understand their shortcomings and improve their skills. Provide positive feedback that will make them feel confident and encourage them to give their best.
  • Implement the Show-Do model. Include simulations and guided practices to let learners practice their newly-acquired skills in the safe virtual environment. Practice makes perfect!


We all want to belong and experience the deep pleasure and satisfaction of caring for others. The idea of relatedness is rooted in man’s innate longing to feel connected. As an eLearning designer, you should design courses that connect learners to other participants, for instance in an online learning community.

Here are some ideas you can use to make your course feel more "social": 

  • Use the word “we” to give learners the confidence that they are on the same journey as others.
  • Use avatars to infuse a personal touch. Avatars help people immerse themselves in the content.
  • Provide access to social media where course participants can befriend like-minded souls and form a lasting bond based on shared interests and passions.
  • Design interactivities to incorporate peer interactions. Forums and discussion boards help learners interact with people with the same goals and aspirations as he has and are in the same boat as he is.

3) Path-Goal Theory

The Path-Goal Theory is based on the basic human tendency to follow examples set by others. We all have our favorite sportsmen whose grit we admire. We have our role models whose courage and tenacity we try to emulate. In a learning environment, who better than the trainer or the eLearning designer to BE the motivation that learners will want to learn from? 

This theory, developed by psychologist Robert House in 1971 and later refined in 1996, lays down the principles of how leaders spur followers to action. The foundation of it is the belief that learner’s motivation and consequently, his/her performance is heavily influenced by the behavior of the instructor. 

You might be wondering how all this is related to eLearning design. Well, there are four essential behaviors related to the Path-Goal theory and eLearning:

  • Directive: The eLearning course should provide clear instructions, set norms, and establish measurable learning objectives. Letting learners know what to expect is key. We already have talked about the problem of failing to deliver what’s promised.
  • Supportive: The course should provide different levels of support from online instructors, it should be approachable and user-friendly.
  • Participative: Design a course so that there are different types of interactions (instructor to student, student to student and student to content).
  • Achievement-oriented: It should challenge learners to do their best and provides confidence that learners can achieve end goals.

The above-mentioned motivation theories peek into the minds of your learners and lay bare their expectations so that you can create eLearning courses with different flavors.

Further Readings:

visual design elearning kit

Click me



Design and Development of Training Games: Practical Guidelines from a Multi-Disciplinary Perspective, by Cambridge University Press 2013

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) – July 1, 2008

Applying The Flow Theory In Online Training

3 Basic Needs for Inspiring Motivation in eLearning

Flow In eLearning: How To Create A Flow In An eLearning Course?

The Self-Determination Theory In Online Training: A Practical Guide

When Does the Path-Goal Theory Work?

Applying The Path-Goal Theory In Leadership Online Training Courses 

About Karla Gutierrez

Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT.

  • Connect with Karla Gutierrez