A deeper look at motivation

If you're creating an online course, you're probably concerned with a few things: engagement, completion rates, learner results--and motivation.

A few months back, I wrote about ways to motivate your learners. That article touched on a few motivation tactics, but motivation is much more complex.

In fact, motivation is the key to helping students get results.

All motivation isn't created equal

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this, but there are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsically motivated learners are self-starters. They're stoked about your course topic and look forward to diving in. They don’t need a reason to complete the coursework other than their interest.

On the other hand, extrinsically motivated learners don’t have that built-in excitement. They’re taking your course as a means to an end. 

You’re going to have both types of learners in your course and you need to know how to teach both groups. 

This is absolutely something that I'm still learning to navigate in my own courses, so don't worry if you struggle in this area. Here's some insight to help.

Working with Intrinsically Motivated Learners

When it comes to intrinsic learners, you don’t have to push them. They’re excited to do the work, they don’t mind if things aren’t perfect, and they are quick to share their results or help others.

When you teach intrinsic learners, you want to harness this energy. Make sure you stay on top of communications. Give them an outlet to share and connect.

Here are a few suggestions:

Have an online forum

Forums give intrinsically motivated learners a way to share their wins, ask questions, or research solutions to problems. It’s a simple way to help them take action.

Leverage top learners as mentors

As your course becomes more popular, you’ll see an increase in admin and questions. One way to harness the energy of your intrinsic learners and reduce your admin is to promote top students to a mentor role, giving them the opportunity to help other students. This also gives them a chance to stay involved in a community they care about.


For example, Brennan Dunn uses mentors in his program, Double Your Freelance Academy. They’re all former students or colleagues who’ve learned from him.


Sarah Selecky also uses mentors in her writing program, The Story Intensive, hiring graduates of her writing course to help new students.


Working with Extrinsically Motivated Learners

This is probably where most of your learners will be. (One exception is artistic or creative topics. They tend to attract more intrinsic learners.) That means part of your job as a course creator is to know how to keep extrinsic motivated learners interested in continuing. 

Here are some ways to do that:

Focus on the desired result

More than anyone, extrinsic learners want to achieve a result so they can move on to something else. Find out what the ‘something else’ is because chances are a lot hinges on it. If you can remind them how your course will get them closer to that result, you'll keep them going. 

Identify learning obstacles

Some learning obstacles will be internal, i.e. "I’d rather watch Game of Thrones," but not always. These learners may have work or family pressures that take priority over your course.

Skills can be another obstacle, especially when it comes to technology. Your students may not be have the tech skills to complete the lessons. 

The point is, you need to know what obstacles may hinder motivation and build in flexibility within your course to overcome them.

For example, Halley Gray gives her students a year of access to Be Booked Out, because she knows they’re running businesses while taking the course and may need extra time.


Connect to the real world

One of the best ways to keep extrinsically motivated learners interested is to connect your content to real-world problems they can relate to. If they can see themselves in a situation, they’ll begin to see the value and develop some intrinsic motivation towards finishing the lesson.

What to do with Dry + lengthy Content

Some teachers are REALLY good at creating engaging, humorous content that keeps people glued to their computers. Others, not so much. Don't worry, just keep it short and spicy.

Keep Dry Content Short

If you have content that’s background info or theory, focus on the essentials. Do people need to know about the history of color theory to design a logo or is there a short version that will still get them the info they need?

Spice up Lengthy media 

When it comes to media, everyone has an opinion on length. I say, it depends.

Extrinsically motivated learners are less likely to watch a 35 minute tutorial, so break that baby up into shorter segments. When it comes to audio, however, learners often multi-task, so length isn’t as big of a deal.

More importantly, spice up your media.

  • Use text callouts in your videos.

  • Provide audio files for people to listen to on the go.

  • Add intros and recaps for people who skim/ scan.

  • Insert interactive quizzes using Camtasia or Vizia.

You get the idea.

Back to You

These are just a few ways to work with learners who have different motivation levels. How do you keep your students motivated? 

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