Motivation problems: How to get your audience to care about your learning (5 strategies)

Let’s face it, most of the desired outcomes for our learning efforts are for people to stop, start or change actions or behaviors. We’re asking them one of the hardest things: to change habits. We mostly try to do this by throwing learning content at them. A fix? Not always.


Especially not when people already get it, but just aren’t acting on this understanding. So here’s our guide to tackling the motivation problem, the elephant that may be standing between you and your goals.

Do we always face-up to the motivation problem?


During a learning design workshop we ran this week, we discussed what questions to ask at the start of a project. “What performance or behavior change is needed?” Yep, absolutely. “Who’s the target audience and what’s their world like?” Great. “Why does the performance or behavior gap exist?” Amazing – yes! But how often is this last one really asked? And what do you do when you find out that the audience knows they ought to do something, but just aren’t?

News flash: You may have a motivation or habit-changing problem on your hands.

I meant to go for a run this morning. I know I should have. I know it’s good for me. But I didn’t. I started looking at my emails, and then I got sucked into work. Bad habits took over. Slippers replaced trainers.

My problem wasn’t one of learning why to run or how to run. I know those things. I needed something else to spur me on. Some motivation, yes, but also, some help breaking my pattern.

It happens that one of the emails that sucked me in included the Inside Learning Technologies Magazine. Inside, there was a great article from Julie Dirksen on “Diagnosing barriers to behavior change.” In it, she outlines 7 reasons why we may not do something that we know is good to do, like saving money or daily flossing. But there’s also a more serious case study used: getting healthcare professionals to wash their hands in line with health guidelines, where there’s a mere 70% compliance rate. The article unravels why this might be.

Spur me to run? Actually, no. But with my workshop conversation still spinning around my head, the article struck a chord. It inspired me to put down some ideas for how and why you can help close the motivation gap, and work with your audience to build new habits.

But is this really a learning design problem?

 Let’s face it, most of the desired outcomes for our learning design efforts are just this: we’re asking people to stop, start or change certain actions or behaviors. This includes having them:

  • Follow a new process (not the old process), to get products to customers more quickly
  • Change certain steps to be safer at work – stopping common, but risky, behaviors that could have terrible consequences
  • Stop doing so many tasks, and start delegating those that can be done by others, to help new managers be more effective (and avoid burn-out)

So, we would argue that we’re mostly in the business of asking people to change habits. Incidentally, this is one of the hardest things to do.

Why is it hard? Because you have to unlearn before you can learn…

Ever notice how it’s more tiring to take on a new challenge than to do the same old thing?

Ways of working or behaving are often deeply and unconsciously entrenched in us. Take driving – the example Julie Dirksen references for her point on “unlearning.” It’s harder to learn to drive on the opposite side of the road than it is to drive our cars from A to B every day. “Normal” driving behaviors are built into us, over years of practice – to unlearn an aspect of this takes conscious effort and energy.

Read Stella Collin’s Neuroscience for Learning and Development, and you’ll understand how hard it is to switch your brain habits. It’s difficult to transition from firing a well-established neural pathway you’ve been using for months or years to firing up a new, weaker pathway. To get the brain to recognize a new skill or behavior requires extra concentration and reactivity from the brain, triggering stress hormones and drawing energy.

How do you get the change to stick? Only through continued practice and use will the new pathway become stronger. The challenge is to get it strong enough to stop someone from slipping back into the old, easier ways of behaving.

A single-page “attention grabber” at the front of your elearning module isn’t going to get you far enough. So try these techniques:

1. Provide social proof with polls and stats

What if we told you that after watching our video report, 62% of people agreed to change how they shop for groceries?

This is fabricated (no video, no report). But we do sit up when we see, hear, or read about what others are up to. While we all like to think we are independent thinkers, set apart from the crowd, research shows we are very much influenced by what others think and do. We tend to follow the crowd, even when we don’t realize that this is what we’re doing.

While we might not always admit it, or consciously know it, we look for acceptance from others; it’s called social proof, and Julie Dirksen cites it as one of the seven barriers. We’ve previously reported on the power of social proof and peers’ opinions on influencing people to change.

Where polls come in

Use social polls to influence your learning audience to make a change. In this OU Finding the Truth game, created in Elucidat, users vote on whether they believe someone is guilty or not guilty of a crime. When provided with further evidence, they are asked to vote again.


Elucidat captures and displays results live (these were live at the time of writing this post). As you can see, the majority of people decided that, in fact, the candidate was not guilty. So if you still think he’s guilty, you’re in the minority. This is bound to make you re-think, re-visit – or, at the very least, intrigue you to try out the next topic to see what happens.

Top tips:

  • Use polls to tap into crowd wisdom by asking experienced users to vote on which tool, action or behavior they would most recommend in a given situation. Share the results via clips, and the group consensus may well spur your learners to do the same or at least check it out.
  • Display the poll results upfront to draw people in. Clips enables you to show some data wherever you like. So why not show the results of a social poll upfront on your menu to draw users in? For example, will they agree with peers or the expert?


  • Tap into FOMO (fear of missing out) by displaying other people’s achievements or commitments. Capture what others have done or intend to do via built-in polls and survey questions. Display the results via clips and give users the fear of missing out, making them feel like they’d better jump on the bandwagon.
  • Use Links and Rules to trigger some adaptive learning, targeted at those who are intrigued by a crowd-sourced answer or those who vote a certain way. It could be examples that try to change their mind, or – because you now know more about the context and challenges they face – an action plan made for them.

2. Dish up the dopamine

How else can you help your brain make the switch? A helping of dopamine, says Stella Collins. We’re addicted to it. It makes us feel good. And you get it from rewards.

Of course, you can do this via badges, scores, and certificates as we show here from an Elucidat Sales training example.


But to really hit home, also consider how you bring in rewards tied to peer and manager acknowledgements (social proof), real-world achievements (i.e. number of sales closed) and perhaps some personal rewards such as “feeling less stressed” or “better managing my workload.”

Top tip:

  • Use personalization and reflective learning to help learners evaluate personal rewards. If you can tap into what motivates people to change, you can then help them keep track of how that’s going for them, and help them build up a record of achievements. Read on for more!

3. Empower and personalize

In her article, Julie Dirksen puts lack of autonomy and ownership as one of the seven barriers to behavior change. So, building in personalization and ownership over how someone will put learning into action is key. Here’s how you can do it:

Help someone understand their strengths and gaps

Create smart diagnostics to help profile someone, and report on their strengths, gaps and opportunities, as we do here in this Leadership example.


You can then recommend some learning topics, triggered by the results, that will help them and let them choose. We cover more about how to do this in our related article on personalization.

Top tip:

  • Build social proof into the mix by displaying how someone’s profile compares with others who’ve completed the same diagnostic. We show you how to bring in comparative stats in our behind-the-scenes guide to our pudding game.


“7% of people chose the same decoration as you.” In Elucidat, you can use clips to display live results. These include how many others agree with your answers, as shown here in our pudding game.

Let people create their own development plan

Show your users lots of examples, provide some pointers, but don’t tell them what to do next. Instead, as they work through each topic, let them write the key action they could do to make a positive difference in that area. At the end, present them back to learners as a cohesive, totally personal action plan.


This is an example of a personal “action plan” page created in Elucidat. Elucidat’s clips functionality lets you replay this data back to learners in any format you like – so you can group “actions” entered by learners under certain headings and link them to “how-tos.”

Top tips:

  • Show before and after results for a great sense of personal achievement. Why not ask learners to rate their own confidence or competence in key areas via survey questions upfront, then ask them again at key points through their learning journey? You can display the before and after results, much like the Finding the Truth game does, so they can see personal improvements and changes.
  • Create a learning diary using the open-input function. Ask learners to document their achievements and challenges experienced throughout their learning journey. You can then play back just how much they’ve done, but also give coaches access to the reports via Analytics.

4. Capture feedback

Lack of feedback and tangible incentives to change behaviors are another two barriers listed by Julie Dirksen. Many organizations are shifting to 360 degree reviews, where employees give feedback on each others’ performances as well as the manager’s. Since we care what others’ think (see social proof above), this is a great way to reward and motivate change.

But doing it just once a year won’t be enough. It needs to be much more regularly to get those neural pathways changing!

You can use Elucidat as a survey tool to capture feedback from users on all kinds of subjects. You can then choose to display the results back to users:


Or, keep them private and access them via your Analytics dashboards:


Top tip:

  • Trigger learning from the feedback. There’s no point getting feedback if it doesn’t lead to action. If managers have lower scores in certain areas, serve up some micro-learning challenges and expert guides that will help them build their skills in those areas.

5. Make it easy – remove other barriers to change

It may be that the reason why employees may not be undertaking a desired action is wider than their own brain re-wiring. Is it hard to do because of an environmental factor? Does it feel like too much of a jump from the present situation to implement? Do managers not support the change?

You may need to look at the wider picture to help unblock any extra barriers.

In terms of your learning content, however, a big message we can take from Julie Dirksen’s article is to make the new behavior easy. Or, at least, start easy and build up from there.

Split up your final call to action pages into some simple sections:

  • Short term: One really easy action they can do today that will make a big difference
  • Long term: An action plan to work on over the next 4 to 12 weeks (ideally, one they’ve created themselves)

Then, go one step at a time

You can use micro-learning techniques and personalized challenges, which respond to how an individual is doing, to build competency and practice up over time.


Top tip:

Final thoughts

Delve deeper with your questions at the start of a project to find out why people aren’t doing what you’re being asked to help them do. If you know there’s a behavioral shift needed, don’t rely on standard learning content (the what and the how) or one hit wonders (one module or workshop then nothing more) to make the leap – not for the long term, anyhow.

Building in techniques that incentivize and help form new habits over time is the key to any effective learning project. Especially when the true measure of workplace learning is performance output.

Factor in social learning and other approaches, such as mentoring and action-learning meet-ups, to your strategy to help sustain and strengthen the learning curve – beyond purely digital interventions.

Next step? Read these articles: 

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