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10 Ways to Beat Learning Motivation Blues

What to do when you’re trying to get people motivated to learn something?

A colleague and I were just teaching a 2-day class for adults in a large organization. They are all trainers or training evaluators, and we were teaching them how to use a new rubric for evaluating instructors. The rubric is based on evidence-based practices for helping people learn.

Doesn’t this sound like a topic that would be of interest to this audience? Don’t most training people love to learn more about training?

08-30 Blue Flowers
Photo © Jeanne Farrington

Well, yes, usually, but this situation was a little different. It turns out that:

  1. 90% of our learners are working in training positions because they were assigned there, not because they chose to be there.
  2. Assignment to training in their organization is temporary, so they aren’t that excited about investing a lot of effort to learn more about it.
  3. Working in training is seen as an interruption that slows a person’s career down.
  4. About half of our learners were told to show up and take this course, but they had no idea what it would be about. No one said a word about why they’d want to take this class or how it would help them or the organization.
  5. The last day of class was the day before a 4-day weekend, so our class was the last thing between our learners and freedom. Everyone else was leaving early that day.

What you have here is a basic motivation nightmare. How were we going to get these folks to pay attention and invest mental effort? Rescheduling was out of the question, so we had to move forward. (And, by the way, the training these people do, whether they want to do it or not, is really important.)

Here are 10 suggestions to help increase motivation for learners. This is not an exhaustive list, but we found that these actions were helpful:

  1. Early “I want to learn this” Statements. Introduce the course, its purpose, and the context and rationale for what they’re learning. Once they have an idea of what the course is about and why it could be important to them and the organization, ask each one to say what they hope to get out of the class. They’ll come up with something, and it will be a toe-hold for starting to build and sustain motivation. If possible, post a list of their learning goals and refer to them, as appropriate, during the class.
  2. Highlight Benefits and Risks. All through the class, make sure it’s obvious why we care about this topic or that one. Get them to volunteer why something is important, what happens if it’s done well, and what the risks are if it’s not.
  3. Teach by Walking Around. If they’re hardly going through the motions during a practice exercise, walk around (even more than usual), observe, and get involved. You can say something like, “The reason I’m walking around is so that you can ask questions if you need help. I see that some of you haven’t started to write answers to the exercise.” Stop and help someone who is lagging to get started.
  4. Frequent Breaks. Try 50 minutes on and then a 10-minute break.
  5. Have a “This Matters” Discussion. If, at some point during the class, you see that your learners are mentally checking out, then ask them to come up with reasons why doing their jobs well is important. Maybe someone will say something like, “Because we don’t want to look stupid.” And then you can say, “Okay, so we don’t want to look stupid. True! Why else?” And maybe someone will say something like, “Because we should do any job for this organization well, no matter what it is.” And then help them to keep building on the theme of what matters about what they do. Stop when you get to the point where something about the job itself (or at the least, doing their jobs well) has meaning that’s important to them, to others, to their organization, to society.
  6. Individual-to-Group Work. Have them write answers to questions and exercises on their own and then work with a partner or small group to expand on the individual efforts.
  7. Ensure That Everyone Takes a Turn. If they are reporting out on group work or answering questions, make sure as many learners as possible have a chance, over several activities, to speak up or present to the rest of the class.
  8. Add More Knowledge/Performance Checks. Create some questions, have them write down the answers individually, then discuss the right answers. Or have them demonstrate a small piece of what they’re learning to ensure that they’re on the right track.
  9. Ask for 10 Good Suggestions. If you see their interest flagging, have them, on their own, write down some good ideas about the current topic in the class. Tell them that you want to see if they can come up with 10 good suggestions. “Who has one?” Have them raise their hands. They give an idea. If it’s a couple of words and not perfectly clear, have them explain it a little more. Be encouraging. Call on the next person. Visibly count on your fingers until you get to 10. Try to call on 10 different people. Be a little dramatic. Make this fun. Adjust the number of suggestions to fit the moment.
  10. Breaks and Timing. Don’t let those 10-minute breaks stretch to 13 or 15 minutes. If you do, at the next break, they will wander off for even longer. Signal how important you think the class is by being on time, moving things along at a good pace, and generally having as professional an approach as possible. You have to stay engaged and on top of things, especially if they are struggling.

These are just a few things you can try if your learners are struggling to stay motivated. We always want to have engaged learners, but if there’s a big motivation deficit, turn up the volume to encourage learners to invest effort in what they’re learning—even when their hearts are wandering off to a 4-day weekend that they can’t wait to start.

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