Skip to content

You Want Me to Learn What? The Rhetoric of the Rationale

Adults especially, (but kids also) want a reason why they should attend to learning something new.

The motivation is over here.
The reason we’re learning this is over this way.

We use a short rationale at the beginning of a course, a module, a lesson, a key activity, as needed, to help spark motivation for learning. Without motivation, our learners will not invest enough effort or be engaged enough to learn.

Even if the participants show up eager to learn a new skill, parts of it (for example, the policies, regulations, or safety features) may generate less enthusiasm.

Especially if the training is mandated, there’s a (spoken or unspoken) question like this:

  • What’s in it for me? Or…
  • Why the heck are you making me sit through this?

So, let’s look at the rationale for a minute.

There are two basic ways to go about providing a rationale:

  1. Instructor Provided. Here’s why we’re learning about X today….
  2. Learner Provided. Tell me, why does learning about X matter?

Either way, the presentation of or conversation about the rationale may take somewhere between 30 seconds and 5 minutes.

Sounds so simple. But it requires knowing your audience, and remembering that different people care about different things.

Elements of a Rationale

Here are some potential elements to consider when constructing a good rationale:

  • Who. What we’re learning is good for… you, your team, the organization, the environment, society.
  • Self-Interest. You will be able to save time, make more money, be more likable, feel healthier, live longer, enhance your reputation, reach the top of your field, if you learn to.…
  • Logic. If we learn how to do this, then X, Y, or Z will happen. This will be good for the following reasons….
  • Emotion. Appeal to your participants’ feelings. For example, When your buddy is injured and you suddenly have to get him or her to safety, then you’re going to want to know how to do this carry.
  • Authority. Our CEO is expecting all of us to learn this and to make it happen.
  • Let Me Tell You. I’ve been there before. Pay careful attention to this next part. If you can get this right, then… (This only works if you have established personal credibility in the subject.)

Presenting Your Rationale

And here are a few ways to convey a rationale:

  • Simple Statement. Point out the good reason(s) for learning.
  • Dialogue. Invite and build on good reason(s) for learning from the participants.
  • Story. Tell a story that illustrates the good things that can happen when people possess the knowledge or skills that these participants are about to learn (or the bad things than happen without them).
  • Leader Kick-Off. Invite a high-ranking or well-respected person to kick off the session (can be live, via video or audio, or even a written quote).
  • Video. Use a short, introductory video to show why we should care. Be sure to set it up and to follow up with statements and/or a discussion that connect the video with participants’ values and concerns.
  • Best Practices Activity. Invite participants to list the top three to seven benefits they’ve observed when people are able to do what they’re about to learn. For a coaching class, for example, you might ask, “What are the three most important benefits of having a manager with good coaching skills? “

There are any number of ways to create a rationale. My favorites involve the active creation of “Why do I care?” from the participants themselves.

Although usually short in duration, the rationales we provide or draw out from our participants play a key role in capturing their attention and inviting them to fully participate in learning. We know that people learn only if they invest effort, and to get that process started, it helps to ensure a motivating rationale.

Disclosure: Some links on this site are “affiliate links,” which means that I may receive a small commission if you click on the link and purchase something.