Understanding why learners take your course can help you keep them engaged.

If you’ve recently created a course and are trying to get new learners to sign up, or if you’ve found yourself struggling to engage learners after they’ve enrolled, then you’ve probably spent a lot of time thinking about two key questions: Why do learners take my course? And how can I motivate them to keep going?

Motivation is the key to almost every successful learning program out there. Without motivated learners, growing your online course is an uphill battle. Some educators view motivation as outside of their control—something their learners either have or don’t have. But if you understand learner motivations, you can talk to learners in ways that trigger those motivations, inspiring them to keep going.

There are two broad types of motivations: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation comes from within, whereas extrinsic motivations are those that come from without. While I tend to believe intrinsic motivations are stronger and more long-lasting, this isn’t always the case. As we’ll see, there are different kinds of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and their pull can wax and wane over time. Let’s take a closer look.

1. Extrinsic: Incentive

The most straightforward extrinsic motivation is through an incentive. If learners receive some kind of reward for taking your course—and for doing well—then they’re more likely to stick with it. Incentives are commonly monetary—a raise, for instance—but they can also come in the form of some other prize or reward.

A learner who is motivated only by incentives will stop taking your course as soon as the incentive goes away. But incentives can often come on top of other motivations. For instance, a learner may want to take your course, but has a hard time justifying it in the midst of other obligations. An incentive can be enough for them to reprioritize where they put their time.

2. Extrinsic: Fear

Fear-based motivations sound very negative at first, but they aren’t necessarily. For instance, a learner may be motivated to take your compliance course for fear that their company will fail an audit, but their reward for having taking your course is the security of knowing they have met all their requirements.

Similarly, a learner may be motivated by fear to sign up for self defense courses, but having taken those courses, they leave feeling empowered. In other words, while the motivation of the learner might be fear, the positive thing your course provides is security and reassurance.

3. Extrinsic: Power

Speaking of empowerment, many learners sign up for courses because they want the ability to change something about the world around them. Maybe they want to become environmental activists, but they need a certain certification before they can do field work. Your course gives them the power to do so.

Another common example lies in the workplace. If an employee wants a promotion, they might take management training. There are obvious salary incentives at play, but gaining a position of authority is also a motivation.

4. Extrinsic: Social

How many of us have signed up for a course because we had to, but stayed because of he social connections we’ve made? I know I have. The social bonds formed by a community are some of the most powerful motivations out there, and they can completely transform a learner’s experience of your course.

Social motivations are also a great example of an external motivation that is every bit as compelling as an internal one. After all, there’s a reason social media is such a major influencer. People like sharing their successes.

5. Intrinsic: Competence

The first of our intrinsic motivations is competence—or, the sheer love of learning for its own sake. Many people are simply natural-born learners. They like acquiring new skills and knowledge, and they will continue to do so without much outside prodding. You just need to make sure your course helps them toward their goals and doesn’t get in their way.

The downside of this motivation is that learners are more likely to drop your course if they fall into a rut and become discouraged. If competence is the main motivator of your learners, take extra care to support them during any slump.

6. Intrinsic: Achievement

Achievement-oriented learners are more task-driven than those who are in it purely for learning’s sake. Similar to learners who are motivated by an external incentive, these learners want something very specific, and are probably tracking goals and milestones toward achieving it.

For instance, they might want to run a marathon, and have signed up to your training class in preparation. No one is making them run, and they probably aren’t thinking about running as a thing they need to be better at—they just want to cross “run a marathon” off their bucket list. That’s a strong enough intrinsic motivation for anyone to work with.

7. Intrinsic: Creativity

Many of us have felt the need for a creative outlet at different points in our life. As a motivation, find a new form of creative expression can be even more fulfilling than mere curiosity or the desire to cross an item off a list.

Your learners may not need to become very good at whatever they’re learning to find fulfillment. Plenty of people become artists without every desiring to show anyone else their work, for example. But the desire to cultivate a form of creative expression pushes them on nonetheless.

8. Intrinsic: Attitude

Finally, some people are motivated by their desire to change the way they perceive the world. They want to learn more about others, grow in self-understanding, or help others change their perspectives. Or maybe it just makes them feel good!

For instance, if you’re leading a course on interracial relations, self-help, or cognitive behavioral therapy, these would all be examples of courses strongly influenced by attitude motivations.

Building motivation in your learners will increase the positive feelings they have about taking your course.

The underlying reasons behind way learners take courses are varied, and they may change over time. A learner may start taking a course because of some external incentive, but continue with further courses because they enjoy the feeling of improved competency. Another learner may begin a course because they want to change their perspective, and continue because of the social benefits they gain from it.

The more motivations you can give your learners to continue with your course, the more they will stick with you in the long run. The more you learn about your learners and their motivations, the better able you will be to speak to their needs and inspire them to persevere.

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