Let me ask you a question: “Are you a finisher or a quitter? Now be honest here. Think back through your life at all the things you’ve started. Maybe you started college or piano lessons or a diet or an online course. Did you finish? You might be surprised to learn that few people finish what they start. It’s not that they’re bad people or that they don’t have compelling goals. It’s just that somewhere along the way they lose motivation. There’s not enough perceived “reward” to keep them going.

At one point or another, every educator, coach, expert, speaker, or thought-leader has struggled with course creation that results in unsuccessful outcomes for learners.

The course content may have covered the topic comprehensively; the syllabus probably included a variety of materials and sources, so why didn’t students finish the course they were initially so excited to start? 

In my 30+ years of experience, the most effective online courses start with course creation based on motivational design principles that encourage students to learn from start to finish. 

What is Motivational Design?

One of the most difficult challenges in the course creation process is getting and keeping the student interested, engaged, and motivated.

Fortunately, John M. Keller introduced the concept of Motivational Design in 1979 in a system of 4 steps for learning, which he called the ARCS Model. Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction (ARCS) was designed to improve the motivational impact of learning materials or experiences for students.

The use of motivational design principles provides a framework for building engaging online courses that will help your learners succeed. 

These are the four critical elements you should focus on when creating your courses. Make this your checklist for success!

“A” stands for attention: Capture and keep the learner’s attention.

Have you ever tried to initiate a conversation with a total stranger? Unless you can get their attention by mentioning a familiar acquaintance, making a funny remark, or making some connection with them, they’ll tune you out. 

Attention is all about learner engagement. At the start of your course creation, you need to understand who your audience is, why they would take your course, what they need, and what would cause them to struggle with completing your course. 

When your course grabs the learner’s attention, they become fully engaged and motivated to continue coming back for more. However, when your course fails to capture the student’s interest, they lose focus, struggle to learn the material, and fail to complete the course. 

Here are some strategies that can help you grab your learner’s attention:

  • Connect: To gain and keep your student’s attention, you have to make a connection with them.  Example: “ How many times have you left a store and vowed never to return because the customer service was so poor?”
  • Activate Prior Knowledge: You need an “ice breaker “ that will connect what a learner already knows about the topic of your course with what they are about to learn. Example: “Most people think of answering questions, finding merchandise, or resolving a problem when they think of Customer Service.” 
  • State Your Learning Objectives: Most learners want to know what they can expect from the online course and what they will gain from it. Example: “  By the end of this course, you will be able to: (1) Describe exceptional customer service, (2) Use service language to communicate with customers, (3) Recognize roadblocks to delivering excellent customer service, and (4) Handle demanding customers and difficult situations. “
  • Variety of different media. We all have different styles of learning, whether it is visual, auditory, manual, or some combination of the three. Providing a variety of content delivery methods helps keep content interesting, which keeps learners engaged in learning.  Example: Try sprinkling your course with a variety of video, audio tracks, chunks of text, chat room discussion groups, interactive games, etc. related to your course topic.

“R” is for Relevance:  Establish Relevance

You can spend countless hours focusing on your online course creation. You can write your “perfect” syllabus and select the ideal topic, but without sound curriculum design methods that make the material relevant to your audience, all of your efforts may be in vain. 

For students to feel motivated in learning, Keller theorized that context and relevance have to be the cornerstone of the experience. Valuable, applicable, and relatable content that connects to students’ interests and passions attracts their attention and motivates engagement.

Here are some strategies that can help you establish relevance:

  • Content must have value to the learner. Most students buy an online course because they have some need for new knowledge and skills that will enable them to resolve a current situation or problem, or will help them later in their career. If your course doesn’t overdeliver that value they are expecting, why would they complete the course? Continuously remembering “What’s in it for me!” and “What can I Do with this content?” is critical. Example: “Mastering the customer service techniques in this course will help you better meet the needs of your customers and make you a valuable member of the company team. “
  • Link the concepts learned to prior experience. Help learners expand their current base of knowledge and experience with the content being presented in the course by continuous reinforcement. Example: Periodically insert a mini-quiz or other quick assessment of what the learner has learned thus far through the course to reinforce critical concepts.
  • Active participation reveals applicability. Most students need multiple opportunities to engage with the content through hands-on-practice and games, to reinforce the concepts they are learning and see the applicability to their jobs or situations. Example: Provide students with a series of real-life situations, and have them choose the best way to handle it based on what they have learned.
  • Be helpful — Give them the tools they need to succeed. Don’t hold onto information they need and try to offer it as an upsell. Be committed to giving them everything they need. Always think in terms of what will help them achieve their goals. And incorporate this helpfulness into videos and written material. Always give them your phone number and email address so they know you’re right there to help them if they need yo

“C” stands for Confidence: Instill Confidence that Learning is Achievable

Many adult learners taking online courses haven’t been to “school” in many years. They’re not sure they can succeed. They are intimidated by learning programs that may involve material that is too difficult to understand, requires too much time to complete, or that they don’t see as personally achievable. Sometimes learners may fear that they cannot apply the skills they are learning to their present circumstances or job.

Keller believed that instructional design should help students believe in themselves and their success through learning. The more students believe in this impending success; the more motivated they are to learn. 

You need to plan learning activities in your course creation that will provide learners with a sense of confidence:

  • Chunk material into smaller lessonsBe Aware of the Learner’s Attention Span. Most people have about a 20-minute window of concentration to take in new material. Students will believe that learning the content is achievable if it is chunked into small lessons, which makes the material easier to take in and digest.
  • Scaffold learning to build a positive expectation of success. You wouldn’t climb a ladder if you weren’t sure that each rung on the leader was securely in place before advancing to the next level. So it is with learning. Review concepts already learned before moving on to the next lesson.
  • Model successful examples. Provide opportunities for students to see and hear real people that have successfully applied the skills taught in their own lives or jobs. Learners are motivated to complete the course when they see real people just like them using what they have learned. Example: Show video testimonies of Customer Service Representatives that have mastered some of the techniques students are learning in the online course.
  • Provide frequent opportunities for feedback to the learner. Everyone wants to know how he or she is doing as they progress through a learning course. Intermittent opportunities for constructive criticism and positive affirmation of their learning encourages learners to continue to the next lesson. Example: At the end of each lesson, create a small assessment of the key concepts presented in the lesson, such as a 3 question multiple-choice quiz that scores automatically. The score could be delivered with a positive message such as “Congratulations! You have mastered the key concepts in this lesson, ” or “Not Bad. You may want to review the concept of “positive response to demanding customers” in question #2. 

“S” is for Satisfaction: Generate Satisfaction with The Learning Experience

 There is a direct link between satisfaction and the level of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is when something external to you motivates you – things like praise or rewards. Intrinsic motivation comes from within. When learners feel as if they’re learning new skills that will be useful to them in solving problems in the real world, they’re more satisfied and thus more motivated.

When learners are satisfied with what they are learning and have completed at each stage of the course, their motivation to complete the course is higher. 

  • Assess student mastery of content. Build assessment methods into the course creation. Students should understand how they will be assessed. Examples: Design Quizzes, Tests, and Projects with a grading scale or rubric shared with the student.
  • Recognition of the student’s efforts. Learners achieve a sense of accomplishment and pride when they are recognized for their efforts. Example: After the course, generate a certificate of achievement for the learner. Even better, provide digital badges to students that finish the course. Once they receive that badge, they will be motivated to share it with peers and family.
  • Encourage continued effort. Students are often motivated when they feel supported and encouraged to use the skills and knowledge they are learning in their immediate situation or job. Example: Personalized emails to students, “ Congratulations, you have completed 50% of your Customer Service Training. Keep up the Good Work!

Intentional course creation is essential to both student and business success. The use of Motivational Design principles enables a course designer to determine who their audience is, understand their needs, and engage in course creation that fully engages learners to complete the course and achieve their desired results.