Motivated learning and behaviour change

Published by Carole Bower on

What motivates you to learn?

Table of contents

“I don’t want to do this, it’s difficult and no one else is doing it….”

Imagine a learning programme that everyone says this about.

A lot of mandatory learning will of course still be met with this kind of response. Even self-directed learning can suffer from a dip in motivation. 

I recently embarked on a self-directed mission to learn Spanish and it’s made me think (a lot) about my own motivation and how different approaches can be used to motivate or even create a learning habit! I’ll keep you updated on my progress but first, a bit about designing with motivation in mind.

How to design with motivation in mind

Motivation is personal — we do things for different reasons and the ideal scenario for lasting behaviour change is when we choose to do something for personal reasons. So, the question is: how do you design a learning programme with motivation in mind?

We asked this question when embarking on a brilliant behavioural science (BeSci) course by Samuel Salzer which explored the role of motivation in designing apps that would create lasting habits. One of the course highlights was looking at how some applications such as Noom, Peloton and Duolingo were designed with behavioural design principles drawing audiences in and keeping them engaged. It was then I had the idea to learn Spanish using Duolingo — to try out the learning experience for myself.

When designing a learning or comms experience, thinking about motivation is a good starting point. Amy Bucher shares a continuum showing six distinct types of motivation ranging from Controlled to Autonomous in her book Engaged (Designing for Behavior Change) and the diagram is a useful reference point when working out where your audience sits now and where you want them to be.

infographic outlining motivation behaviour

Of course, the ideal scenario is to have a receptive audience in the Autonomous zone — but that’s not often the case when you launch a ‘one size fits all’ experience and, let’s face it, many digital experiences are targeted at large audiences with diverse needs.

The motivational quality continuum ranges from the more fleeting and vulnerable controlled forms of motivation to the enduring and powerful autonomous ones. Diagram by Aidan Hudson-Lapore.

So, we have a challenge — a personal learning journey, e.g., my goal ‘hablar en español’ isn’t quite the same as designing for ‘one size fits all’ digital experiences — or is it?

When creating a digital intervention, it’s often been the case that we have little or no target audience data on how the ‘problem’ we’re addressing is manifesting in the business/real world. In addition, it’s sometimes difficult to address specific audience behaviours as we’ve got no insights to work with.

Aside from clever personalisation and adapting the experience based on learner input, there are techniques that can be used to shift audience mindsets from “I don’t want to do this” to “this really matters to me”.

In Amy Bucher’s book Engaged, she puts it quite succinctly “people are different from each other, but in some fundamental ways, they’re all the same”, and calls out Self Determination Theory (SDT) as a reference point for thinking about how to address basic psychological needs. The three needs are Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness — addressing all of these will help with audience engagement.

So, with my Spanish learning quest I was motivated (initially) to see what the learning experience felt like. It was on me — an autonomous decision (I’m ready to do this) with a simple goal to speak and understand Spanish (and be understood). I realised I could only judge this if my level of competence went beyond the phrase book and pointy gestures. So, when I tried it out for real on holiday, it felt like I’d done an OK job (it’s easy). Well, the right food arrived, and my narrative was more Spanish than Spanglish! However, I did wonder if my motivation would have waned without the feedback/coaching from native speakers. The Duolingo animated characters and other learners on the Leader board didn’t give me a deep sense of relatedness. However, it was a nice touch when a young family member who was using Duolingo for his French schoolwork popped up and acknowledged my progress with the odd ‘high five’ (connecting with others).

Our Behavioural Insights Mantra (BIM)

Understanding motivation and understanding behavioural science helps us to design with our audience psychological needs in mind. As long-time advocates of using COM-B to understand what motivates us, we know that the ‘M’ word can be easily overlooked, and we realised the importance of giving it as much focus as defining achievable learning outcomes for our digital learning experiences. We needed to give equal focus to ‘the why’. So, when I worked with Dr Charlotte Hills, and Dr Harriet Rowthorn from our Behavioural Insights Team to create our *Behavioural Insights Mantra (BIM), we looked at some of the other models and influences around motivation.

*As well as behavioural science, our mantra is built on influences from positive psychology, human-centred design, as well as frameworks for innovation, behavioural design (Tiny Habits), behavioural analysis (COM-B) and intervention design for social good (EAST).

Our BIM addresses three core principles from a target audience perspective, and we have personalised these principles as statements that we expect the audience to say/feel.

  1. I want to do it (I feel good about this and I’m ready)
  2. It’s easy (Everything’s clear. I can do this!)
  3. I connect with others (I see what other people are doing)

True learning experiences have the power to change how people behave. Evidence from behavioural science shows that this is more likely to happen when people can honestly agree with these three statements.

At BAD we developed our Behavioural Insights Mantra to help us to focus on the ‘why’ when designing/creating digital learning and comms experiences. To find out more about how we use our Behavioural Insights Mantra to inform the work we do, please get in touch.

woman looking up at computer, happy, moitivated and working

Understanding Motivation – a personal journey

Going back to the course on motivation – the reason I loved the real-world examples is because I experienced some of these apps myself – I made the connection. These apps use Behavioural Design principles to make experiences feel unique, personalised and of course motivating (even slightly addictive).

And yes, it’s true that I’m slightly addicted to learning Spanish. I can’t break my Duolingo ‘streak’ now. And, as I write this, I am on day 224 (no breaks). In fact, as I checked that fact, I also noticed an invite to work together with a ‘friend’ (the family member I mentioned) to complete a quest to get a reward (some points/badges). Whilst I probably won’t go for that (unless he does), it’s interesting to see that the Duolingo app is pushing more opportunities for social/connection.

As a practical learner I needed to try out a learning experience for myself. No, that didn’t mean just reviewing an app to explore the techniques used to hook people in. I set myself a goal to learn/speak Spanish and, with a 224 unbroken streak (and still going), I do now feel I have a sense of what is involved to kick start a learning habit and to keep it going.

The Duolingo app ticks the boxes of our mantra: I want to do it, it’s easy and I guess I now feel connected to others even if my connection is limited to encouraging a family member who has his French exam coming up soon.

Gracias por leer hasta el final.

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