Learner Motivation: The Two Types

Improve the extent to which participants apply learned skills by finding out what drives them.


Internal and External Motivation

For training to succeed, training participants must be motivated to learn and to apply the learning to their jobs. It's the participants' motivation to apply the skills learned that links the happenings inside their minds to their actions; to what they say and do on the job. No matter how knowledgeable participants are at the end of the training program, if that knowledge is not transferred to the job, the program can be counted as a failure.

As we have emphasized in our own practice, it's only through participants changing on-the-job behavior that training can make a difference to the organization. Participant motivation is what leads the learners beyond the training event to workplace application. Without motivation, that link is broken as participants cling to their old ways of doing things.

Training participants who make the effort to apply their newly learned skills back on the job fall into two categories. There are those that are internally motivated to apply their learnings. On the other hand, there are those participants that are externally motivated to do so. Internal motivation (or self-motivation) is a desire that is induced from within the individual. This type of motivation may arise from factors such as:

  • a will to do what is right
  • a natural interest in the subject matter
  • a sense of accomplishment
  • a fear of failure

External motivation, on the other hand, is a desire that is prompted from outside the individual. Such inducements may be in the form of one or more of the following:

  • material rewards
  • physical gratification
  • social recognition or acceptance
  • avoidance of threatened punishment

The two categories of learner motivation are not mutually exclusive. In fact, you can place each training participant on a continuum. At one end of the continuum, you can place the participants who are solely internally motivated. Conversely, at the other end, you can locate participants who are completely motivated by external incentives. In between are the participants who experience both kinds of motivation to varying degrees.

How can you tell to what extent a behavior is motivated internally or externally? The test is to take away what you think is an external inducement and see if the behavior persists. If the behavior is not repeated, or repeated less often, then, generally speaking, the past behavior was at least to some extent externally motivated.

For some cases, we cannot be completely certain that the behavior was internally motivated because the validity of the experiment depends on all else being equal. Sometimes this condition is impossible to achieve. For example, if the person in question knows that you are conducting an experiment, they may persist in their behavior, even though the motivation is external, because they want to prove you wrong. This is known as the "observer effect".

Priming Training Participants for Learning

Professional trainers do their best to incorporate what we know about human motivation in the design and delivery of their training programs. To get training participants to apply their learnings to the job to the maximum extent possible, trainers and managers now need to think seriously about setting up the right conditions to nurture internal motivation and to encourage external motivation.

These setup tasks need to be done both before and after the training program. Before training activities, such as goal-setting and pre-reading, help in getting participants to learn in the first place. Post-training activities, such as coaching and performance feedback, assist in getting them to apply the skills learned back on the job. Our guide and workbook, From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance, provides managers and trainers with the tools they need to complete these activities both before and after training.

Training participants that are internally motivated will apply the skills learned either for their own sake, or from of a sense of pride, or because of a strong personal interest, or for some other internally generated reason. These learners will seek to apply the skills even in the face of organizational barriers – up to a point.

Where the learner's supervisor continually makes snide remarks about the new system; where the new equipment promised never arrives; where performing the new tasks means working back two hours each night, most learners will eventually give up and go back to the old way of doing things. The best advice for motivating these kinds of participants – those that are self-motivated – is to give them what they need and then get out of their way.

Our PRACTICE Approach™ encapsulates the most important of these critical factors that self-motivated employees need in place in order to apply their new skills and to get the job done. For example, where procedures are non-existent or unclear, where roles and responsibilities are confused, where vital job aids are missing, where there is no expert help in the face of difficulties or where the organization's objectives change from minute to minute, committed and motivated employees will give up and eventually go elsewhere.

Do you know what motivates your learners? Are you clear on what you need to do to inspire the training participants enrolled on your next course? Your task now is to work with each participant's manager in setting up the right conditions for learning and application. Get them to sit down with each employee to find out what each requires to do their best. Then give it to them and watch them excel.

Expert View Author: AIMM MAITD

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Find out more about what you can do to boost learner motivation before, during and after your training program. Check out Leslie Allan's practical resource kit packed with ideas, tools and templates for implementing effective learning. Download the free Introductory Chapter and start using Leslie's comprehensive training guide and toolkit today.

From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance

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