Motivating learners to engage is a critical factor in eLearning success; designing for motivation offers ways to bridge motivation gaps, increase engagement—and drive learning and behavior change.

It’s not enough to design great eLearning. Learners who are not interested in the topic, who do not buy into the goals, who generally resist change, or who fail to see the big-picture reasons for learning the new material or skill have what Guild Master Julie Dirksen identifies as motivation gaps. “If somebody knows what to do but chooses not to do it, that’s a motivation gap,” she wrote in Design for How People Learn.

Successful eLearning designers consider motivation gaps, identify the gaps in the targeted learners—and strive to address those gaps with their design. A motivational design model, such as the ARCS model, can aid instructional designers in creating eLearning that will engage more learners and sustain learner engagement.

The ARCS model

John Keller, an American educational psychologist, introduced the ARCS motivational model of instructional design in 1979. He argued that existing models emphasized external stimuli too heavily and that more attention needed to be given to what motivated learners.

The ARCS model looks at four components of motivation.

  • Attention: Instructors or eLearning can attract learners’ attention by using elements of novelty or surprise, by posing a question or presenting a challenge, or by offering up a problem for learners to solve. Presenting material in a variety of formats and offering learners different modalities of learning, such as games, text, video, discussions, etc. aids in sustaining their attention.
  • Relevance: Establishing relevance is accomplished by explaining, in accessible language, how the new skill or information will help learners solve a problem that they’ve experienced, meet their needs, or enable them to enhance or apply skills they already possess. Modeling a desired behavior or using a desired skill is another way to establish relevance.
  • Confidence: The confidence component of motivation refers to imbuing learners with confidence that they can apply the new skills or knowledge. The design aspects of this include creating scaffolding that guides learners from fundamental knowledge to more complex information or skills, establishing clear goals, and providing guidance and feedback that helps them to progress without becoming overwhelmed.
  • Satisfaction: Learners gain satisfaction from learning when they are able to apply their new skills, solve problems, and earn feedback and rewards that are meaningful to them. These rewards can range from a sense of accomplishment to earning a badge or certificate to reinforcement from managers.

“Motivational design refers to the process of arranging resources and procedures to bring about changes in motivation,” according to Keller’s website, “Motivational design is systematic and aims for replicable principles and processes.” This is a departure from what Keller terms “charismatic” approaches to motivating learners, which rely on a presenter’s prowess as a presenter or success in the topic area.

What motivates learners?

Dirksen, an instructional design consultant who has studied behavior change, differentiates between motivation to learn something and motivation to apply that learning. At the end of training, it’s likely that many of the learners will know what to do, but actually changing learners’ behavior is a steeper challenge. Two strategies that Dirksen suggests in Design for How People Learn are:

  • The Technology Acceptance Model, which states that learners have to perceive information or a behavior change as both useful to them and something that they can easily implement. These echo the relevance and confidence elements of ARCS.
  • The Diffusions of Innovation model, which posits that, when considering change, a learner examines whether that change or innovation is better than what it’s replacing, is easy to use, and is compatible with the learner’s experience and values.

Both of these strategies, as well as the ARCS model, emphasize that the learner’s perception of how easy or difficult the change, the new skill, or the new behavior will be to implement is a significant factor in motivation. What Dirksen describes as “self-efficacy” is key: does the learner believe that he will succeed?

Applying the model

Applying the ARCS model starts with an analysis of the target audience. Who are the learners? What are their goals?

Once the designer is familiar with the learners and their goals, she can identify gaps in motivation. In many cases, eLearning is a response to goals and learning objectives that are defined by managers or mandated by law or by company or industry requirements. In these cases, the learners might lack intrinsic motivation to master the material, so engaging them can be a challenge. Designers might use novelty to engage these learners—creating a learning game, for example—or draw them into a story.

If the motivational gaps stem from a lack of interest or buy-in to the goals, the means of motivating learners might center on showing relevance—how the new information or skill solves a familiar problem or makes a process smoother. Addressing a motivation gap that is the result of confusion or lack of understanding of the “bigger picture” reasons for the training might focus on showing relevance by showing how the skill has been applied by others in the organization or by convincing learners that the knowledge will be useful in the future.

The actual design of the eLearning—how material is presented, when and whether feedback is offered, how much control learners have over the format, time, place, and pace of learning—can build (or break) learners’ confidence. Avoid cognitive overload by establishing clear and achievable short- and long-range goals and providing learners everything they need to reach those goals. Timely feedback that lets them know how they’re progressing, and helps them correct and learn from errors, builds confidence. On the other hand, over-enthusiastic praise for minor or meaningless achievements does not, nor does rushing the learning. If too much complex information is thrown at poorly prepared learners, the result will be learners who are convinced that they cannot do whatever it is that is being taught. Good instructional design is crucial to instilling confidence.

The final component, learner satisfaction, comes from meaningful achievements. Provide learners with opportunities to use what they’ve learned on the job. Empower them to apply their new skills to solve a problem that they’ve encountered in their work. Offer additional feedback and reinforcement.

Instructional designers can use and apply the elements of the ARCS model in numerous ways. Learning games and gamified learning content incorporate some of the ARCS principles, such as offering challenges, providing feedback, and including ways to “level up”—to take on increasingly more difficult challenges or material. Learner-centered design approaches, such as universal design for learning, also embody some of the ARCS principles, such as offering learners multiple modalities for consuming learning and offering learners control over some aspects of their learning.

Keller also suggests that designers consider an iterative design strategy. “By learning and applying systematic problem-solving processes, and by learning how to recognize and classify various types of problems, one can increase one’s expertise and judgmental capacity. This process will not lead you to automatic answers to motivational problems, but it can help you systematically and predictably improve the motivational qualities of your instruction,” Keller wrote. The final step of his process looks at learners’ response to the design and states that the designer should “determine satisfaction level” and “revise if necessary.”


Dirksen, Julie. Design for How People Learn. San Francisco, CA: New Riders, 2015.

Keller, John. Updated 28 June 2016.

Learning Theories. “ARCS Model of Motivational Design Theories (Keller).” 23 July 2014.

Pappas, Christopher. “Instructional Design Models And Theories: Keller’s ARCS Model Of Motivation.” eLearning Industry. 20 May 2015.