Getting Attention and Motivating Participation in Self-Paced/Self-Directed Courses

by Dr. Stephanie A. Burns



Self-paced, self-directed learning is very enticing for organisations. It appears on the surface to offer both leverage and cost saving. Leverage in the sense that there is less investment in human resources. Less cost in the sense that people can do the program in their own time and own location. They do not have to be moved to the training site, housed and fed as well. And, of course, it is easier to imagine training thousands of employees for less cost if they are engaged in a downloadable course.

All logical. Yes, but add then to the scenario the cost of a failure rate that can be as high as 96%, and self-paced learning can be quite expensive indeed. Not just in the sense of dollars, but in the sense of the participants' beliefs about themselves as learners. Some companies are grappling with the problem by intervening with 'live' tutors. That could be part of the solution, but if not properly applied it is a weak use of people resources if it is applied at the wrong time.

I hope all course designers, training buyers and students of self-paced programs find this an important topic for understanding what is needed in future programs. Although the problem is not new, its effects are growing rapidly.


The promise of time saving and control is true but not in the majority of designs seen today in the market.


There is not enough externally applied emotional tension in
self-directed courses, and much of what is being applied is inappropriate to induce good quality
learning in adults.



The problem

Lack of tension to motivate action is a big problem in self-paced/self-directed learning courses. Specifically, motivation to take learning actions in the absence of an external agent such as a trainer, coach or manager. Nearly all self-paced programs lack appropriately embedded learning support and motivation elements.


This is problematic in that in absence of these elements the participant is left to their own devices for motivation. If you read the preceding article you will understand that side of the problem.

How bad is it? In interviews I conducted in the mid-1980s and have repeated this year it was found that of adults who begin to take action in a self-paced program as few as 4% will complete the course. If you put the same self-paced materials in the hands of an competent trainer and have them guide the students through the program nearly 100% will complete the course with the appropriate competencies.

This is an interesting phenomenon. Of course, trainers deliver information and develop skills. That is essentially what they, and those who employ them, think they are paid to do. But ask any good trainer and they will tell you that that is only a small part of their job in practice. The critical part of their role is that of providing external motivation to students to take action that is not necessarily easy to take.

Learning is by nature a long and often times arduous process.

They have a range of behaviour that allows them to coax, persuade, beg, pull and tug students through difficult, boring, frustrating, and sometimes frightening activities. They help students to stick with it! This part of the job is not well understood even by the many trainers and consultants who do it so well. Those highly competent in this part of the training role do so often times by instinct, not by education.

There is nothing new about self-paced/self-directed programs. I even did my Associate Degree in Audio Engineering through a program of this type. In my case, I did all of the lessons. After having done so, in the face of fear about being tested and apathy about the need to do so, I never took the final exam! Had I been under the influence of a good trainer, manager or coach who assuaged my concerns I have little doubt I could have been encouraged to a different end.



What is changing is the number of courses available and the use of new technological mediums to deliver that training. But the point missing is that if you can't get people to be motivated to complete a course that is paper based there is no more chance they will complete the course when it is technology-based.

Bells and whistles do not necessarily motivate in the way that motivation is needed by the individual student. And, it is living in a fools dream to think that important data alone can compel adults to learn.

Learning is a process, and one that requires motivation to act.


Learning how to learn on-line is a critical gap in the introduction of on-line courses in organisations today.

Is there a solution for self-paced/self-directed learning courses?


First, however, it must be understood that just because there is a successful, competent adult doing the program it is not true that the individual possesses the strategies to initiate and sustain action. Especially when that action is:

1) not urgent;

2) has no in-built consequences; and

3) is less pleasant than other choices that can be made in the moment.

I have trained Olympic athletes, business owners and other professionals who lack these strategies when it comes to motivating themselves through self-paced programs.

Second, designers who have a good understanding of human behaviour and who regularly re-visit the experience of learning, often design motivational elements into their programs and produce far greater completion levels.


A section of the Leadership Labyrinth environment map.

All my on-line course designs
be they for my own content or that of a client use language and artwork creatively to hold attention and motivate action in the
learner OVER time.


The solution lies in abiding by the basic tenets of motivating action in humans. For a self-paced program to succeed it must do what the successful trainer does - get students to pay attention and then to participate - to do activities for the sake of learning.

To do this the design must:

  • Support the process of learning
    • Hold the participant's attention on the point of the lesson.
    • Meet the needs of different people's level of optimal stimulation.
    • Use uniqueness, surprise, shock and change to engage the brain's attention to the task.
    • Understand the notion of attentional resources and their limitations.
  • Provide the reticular activating system of the brain relevant cues to ensure transference of the skills learned to the work context.
    • Use universals
    • Use future pacing
  • Understand that there is nothing in the act of reading that makes information memorable, therefore, structure text based information not for reading but for learning, remembering and utility.
  • Make all information necessary to be remembered memorable - use memory strategies 'on' your participants.
  • Teach effective notetaking techniques and make students take their own notes. Remember, the only value of notes is for review and repetition. They can not be that if they are never looked at. The notes must be in a form that supports these functions and must compel review.






It's all a bit like being in fishbowl

  • Motivation support
    • Construct set ups which:
      • Anticipate negative reactions
      • Provide alternative choices
      • Benefits for participation in this method - what happens if ...
      • Consequences of not participating in this method - what happens if not
      • Providing a time frame
      • What to do if ...
    • Motivate participation in on-line tasks
    • Motivate participation in off-line tasks, provide triggers to remember
    • Look for violations of core motivation strategies (i.e. driving the learner to avoid or abandon)
    • Look for good use of core motivation strategies (i.e. driving the learner toward attention, participation, action)
    • Look for bungled opportunities to motivate
    • Compel the participant to take small initial actions which are daunting, challenging, confusing and frustrating. Neutralise the impact of these types of experiences to de-motivate.
    • Compel repetitive actions necessary for learning. Neutralise the impact of these types of experiences to de-motivate.


  • Understand the subjective experience of learning for the participant.
    • Pace the range of negative emotions and unpleasant feelings triggered by the learning activities
    • Analyse the antecedents to these negative emotions and unpleasant feelings.
      • Pace personality factors, different types will have different responses to the same stimuli
        • I/We violations
        • Sensation-seeking violations
        • Jung's types
      • Features of the environment
      • Features of the method of delivery
      • Features of tasking
      • Features of evaluation
      • Features of feedback
      • Features of unfamiliarity and uncertainty


  • Understand the nature of human coping mechanisms in the face of negative emotions and unpleasant features to accurately interpret their behaviour.
  • Understand that a course that 'looks' good has nothing to do with a course that holds the participants attention and compels them to do learning activities.
  • Do not attempt to minimise the quality of learning for the sake of making the course 'fun'. Fun is not a necessary and sufficient feature of learning activities to support motivation to learn.
  • Understand that a program that is coherent when read will not be coherent when it is used for learning.
  • Understand that just because technology has changed, humans have not changed in fundamental ways related to learning and motivation behaviour.


I am now teaching on-line design to individual trainers and content experts. Information about this training can be accessed in the Design Services subsite.

The image above will take you directly to the
Design Services subsite.


If you are introducing on-line learning courses to your organisation you might consider allowing your employees access to an on-line learning support centre designed to prepare them for the experience, to teach them the skills of learning needed, and to provide support should they get stuck along the way. Please visit the Design Service subsite where more information is available on the development of these centres.

What should buyers look for?

Before buying a course I would suggest:

1) Ask for references from other users and check for completion rates;

2) Do the program yourself with the check list above in hand and test for compliance - if you can't get motivated to do it, that's a good clue that others won't either;

3) Test the program with a small pilot group educated in Eisner's techniques for educational criticism. They should be trained to journal their subjective experience of being a particpant. These journals should then be analysed, not for what is liked about the course, but for what motivated timely and consistent action.

In closing

I feel like a part of my life is coming full circle. This problem with self-paced/self-directed courses has been brought to my attention in recent times in a way similar to that which sparked the creation of the Learning To Learn program.

This time around it is a problem informed by my work on goal achievement and motivation. In the late 70s and early 80s it was a problem with learning competence.

I have covered only the tip of the iceberg here. I am hoping for the competent designer and trainer I have highlighted the areas to begin looking to make improvements. At present I am designing a template for designers of on-line learning courses which embeds the learning and motivation support components mentioned in this article.




table of contents | help | biographies | communication


Stephanie's Office   go back to the previous page    

go to the top of the page

Copyright 1999-2017 Navybridge Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.