Intrinsic Motivation in Adult E-Learning

Intrinsic Motivation in Adult E-Learning
Summary: Motivation is a critical issue for e-learning. Learners who lose their motivation do not learn, whereas learners who gain and maintain motivation learn what they need and persist to the end of the instruction. How can instructional designers motivate learners in an e-learning context? Designs based upon sound instructional theory integrating intrinsic motivational features are the answer.

The Intrinsic Motivation Instructional Design Guide for Adult E-Learning

Motivation is recognized as an important contributor to learning: “… motivation can influence what, when, and how we learn.” (Schunk, et al., 2014, pg. 5). Also: “Many instructors consider the motivation level of learners the most important factor in successful instruction.” (Dick, et al., 2009, pg. 93). Motivation strategies can be incorporated into instructional design for e-learning. Unlike face-to-face learning, e-learning is often asynchronous and a localized. Instructional design for motivation must account for this inherent divide between the instructor and the learner. While technology and thoughtful implementation can bridge much of the gap, instructional designers can incorporate features into their design by emphasizing elements specifically designed to motivate e-learners. Learners who can generate their own intrinsic motivation do not have to rely on the personalized external stimuli that are more challenging to provide in an e-learning context: “Task participation is its own reward and does not depend on explicit rewards or other external constraints” (Schunk, et al., 2014, pg. 238). In addition, intrinsic motivation is persistent: “creating an intrinsic goal in fifth- and sixth-grade students … leads to better persistence and conceptual learning than does providing them with an extrinsic goal.” (pg. 240). Intrinsically motivated learners are more likely to complete their e-learning, an important consideration for those concerned about the common problem of e-learner dropouts. This paper provides a systematic process for ensuring that features facilitating the e-learner’s intrinsic motivation are included in the instructional design.

Schunk, et al. (2014) discusses the work of Lepper & Hodell (1989) who provide four sources of intrinsic motivation that can be incorporated into instructional design. These consist of challenge, curiosity, control and fantasy. Their work and these sources were focused on primary school students. For the purposes of this guide, I have adapted the final source for adult students, resulting in the equivalent source as simulation rather than fantasy.

In addition to these four sources, I have added community as the fifth. Technology unavailable to earlier researchers can have a significant effect on collaborative learning “to include not just discussion but the sharing of artifacts and cooperative work across time and distance.” (Edelson et al., 1996, pg. 152). Schunk, et al. (2014) presents Harter’s model of mastery motivation, which “relies on models and rewards from socializing agents as primary influences on students’ internalization of mastery goals and development of self-reward systems.” (pg. 245). Schunk, et al. (2014) provides the suggestion to “Use heterogeneous cooperative groups to foster peer interaction” (pg. 204) as a method to facilitate the adoption of mastery goals, a self-oriented component of motivation.


Learners who accomplish challenges of intermediate difficulty perceive their competence, “which raises their self-efficacy and perceived control over outcomes.” (Schunk, et al., 2014, pg. 268). Keller’s (1987) ARCS model describes the attainment of self-confidence as allowing “students opportunity to become increasingly independent in learning.” (pg. 5). This independence, which can be expressed as a “desire for autonomy”, (Schunk, et al., 2014, pg. 256), is a quality of intrinsic motivation.


Learners who become curious are engaged in their learning as they become intrinsically motivated “to seek understanding and resolve the discrepancy.” (Schunk, et al., 2014, pg. 268). Curiosity aligns with Keller’s (1987) ARCS model in the attention strategies of incongruity and inquiry.


Schunk, et al., (2014) provide several sources to conclude that learners who have some control over their learning process have their intrinsic motivation enhanced. One aspect of control is self-regulation: “Learners who self-regulate … control their cognition, motivation, and behavior” (pg. 328). Zimmerman & Schunk (1989) provide strategies for the process of self-regulation, including observing one’s performance, comparing it to expectations, and responding to perceived differences. Giving learners the control needed to accomplish this process helps goal attainment. Of course, granting control to learners only works as long as the instructional goals are achieved as expected. Therefore, the implementation of instruction must be closely monitored. Control aligns with Keller’s (1987) ARCS model in the relevance strategy of choice.


Schunk, et al., (2014) describes fantasy’s ability to apply learned school knowledge to out-of-school situations, thus giving the student the opportunity to appreciate the usefulness of learning and be intrinsically motivated to continue learning. Adults can experience the same intrinsic motivational stimulus when they participate in authentic simulations related to their activities. However, Schunk, as well as Merrill (2002), caution that simulations must avoid content and features that are not relevant to the instructional goals, thus causing learners undue cognitive loads. Simulation aligns with Keller’s (1987) ARCS model in the confidence strategy of self-confidence and the satisfaction strategy of natural consequences. It also aligns with Merrill’s (2002) first Principle of Instruction: Problem Centered, where “Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems” (pg.45), as well as Principle 4: Application, where “Learning is promoted when learners are required to use their knowledge or skill to solve problems” (pg. 49).


Keller’s (1987) ARCS model includes several social-oriented strategies that can be incorporated into an on-line learning community component:

  • To satisfy the need for affiliation, establish trust and provide opportunities for no-risk, cooperative interaction.
  • Allow a student who masters a task to help others who have not yet done so.
  • Give verbal praise for successful progress or accomplishment.
  • Give personal attention to students.
  • Provide informative, helpful feedback.
  • Provide motivating feedback.

Note that while these strategies were initially designed for instructors, they can also be readily employed by peer learners in an on-line learning community context.


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Edelson, D., Pea, R., & Gomez, L. (1996). Constructivism in the collaboratory. In B.G. Wilson (Ed.), Constructivist learning environments: Case studies in instructional design. Educational Technology Publications.

Keller , J. (1987). Development and use of the ARCS model of instructional design. Journal of instructional development, 10 (3), 2-10.

Lepper, M. R. & Hodell, M. (1989). Intrinsic motivation in the classroom. In C. Ames & R. Ames (Eds.). Research on motivation in education, 3, 73-105.

Merrill, M. (2002). First Principles of Instruction. ETR&D, 50 (3), 43-59.

Schunk, D., Meece, J., Pintrich, P.  (21014). Motivation in education: Theory, research and applications. Pearson.

Zimmerman, B., & Schunk, D. (1989). Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: Theory, research and practice. Springer-Verlag.