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ATD Blog

The Role of Motivation in Learning

Monday, October 26, 2020

In today’s challenging environment, it is important for talent development professionals to articulate the value and impact learning has on organizational outcomes. This value and impact are evaluated through a framework, such as the Kirkpatrick model, that shows the effect learning interventions have on learner’ reactions (Level 1), knowledge (Level 2), behaviors (Level 3), and outcomes (Level 4). A successful learning intervention should generate objective data that demonstrates evidence of positive effects on reactions, knowledge, behavior, and outcomes.

When a learning organization realizes such positive effects, surely it is a testament to the quality of the learning intervention itself, right? Could there have been other factors that contributed in part, if not exclusively, to the learning process?

One key factor that is often overlooked, at least in my experience, is the role of motivation on learning outcomes.

What happens when the learning intervention is suboptimal but learner motivation is high? Conversely, what if the learning intervention is superb but learner motivation is low? I can think of a couple relevant examples from my past.

Early in my career I accepted a role in a volunteer organization that required me to relocate internationally and learn a new language. The organization’s training program had limited resources, and most of the language training was delivered through on-the-job training. After a brief formal classroom experience, I was sent to live in a foreign country with basic communication skills, hundreds of miles away from the nearest native English speaker. I was committed to the organization’s cause and, as a result, I had a strong desire to learn both my job and the language. This motivation enabled me to overcome the limitations of the learning environment and have a successful impact on organizational outcomes.


I contrast that experience with my journey to earn the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute. To prepare for the PMP exam, my organization had paid for training classes, materials, and the cost of the exam. I frequently communicated with my peers who had earned their certifications. As the exam date drew nearer, I took a practice test to gauge my knowledge level and failed miserably. Despite the great learning resources available to me, I was not properly motivated to learn. Shortly after my failed pretest, I learned I would have to pay the cost of the real exam if I earned a failing score. Once I knew that, my motivation levels changed, and I improved my study habits in time to pass the exam.

As I reflect on my time as a learning professional, I have observed learners excel using training courses I would be embarrassed to share publicly. I have also seen learners fail to achieve training objectives using award-winning curricula.


So, what role does motivation play in corporate learning programs?

Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) developed The Hierarchy of Needs to describe the underlying factors that contribute to human motivation. David McClelland (1918–1998) believed motivation in the workplace is critical to performance and suggested workers are motivated by power (the ability to influence), achievement (the ability to improve), and affiliation (the ability to form and maintain relationships). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1934–) developed the concept of flow, which is a state of mind in which performance outcomes are achieved seamlessly, especially when one’s attention is focused on a singular goal.

To leverage the benefits of motivation and avoid the negative effects of unmotivated learners, learning professionals should spend time measuring the impact of motivation on learning outcomes. To do that, we need a mechanism for assessing motivational factors, such as the ones mentioned above. Once these key factors are identified, we can measure them in conjunction with known learning evaluation models to provide a more comprehensive view of the impact of motivation and learning.

What are you or your organization doing to better understand the role of motivation in learning?

About the Author

Travis Thompson has spent his career in financial services, with roles in software engineering, project management, process improvement, call center operations, and talent development. He has developed and implemented strategies that enabled organizations to leverage their people, processes, and/or systems to create best-in-class products and customer experiences. He is focused on helping modernize the corporate and academic learning experience using technology, science, and innovation. Travis is actively involved in academic research involving the psychology of leadership, emotional intelligence, and personality preferences, as well as their impact on individual, team, and personal outcomes.

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