Learner Motivation and Instructional Design

The topic of learning has been a central focus of the field of psychology since its genesis as an independent area of scientific inquiry (De Houwer, Barnes-Holmes, & Moores, 2013).  Attempts to formally define learning have resulted in several characterizations.  Gagne defines learning as “a change in human disposition or capability that persists over a period of time and is not simply ascribable to processes of growth” (Gagne, 1965, as cited in Malamed, 2016, p. 1).  Shuell (as interpreted by Schunk, 1991) defines learning as “an enduring change in behavior, or in the capacity to behave in a given fashion, which results from practice or other forms of experience” (as cited in Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 53). De Houwer, Barnes-Holmes, and Moores define learning as “changes in behavior of an organism that are the result of regularities in the environment of that organism” (De Houwer et al., 2013, p. 3).  Finally, Driscoll defines learning as “a persisting change in performance or performance potential that results from experience and interaction with the world” (Driscoll, 2004, p.1).

Each of these understandings of learning share a common supposition that learning is defined by change.  The question of how this change is best accomplished, particularly as it relates to specific learning and performance problems, is a central tenant in the field of instructional design (Reiser, 2001).  Professionals in the field of instructional design have traditionally sought the answer to this question within the theories of Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism (Winn & Snyder, 1989, Ertmer & Newby, 1993, and Reiser, 2001).  A primary distinction between each theory is, at its core, how change is achieved through that theory’s approach to learner motivation.  Specifically, Behavioral theories tend to focus on extrinsic motivation (i.e. rewards) while Cognitive and Constructivist theories deal with intrinsic motivation (i.e. goals) (Weiner, 1990). This post will explore how instructional designers account for learner motivation and will present Constructivist theory of learning as the philosophy that best reflects its findings.

Motivating students to be lifelong learners who are intellectually curious and find learning enjoyable is a core goal of the field of education (Small, 1997).  Although some instructional designers may view motivation to be the student’s responsibility (Keller and Burkman, 1993, as cited in Margueratt, 2007), others have explored how instructional design can impact and utilize motivation to achieve learning objectives (Wlodkowski, 1981, as cited in Small, 1997, and Keller, 1979).  Keller’s ARCS model of motivational design provides a model for designing motivating instruction.

The ARCS model of motivational design, developed by Dr. John Keller, professor emeritus at Florida State University, is based upon the idea that there are four key elements in the learning process that impact learners’ motivation (Pappas, 2015).  These are Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction (ARCS).  Attention is gained and maintained using strategies that arouse and sustain curiosity and interest (Small, 1997). Methods employed to gain attention can include active participation, use of humor, conflict, variety, and real world examples (Pappas, 2015).  Relevance is achieved through the linking of strategies to learners’ needs, interests, and motives (Small, 1997).  Examples suggested by Keller to establish relevance include linking instruction to previous experience, developing a perception of worth and usefulness, and incorporating student choice (Pappas, 2015).  Confidence is developed through strategies that help students develop a positive expectation for successful achievement (Small, 1997).  Instruction that encourages confidence will facilitate self-growth, communicate objectives and prerequisites, provide feedback, and give the learner a degree of control (Pappas, 2015).  Finally, satisfaction is attained by intentional provision of extrinsic and intrinsic reinforcement (Keller, 1983, as cited in Small, 1997).  This can include praise, rewards, and/or opportunities for immediate application of newly acquired knowledge and skills (Pappas, 2015).

Features of Behavioral, Cognitivist, and Constructivist theories of learning can be observed in the ARCS model.  For example, Behaviorism uses cues and reinforcement to elicit target responses (Ertmer & Newby, 1993).  In the ARCS model, this can include gaining and maintaining attention through intentional arrangement of environmental conditions, developing confidence through positive instructor feedback, and reinforcing objective achievement through extrinsically rewarding stimuli.  Like Behaviorism, Cognitivism also emphasizes intentional environmental conditions and corrective feedback, relating to the ARCS model as previously discussed (Ertmer & Newby, 1993).  However, Cognitivism also considers learners’ thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and values as influential in the learning process (Winne, 1985, as cited in Ertmer & Newby, 1993).  Cognitivism emphasizes “making knowledge meaningful and helping learners organize and relate new information to existing knowledge in memory.  Instruction …should organize information in such a manner that learners are able to connect new information with existing knowledge in some meaningful way” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 60).  This phenomenon is clearly observed in the ARCS model through it’s focus on the design of instruction that is relevant to the learner.  Finally, Constructivist theory equates learning with creating meaning from experience (Ertmer & Newby, 1993).  According to Constructivism, learners should be instructed on how to construct meaning, and designers should align and create experiences for the learner that provide authentic, relevant contexts (Ertmer & Newby, 1993).  Here too we see the ARCS model’s focus on relevance.  However, we can also observe ARCS strategies to gain and maintain attention through an emphasis on real-world examples, develop confidence through facilitation of self-growth and inclusion of learner control, and encouragement of satisfaction through opportunities for immediate application of learning.

Motivation is a critical component to student success (Small, 1997).  While a degree of responsibility for motivation does rely on the learner, “it is reasonable to assume that poor instruction can demotivate an otherwise motivated student, and excellent instruction can inspire an otherwise unmotivated learner” (Margueratt, 2007, p. 2).  Keller’s ARCS model of motivational design provides a prototypical approach to intentional incorporation of motivational strategies in instructional design.  Constructivist learning theory incorporates all elements of the ARCS model, including strategies that support attainment of learner attention, relevance, confidence, satisfaction.  Because of this, Constructivist learning theory provides a philosophy for both instructional design and teaching that best supports achievement of learning objectives.


De Houwer, J., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Moors, A. (2013). What is learning? On the nature and merits of a functional definition of learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review20(4), 631-642. http://dx.doi.org/10.3758/s13423-013-0386-3

Driscoll, M. (2004). Psychology of learning for instruction (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Ertmer, P., & Newby, T. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly26(2), 43-71. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/piq.21143

Gagné, R. (1965). The conditions of learning. New York, London: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Keller, J. (1979). Motivation and instructional design: A theoretical perspective. Journal of Instructional Development2(4), 26-34. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/bf02904345

Keller, J.M. (1983). Motivational design of instruction. In C.M. Reigeluth (Ed.). Instructional design theories and models: An overview of their current status. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Keller, J. & Burkman, E. (1993). Motivation principles. In M. Fleming & W.H. Levie (Eds.), Instructional message design: Principles for the behavioral and cognitive sciences (2nd ed.). (pp. 3 – 53). New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.

Malamed, C. (2016). Ten definitions of learningThe eLearning Coach. Retrieved from http://theelearningcoach.com/learning/10-definitions-learning/

Margueratt, D. (2007). Improving learner motivation through enhanced instructional design. Retrieved from http://auspace.athabascau.ca/bitstream/2149/1041/1/MDE_dennismarguerattThesis.pdf

Pappas, C. (2015). Instructional design models and theories: Keller’s ARCS model of motivationeLearning Industry. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/arcs-model-of-motivation

Reiser, R. (2001). A history of instructional design and technology: Part II: A history of instructional design. Educational Technology Research and Development49(2), 57-67. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/bf02504928

Schunk, D. (1991). Learning theories. Boston: Pearson.

Small, R. (1997). Motivation in instructional design: ERIC digest. Retrieved from http://www2.oid.ucla.edu/units/tatp/old/lounge/pedagogy/downloads/motivation-eric.pdf

Weiner, B. (1990). History of motivational research in education. Journal of Educational Psychology82(4), 616-622. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037//0022-0663.82.4.616

Winn, W., & Snyder, D. (1996). Cognitive perspectives in psychology. In D. H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of Research for Educational Communications and Technology (pp. 112-142). New York: Macmillan.

Winne, P. (1985). Steps toward promoting cognitive achievements. The Elementary School Journal85(5), 673-693. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/461429

Wlodkowski, R. (1981). Making sense out of motivation: A systematic model to consolidate motivational constructs across theories. Educational Psychologist16(2), 101-110. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00461528109529233

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