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Best Ways to Design Courses to Captivate Student’s Attention


Today, we have the pleasure to learn about Sally Moore’s point of view on how to design course that help learners stay engaged based on psychological principles of motivation

Introduction and Background

Since eLearning was first introduced into working life in the mid 1990’s, learner engagement and course completion has always been an issue. Recently the French eLearning press has published several articles with thoughts and advice from leading players –talk of measures, rewards and evaluation, and inevitably talk of tools to track connection times, completion rates and outcomes.

All good, but we are missing the fundamental understanding of what motivates learners in the first place. The best research I have found on this comes from the USA and the outstanding Roger C

Schank, leading researcher in artificial intelligence and the application of cognitive theory at Carnegie Mellon University. Also work by Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University brings new thoughts to the table. Below I have outlined and summarised the main things you need to know about Learner motivation.

Learners are already motivated to do well for well-known reasons

There are a number of known factors that push learners to do well on a course, either in the classroom or on line. You will recognise some of these:

  • To show how smart they are (sometimes a habit from school)
  • To impress their superiors (if they are watching)
  • To tackle difficult problems
  • To do their job better
  • To learn something in vogue, latest trend or something that really attracts them
  • To obtain a qualification or certificate that takes them to the next level in the their profession
  • To have a good time, either in a lovely location or in a fun games package etc.

But why do we learn anything?

For the same reasons children learn to walk and talk without any external rewards (no one pays them to do it!) — We learn so that we can execute our independent desires — this above all other factors such as competition, rewards, encouragement.

Just as with learning to walk and talk, there are truths we need to include in our instructional design:

  • The learning goal is a skill that will help us in work and life
  • Achieving the goal is reward in itself, more than the approval of superiors or peers
  • Once the skill has been learned, it is put in practice every day
  • The skill enables independence
  • Failure is not a problem, the learning takes place by trial and error
  • The process of learning is not too painful or annoying, but possibly fun.

Internal versus External rewards

External rewards for learning (used in many educational and corporate contexts), these rewards include higher salary resulting from higher grade of skills, certificates, fun location, fun course, and hope that if you do the course well things will go better at work.

But internal rewards are best for motivating learners. The two key ones are:

1) Problem Solving — The first is the internal reward for solving a really hard problem — this is the same psychology that gets us doing crosswords and Sudoku every day.

2) Community — The second is that people will complete training if there is a community reward. This depends on the strong social network and infrastructure in the work place where people talk about the training and the effect it has had.

When a community works together on problem solving it gives them knowledge, skills and qualifications they didn’t have before. So these rewards (or motivators) are naturally built in to any well designed course.

So how do you incorporate this in your online Learning Course?

First make sure that the learning goals are clear and occur naturally throughout the learning process.

Second design the learning process for a group to solve problems.

Here are some top tips for building courses for maximum learner engagement:

  • Build a group learning process — include group problem solving activities and reflection, with feedback.
  • Include loads of practice , with risk free failure opportunities (we learn from mistakes).
  • Focus on solving problems to become independent
  • Make sure the content is applicable straight after the training (use it or lose it). Avoid running courses in a vacuum.
  • Keep the value of the learning clear to learners and make sure it is recognised.
  • Run tests and quizzes before, during and after the course — latest research shows that taking tests actually helps people learn, more than studying. Taking tests helps learners retrieve and reconstruct knowledge faster, resulting in far greater knowledge retention than just studyingAbout Sally Moore_
    eLearning expert, training and development — implementation consultant, senior project directior, business development and communications expert.

Over 22 years of professional experience, including project director of techno-economic research at Battelle Institute, Project Director for European financial data warehouse with 26 000 users, European director of IT consulting division of large computer manufacturer, European VP of business development for leading IT training company. Since 2000 founded eLearnExpo,_ ilearning Forum Paris, Middle East Learning Technologies and Enterprise Learning China, all rated best exhibition and conference for eLearning in new markets.


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Jonathan Alzetta

Jonathan Alzetta

Jonathan CTO & co-founder at Wooclap, a collaborative tech solution that boosts engagement in class and training