Elephants and learning motivation
in eLearning

Annika Willers · eLearning · Last updated on December 16th, 2021

Everyday working life is changing faster and faster. Digitalization is one of the reasons for this, but it also helps to support corporate processes. Also when it comes to the increased need for further training. eLearning is established as a cost-effective, efficient, and flexible further training option in companies. From a company’s point of view, this sounds perfect at first glance. If it wasn’t for a small drawback: the motivation of the employees.

Companies often make eLearning available to enable their employees to take part in a wide range of training courses. However, the offers are often not taken up. What are the reasons for this? In the following article, we look at the reasons why eLearning offerings are not used and then give practical tips on how you can get your employees interested in digital training.

Learning motivation in eLearning

How do elephants relate to motivation to learn?

When it comes to making decisions, people often get in their own way. Or two sides clash: intuition and reason. What about your New Year’s resolutions? After the first four weeks, are you still trying to eat healthier, exercise more, haven’t started smoking again, and still have a good grip on your weaker self? Or in other words, are you taking good care of your elephant as a rider? Excuse me? Yes, you read right. The U.S. psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt has developed the theory of elephants and riders.

The theory: elephant and rider

The elephant stands for our gut feeling, emotions, reflexes, our intuition. Everything that runs in the subconscious. The rider, on the other hand, is the conscious mind and is in control. This rider is rational, observes and communicates even those things that are not immediately visible. A small example: The alarm clock in the morning rings. The elephant prefers to press the snooze button again, whereas the rider says: “No way! I’m getting up now!”

In terms of learning and training, the rider knows it makes sense. But they still have to explain it to the elephant. So, the goal of eLearning should be to make the elephant happy, so that learning becomes second nature. In other words, we want to make training participants want to learn on their own, rather than them having to learn.

Motivation and procrastination: appetence vs. aversion

But what motivates us? How do we manage to motivate eLearning participants to learn?
A short side note. First of all, motivation refers to the totality of all motives that lead us to the willingness to act. Motivation psychology deals with the motives that lead us to pursue our goals. And we will take a brief and fundamental look at this here.

motives of motivation

Theories of motivation: Subjective orientation

Motivational conflicts

The social psychologist Lewin already distinguished between motivational conflicts in the 1930s. According to this, conflicts regarding motivation arise from appetence (i.e., attraction, striving, desire, urge, or longing) and aversion (the need to avoid unpleasant things). Appetence always means that something positive is waiting for us at the end, a reward. Being rewarded for our behavior or actions ensures that we keep revisiting the situation that led us to the reward. And this is exactly what we want to achieve for our eLearning courses.

But if a positive outcome is already the solution to our motivation, what are the motivational conflicts?

  1. Appetence-appetence conflict
  2. Two alternatives that both suggest a positive outcome, but are mutually exclusive.

  3. Aversion-aversion conflict
  4. Two undesirable alternatives from which one must be chosen.

  5. Appetence-aversion conflict
  6. Here it is required to choose one thing, which includes both positive and negative sides.

  7. Double appetence-aversion conflict
  8. Two alternatives, both with positive and negative sides.

Back to our elephant and rider. The elephant always makes the decisions for us, because it alone – our intuition – has a connection to the evaluation center that decides between pleasant and unpleasant. But this does not mean that the elephant alone is responsible for the decisions. As a rule, the cooperation between elephant and rider works quite well. The rider always has the opportunity to make suggestions to the elephant that it would not have thought of itself – that is because the rider can bring in considerations that look into the future. While the elephant only overlooks the immediacy of its decision.

Pressure (to learn) vs. self-discipline

We want learners not to feel compelled to complete the eLearnings, but much more to appeal to their self-discipline. But how does self-discipline actually work?

In an experiment, participants were asked to remember a number – a 2-digit number and a 7-digit number were compared – after which they could choose between a piece of fruit or cake. What do you think the result was? Exactly, the participants who were asked to remember the 2-digit number mostly chose the fruit, the other group chose the cake. Their self-discipline was already exhausted when they had to remember the number.

Our self-discipline is limited and decreases throughout the day. Making decisions, focusing on a topic or project, or even getting unpleasant things done takes energy. The less self-discipline is left, the fewer alternatives the rider offers the elephant. And then the elephant takes over the sole leadership – we avoid everything that could possibly cause unpleasantness and rather decide for something that seems to be good for us right at first sight. The elephant disregards the long-term view.

Create engaging eLearnings

Due to constant changes in everyday work and existing processes, employees’ knowledge is becoming outdated more and more quickly. eLearning offers an ideal basis for keeping everyone up to date at all times. However, the lack of motivation among employees is often an obstacle.

As a company, you want to achieve the ideal state for your eLearning. Namely, that your employees want to take part in training courses and not just complete them as a mandatory program. Accordingly, you should design the eLearning courses in an appealing and motivating way. Preferably, of course, in such a way that learners can’t get enough. Sounds like it’s impossible? With our practical tips, you can get started easily with a few simple steps.

Do you want to design engaging eLearnings?

Practical tips