People have talked about the WIIFM (“What’s in it for me?”) factor in educational theory for decades. It’s the idea that is if people know what benefits training has for them personally, they’ll be more invested. It’s easy to simply insert a sales pitch at the beginning of your course and consider your WIIFM quota met. Motivation is more complex than that. Let’s take a look at what motivation is, and how we can build it into training.

 We’re all rolling boulders. 

One of my favourite comedy sketches is from BBC4 radio comedy, John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme. It features Sisyphus, a character from Greek mythology. Sisyphus is doomed to the eternal punishment of rolling a boulder up a hill all day only to have it roll back down again just before reaching the top.

What is Sisyphys' motivation?
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Sisyphys (1548–49) by Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

In the comedy sketch, however, Sisyphus loves his life. “I know what I did wrong! I used my shoulders at stage 61,” he says, as the boulder goes rumbling down the hill once again.  “Tomorrow, I should just try using my core strength there and saving my shoulders for the end!”

Because he focuses on the intangible benefits to himself (the skills gained, the experience of being on a beautiful mountain, the improvement in his fitness, the possibility of future success) rather than the concrete end goal (a boulder being on top of a hill) Finnamore’s Sisyphus is motivated to continue.

The Psychology of Motivation

Psychology studies show that many of us are similarly invested in knowing that there is a reason to do something beyond the tangible benefits like money, job done, or avoiding negative consequences. In one famous study, participants were required to build models out of Lego. Despite being paid, their productivity fell after they realised the models were being broken up immediately on completion without being appreciated or used in any way. On a deep, primal level, we need our work to have meaning.

Motivation to build.
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We need to have a reason to build, but that reason is a little different for everybody.

So, the question “What’s in it for me?” represents many motivation questions which a learner may have. What can I do with it? How will it advance my skills or my view of the world? Will it change my outlook? What’s important about it? What will happen if I don’t do this? Is it relevant to me and my profession? People from different cultural backgrounds may place their priorities differently, too. Psychologist and blogger CedricJ, suggests from his experiences in Mexico, a worker is more likely to ask “How can this help me help my family?” while a comparative study by Viavoice suggests that in France and Germany “Is this interesting to me?” is an important question to employees.

What this means for Elearning

As a result of this, it isn’t enough to make a course mandatory or tie it to promotional or financial gain. It’s also not enough to assume what your learners want to get out of the experience. You have to make different forms of motivation intrinsic to how your course works. Here are some tips:

Gather information.
Because everyone has different priorities, ask learners what they want. Work with SMEs to understand the needs of your end users, where they are coming from and what their own end goals are.

Be goal orientated.
Instead of structuring a course around information to be learnt, structure it around measurable goals. Cathy Moore has this process down to a fine art through Action Mapping.  It can be a good idea to make your language goal-orientated too.  “How to colourise images in photoshop”, could become “Restoring the colour of your old family photos in photoshop”. Even if your learner has different goals in mind, this gives them concrete examples of the knowledge in use.

Give recognition.
 This could be in the form of a qualification, certificate or even a virtual badge. Badges can have real world benefits, but they can also be used as a fun gamification element. They allow learners to set their own goals. Do they want to earn the badge for being thorough? Do they want to explore all of the course and collect everything? Perhaps they want to be on a staff leaderboard. Perhaps they’re not bothered. Badges can cater to various people’s self-initiated goals.

Play with the IKEA effect.

I have an IKEA bookshelf that I put together and customised. I’m especially fond of it because I see my own labour when I look at it. Apparently I’m not the only one who feels that way.  Make learning a challenge and allow the user to take ownership of the course by making impactful decisions. That ownership can give them the motivation they need.

Here at GLAD, we love finding new creative ways to answer “what’s in it for me?”. To find out how we could help you motivate your learners, drop us a line at You can also follow us on Twitter.

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