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Do Challenges Motivate Trainees?

Snail moving to a finish line

Not that we like to brag but we’re pretty good at motivating attendees on our courses and events.  But there’s no magic bullet or panacea.  Just like raising children – lots of advice out there but no single, simple answer.  I can sense your disappointed face.

When we’re designing training exercises or labs, we need to motivate the trainees.  One way we can do this is to break new and potentially complex tasks into simpler steps and lead the user on a journey of mini-achievements.  Success is like endorphins; keep plying the attendee with obtainable challenges and they’ll continue and remain engaged.  Sounds like common sense; “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.  I believe Kayne West took the credit for that gem.

But the difficulty of these challenges is a science in itself.  This study from the University of Southern California says the key is what people think ease and difficulty mean for them.  For some people, if tasks feel too easy, the journey becomes demeaning and boring and thus a demotivator.  Too difficult and the trainee might give up.  For others, easy tasks are in themselves motivators and for others still, high levels of difficulty can trigger feelings of the task being valuable and worthwhile to invest time and effort.

How people perceive difficulty can significantly influence their learning performance and the study found that people who perform better are the ones who felt that difficult does not mean impossible and easy does not mean trivial.

So we design course materials with a mix of challenges; some important objectives that are easy to accomplish (easy ≠ trivial) along with some complex or unfamiliar tasks broken down into methods, steps and terminology that allow trainees to achieve or at least confidently tackle the problem (difficult ≠ impossible).

Demographics comes into play as well so we also need to understand our audience and the mix of people.  The study found men on a low income are more likely to view difficulty to mean probable failure so may demonstrate a propensity to ‘give up’ quickly.  Statistics should always be questioned however and the study covered only 1,000 people and may not be representative of wider communities.

In conclusion, don’t set labs based solely on people’s perceived skill or ability but understand your trainees and set the right mix of challenges in order to maximise and maintain their motivation.  Training based on motivation is likely to be more successful.