How can we help learners feel autonomy, competence, and relatedness? Here’s a video of the webinar I recently ran on that topic, plus a summary of what we talked about.
It’s all about self-determination
According to self-determination theory, when people are externally motivated, they simply obey someone else’s rules (“I do it because the boss is watching”). They might feel resentment or anxiety, and they probably perform the behavior just well enough to stay out of trouble.
Our goal as trainers is to get people to adopt the new behavior as their own and perform it willingly and well — we want them to become more internally motivated.
Research seems to support the idea that people are more likely to become internally motivated if we support their needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. (For a lot more on that, see this PDF overview.)
To see what that might look like in activity design, we looked at a simple compliance activity and these two branching scenarios:
- Learning Zeko prototype: try the activity and then read the blog post describing what I was trying to do
- Hana Feels: consider some questions and try the activity here
The activities we looked at don’t make you sit through an information presentation. You’re just plunged into each activity, as described in this blog post.
We focused on self-paced activities rather than all types of training because the activities are easiest to show on a screen during a webinar, and our time was limited. However, the concepts we discussed also apply to other formats and materials, including job aids and live training.
We took a quote from the paper to define autonomy as “a sense of choice, volition, and freedom from excessive external pressure toward behaving or thinking a certain way.”
When talking about practice activities, we could consider autonomy at two levels. The first, shallow level is user choice: “Now I will click this other thing in this boring click-to-reveal.” The second and more interesting is a deeper sense of freedom from feeling like someone is telling us what to think.
See the video for the lively discussion among participants about how well the sample activities supported that deeper sense of autonomy. We then summed up our recommendations as a group.
We decided we could do the following to support autonomy in self-paced activities.
- Offer relevant scenarios with authentic choices
- Offer optional, on-demand resources rather than assuming ignorance and forcing people to sit through presentations
- Let people take risks
- Show the consequence of each choice by continuing the story and letting people draw conclusions, rather than telling them, “Incorrect, blah blah blah” (see this blog post for an example)
- Provide a clear goal for the person to achieve in the activity (beat the competition to the news story; help Hana) so they see a compelling reason to complete it
We considered three aspects of competence:
- “I can do this!”
- “Oops, I screwed up here, but I see how to fix it.”
- “I’ve got the basics now. Give me something harder.”
After gauging how well the sample activities supported our need for competence, we summed up our recommendations:
- Use scaffolding — for example, start with easier activities and then build on them
- Show the consequence of the choice and offer constructive feedback, not the shaming red X and “Incorrect”
- Don’t offer too-obvious options in a scenario — they insult people’s intelligence
- Don’t obviously track people — it suggests, “We don’t trust you to learn anything”
I’d add that an intuitive interface also supports our need to feel competent, as do easy-to-use job aids and other support materials.
Finally, we looked at the need for relatedness. This was defined as a sense of belonging or connection with others, and feeling respected and cared for by the “teacher.”
The compliance-style activity was a little low on relatedness. However, even it managed to make us care a bit because we were trying to save a person with a name (Magda) rather than answering an abstract fact check.
The branching scenarios were rich in relatedness, and participants said they wanted to help Hana and didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of Ludo. We cared how our decisions affected people who we knew were completely fictional.
We decided that to support relatedness in our activities, we could:
- Provide realistic characters with names
- Create characters that aren’t perfect
- Choose relatable situations that inspire empathy and that have emotional content
- Have the learner collaborate with characters towards a goal
- Choose a story that has the learner help others or be helped (or both)
- Write realistic dialog (see some tips)
My thanks go out to all the participants, including the determined few in Australia who got up at 4 AM! Thanks for sharing your ideas, comments, and questions.