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Top 7 learner motivation issues and how to fix them

As a course creator, you spend hundreds of hours working on your online course. Most of the time, you’re giving it all you’ve got while juggling other commitments. It’s very discouraging to see that learners drop out of your course. Even worse, some don’t even begin. 

Learner motivation issues are one of the biggest problems that online course entrepreneurs will ever face. That’s why instead of saying “it is what it is,” it’s worth troubleshooting the problem so you can fix these issues when and even before they happen.

You might remember that there are two main types of motivation:

  • extrinsic motivation: the type of motivation that is given by external factors such as rewards for completing a task;
  • intrinsic motivation: the type of motivation that happens when learners truly enjoy doing something and get in “the zone” while learning. 

Of course, in a self-paced course scenario, we want learners to have intrinsic motivation. However, this has to be sustained with extrinsic strategies as well. For many years and even now,  you often hear teachers say that it’s not their job “to entertain” students. 

When it comes to online courses, instructors have mostly changed their minds about this since it’s not about entertaining per se. It’s about grabbing their attention, encouraging them, and making them believe that they can reach their goals. 

That’s why online instructors have a trick up their sleeve called gamification. 

How gamification increases motivation

To motivate learners, you need interactivity embedded in the course design. Learners should feel:

  • Supported: they are supported in their learning goals step by step and encouraged to learn more; 
  • Rewarded: short term rewards such as points and badges help them feel validated for completing modules, while long term rewards such as certificates help them keep in mind the bigger picture; 
  • Entertained: gamification makes learning fun by turning it into a game. Even challenging tasks don’t seem so hard when you’re enjoying what you’re doing. 

In other words, people don’t need those points or badges necessarily; they are not the main reason why they do this.  Instead, it’s a fun way to measure progress, gain confidence and see that their behavior (learning) has immediate positive consequences. 

Learner motivation issues and their solutions

Sure, you can’t motivate all learners to stick to the end, but you can use different tips and tricks in such a way that makes them want to learn more. As you will see, gamification is needed for many of the steps, especially if your learning platform has gamification elements such as points and badges that are automatically awarded to learners. 

Without further ado, let’s explore the top seven learner motivation problems and how to solve them: 

  1. Learners don’t participate after buying a course

    Help learners make that first step. 

    Learners get a sense of accomplishment after enrolling in an online course even though they haven’t achieved anything yet. Indeed, many learners buy courses thinking that they’ll get around to them when they’re less busy. 

    Most of us have this misconception that motivation should be at an all-time high at the beginning. However, motivation comes after you engage in a behavior, not before, which is also known as the do something principle

    So, you as the instructor should be there to nudge learners towards that first step. If many are inactive from the start, they don’t have to wait for months until they hear from you. Take advantage of your learning platform’s inactivity management feature to encourage them to log in the first few days or the first week.

  2.  Learners lose motivation partway through the course

    Avoid the mid-course slump. 

    Learners can be very motivated at the beginning and even complete a few modules. But after a while, you can see the motivation curve going down. 

    First, if you can pinpoint approximately where your learners lose interest, you can change that module or modify their learning tasks. This is easy to see if you use the course analytics embedded in your platform. Second, you can act proactively and prevent this from happening if you want them to complete more challenging modules. 

    Instead of pushing them to keep in mind the big end goal, surprise them! It can be a discount code for one of your other courses, a secret group, a special hidden module, etc. Of course, this should happen when they least expect it, and it should be even more rewarding this way. 

    You can also start each module with an unexpected event, such as a meaningful personal anecdote or an interesting video that makes them excited about what they’re going to learn next. 

  3. Learners respond differently to rewards

    Use different reward systems.

    The truth is that there’s no magical formula for motivating learners with the help of rewards. It’s complicated and not the same for everyone. We can’t expect each and every learner to react the same way. Some will love getting badges, while some will feel lukewarm about it. 

    The main idea is that you can play with rewards and see what works best: 

    • Extrinsic motivation rewards: these are the steady, expected rewards they get for completing a learning task. This is great for tasks that are less exciting such as receiving ten points for completing a short quiz or survey; 
    • Intrinsic motivation rewards: these are rewards that they receive at longer intervals. They can be badges or discount codes that come as a surprise for doing something that is intrinsically rewarding — a harder task or reading an article, etc. (see number 2.)

    Read more: How to include gamification in your course design

  4. Learners are inactive for long periods of time 

    Take advantage of the sunk cost fallacy. 

    While people react differently to rewards, the simple and basic sticks and carrots approach might not be the best for learning. However, there’s something that almost everyone can get behind, and that is the sunk cost fallacy. 

    The sunk cost fallacy tells us that learners will want to complete the course solely because they have invested time (first modules) and money (buying an online course or subscription). 

    There is nothing wrong with reminding them of their investment and that they could get more out of it if they wanted to — as long as no shaming tactics are involved. Frequent reminders to access the course if they’re inactive coupled with rewards as they complete the course are a great way to put them back on track. 

    Read more: 10 Course automation tricks you need to save time

  5. Learners don’t respond well to “inactivity” notifications

    Engage learners outside of the course. 

    Continuing the idea above, not everybody likes  “please come back” emails or inactivity notifications, although they are efficient for most learners. So, there are other ways to entice them to come back. 

    For example, some learners might like the social aspect of a course. You can host weekly Zoom chats or invite them to webinars from time to time. They also enjoy discussion groups and forums. Think of it as a book club: people want to read the book to discuss it. The same applies to an online course. People will want to complete a certain module faster join in the conversation. 

    Sometimes all they need to log in again is a reminder in the form of frequent newsletters or giveaways. 

    Read more: Making the most of newsletters when promoting your online courses

  6.  Learners don’t see the relevance of the materials

    Use scenario-based learning. 

    Learning scenarios need to be planned in advance, but they are a great way to learn. Through carefully built scenarios, you can simulate real-life situations or problems, which appeal to their intrinsic motivation. 

    Plus, it makes the content more relevant to learners as they also get to apply what they learn. 

    Scenarios are easy to blend with gamification. For example, the game can have the same theme as the scenario. The game levels can also be named after the main theme, and so can badges and other rewards that you want to give them. 

    Read more: How to create scenario-based learning directly in your LMS

  7. Learners lose interest even with rewards and other strategies

    Revise your course content. 

    Last but not least, the easiest way to motivate people to take your course is to create a great online course. 

    Learners won’t come back if the course doesn’t offer something new or of value, which anticipates their needs and which can be applied in their daily lives. All of them expect to be able to solve certain problems after taking the course. 

    Simultaneously, learners who love the subject and also find the material interesting will intrinsically motivated to participate. This doesn’t mean that you need to erase everything and start from scratch, but you can think of ways to improve it, such as offering more meaningful examples and connecting the content to relevant and attainable learning goals. 


Don’t beat yourself up if learners fall by the wayside — it’s normal, especially if you teach thousands of them. Instead, focus on keeping them motivated from the beginning, create interesting content that they can relate to, and have a few tricks to draw them back in from time to time. 

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