What motivates self-directed learners?

By Richenda Sabine

Graphic of carrot on a stick to illustrate motivating self-directed learnersWhat motivates you? Is it money, purpose, or something else? According to Maslow (Hierarchy of Needs) our basic needs of security, identity and stimulation have to be met before we progress to self-actualisation (growing and developing to reach our individual potential).

Consider this in the context of learning. Without motivation, learning is rarely effective, so how do you motivate learners in the first place?

The answer, it turns out, is that they can largely do it for themselves.

Daniel Pink, in his book ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us‘, dismisses the carrot-and-stick approach and tells us to forget everything we think about motivating people. He believes that the secret to high performance and satisfaction in today’s world is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and the world.

This view is borne out In the organisational context of today by the phenomenon of the self-directed learner, which has been well documented in research from learning benchmarking experts Towards Maturity, telling us that:

  • 88% learn more by finding things out for themselves, rather than through F2F training
  • 87% know what they need to learn in order to do their job
  • 74% know how to access what they need for learning

The research also shows a worrying disconnect with what some learning managers think about their learners, indicating that it is more than ever important to understand what motivates the self-directed learner.

There are two types of motivation:

  • Intrinsic – internally generated and comes from personal enjoyment or from a sense of obligation
  • Extrinsic – generated externally from objects, other people and the environment

The burning question in the world of workplace learning is how to keep these two types of motivation aligned, and not in contradiction with each other, so that self-directed learners stay engaged and motivated.

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