Is motivation different in informal and formal learning?

Q. You seem to expect that motivation will operate differently in formal and informal learning situations. Do you? And in what ways do you expect motivation to differ because of the setting? Who are you drawing from to inform this understanding?

In many ways, this question gets to the heart of my research interests. While I believe that the same principles of motivational theories can be used in both situations, I think the emphasis and details are different.

In informal environments, learners tend to have much higher autonomy.  They are engaged in the activities by choice, not as part of a school curriculum. For example getting back to John Keller’s ARCS model of instructional motivation, this can be applied in both settings.  Designers and instructors in both formal and informal environments need to gain the attention of the learners, show relevance to the content, help the learner build confidence, and finally gain satisfaction from the process.  However, the way that this occurs may be different.

In many ways, there can be a lot more autonomy in informal environments.  Gaining the students attention may require providing enough novel and unique resources to that environment to keep participants there.  In the case of the virtual choir, many of the participants cited that they simply love Eric Whitacre’s music and they wanted to be a part of this.  The ‘celebrity factor’ of singing his music might be enough to get their attention.  But if they struggle with learning the music or have technical problems, this would cause problems in gaining confidence and they might lose motivation.

Satisfaction in the case of the virtual choir may come from sharing the finished video project on Facebook.  In my own experience of participating, there is a certain level of satisfaction sharing the finished project, especially when my mom, who is something of a music critic, even said that she likes it!  That gave me satisfaction. (

I definitely draw on Keller’s ARCS model and on Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s Self Determination Theory, which focuses heavily on the importance of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation.  In their early work, Deci and Ryan conducted psychological experiments and invariably found results that external rewards such as paying money can be detrimental to an individual’s intrinsic motivation to solve a task or problem.  As I mentioned earlier, I think that this theory of motivation could be applied in many areas of IST.  It has even recently been popularized by Dan Pink’s bestselling book, Drive and in TED talks about motivation.

I also draw on, and have not mentioned enough, the work on motivation in online settings done by Dr. Bonk.  His TEC-VARIETY framework is a very practical model specifically for encouraging motivation and retention in online courses and is a great framework to consider for designers and instructors.

  • Tone/Climate: Psych Safety, Comfort, Belonging
  • Encouragement: Feedback, Responsive, Supports
  • Curiosity: Fun, Fantasy, Control
  • Variety: Novelty, Intrigue, Unknowns
  • Autonomy: Choice, Flexibility, Opportunities
  • Relevance: Meaningful, Authentic, Interesting
  • Interactive: Collaborative, Team-Based, Community
  • Engagement: Effort, Involvement, Excitement
  • Tension: Challenge, Dissonance, Controversy
  • Yields: Goal Driven, Products, Success, Ownership

I have recently been reading draft versions of some chapters in his forthcoming book, that gives examples and activity based on his decades of work on online learning and motivation. The MOOC that I assisted him with last summer also focused a lot on online motivation for instructors.

The lens of informal learning & motivation may be a good way to incorporate other motivational models that may not be typical to IST.  This may be an area where I can contribute to the field.


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