Using Real-World Outcomes to Motivate Learners

May 7, 2024

We’ve distilled optimal digital learner engagement into five key ingredients for High Engagement at Scale in digital learning experiences. We’ll share these ingredients over a series of posts. Our fifth ingredient to explore with you is real-world outcomes.

Whether you’re an accountant, a project manager, or a teacher, if you want to improve your chances of getting hired or promoted in today’s competitive job market, one of your key steps will likely be taking an online course. The plethora of digital learning experiences available, whether through your company, through LinkedIn Learning or Coursera, or through something like MIT’s OpenCourseWare, means that many organizations encourage or even require employees to improve their skills or learn new ones to advance in their jobs.

This process is commonly known as upskilling. Per a 2021 Gallup/Amazon survey of over 15,000 U.S. adults, over half of workers are interested in upskilling, and its benefits are significant for them: “an additional 8.6% in annual income (about $8,000 on average) for workers, promotion opportunities, higher job satisfaction, greater retention and an increased standard of living.”  The data reveal that employers see benefits as well, and that providing upskilling opportunities within a career path is a factor that workers now consider when accepting a job offer or promotion. 

People these days want more targeted learning experiences, but they also need connections to concrete motivators and value beyond traditional degrees.

As much as today’s digital learners may value the learning experience itself, they also need evidence of real-world outcomes to stay fully engaged. Knowing that a learning experience enables students to achieve tangible results in the real world adds to their motivation. 

Learners are busy, with complex lives and responsibilities to attend to in addition to the time and energy they must spend on their learning experience. So whether they’re trying to level up in a career, get a skill certification, or find practical knowledge to use in their daily lives, they have to believe their digital learning is relevant and useful. When they can see clear benefits, they’re more likely to engage with a sense of purpose and to see their learning through to the end.

Making Meaningful Outcomes

Our fifth ingredient, real-world outcomes, focuses on the links that digital learning experiences can build between new knowledge and life-changing opportunities. Will this learning experience help you land your dream job or secure the promotion you’re after? Will it improve your body of work? Will it allow you to accomplish something in everyday life that was previously out of reach? Learners are asking such questions as they begin a learning experience.

For all of these reasons, we design digital learning experiences that:

  1. focus on upfront real-world value in a way that’s clear to the learner.

  2. use practical practice and assessments with useful feedback.

  3. consider real-world value that’s leading to something beyond the experience itself.

Immediate real-world value

This sounds straightforward, but demonstrating the immediate impact of a learning experience is easier said than done. 

  • Prior experiences should be used to advance learning. Competency-based learning and prior-learning assessments play an important role in making sure that learners aren’t focused on the wrong things, such as content they’ve already mastered. This keeps them from getting bored with the material they’re studying and allows them to develop the skills they need in the moment, the ones that are transferable to the life and work they’re currently living. For example, the online university Western Governors University leverages pre-assessments to help students determine their level of competency, then develops personalized learning plans for these learners. They have competency-based programs measuring skills rather than time spent learning.   

  • Practical, applied learning opportunities must be clear to learners. People need to see how their experience is going to positively impact their current life, personal and professional. Project-based learning, portfolios, and real-world problem solving are important tools here and a key motivator to keep learners engaged. At IDEO U, every part of each course has a downloadable tool kit that learners can keep on hand afterwards in their workplace so that their newly learned tools and skills are easy to apply. In addition, because the online course is project based, each learner develops an artifact for their portfolio that they can share in the workplace or in job interviews to show their skills. Our client the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) accomplishes this with a learn-by-doing pedagogy. Their digital learning experience presents new ideas and concepts to learners and challenges them to put that knowledge to use through real-world business simulations that reinforce what they’ve learned. These simulations get more complicated as learners move through the lessons because the goal is to help them master complex tasks they’ll face on their case study exam and in life. Immediately applying their new knowledge increases retention and proficiency.      

Realistic practice and assessments

No one wants to go through a learning experience that’s entirely based in theory or gives assessments that don’t resemble anything they’ll see in reality. Robust feedback is also essential so that learners have a solid sense of how they’re performing and, if they aren’t succeeding, what they need to alter to do better.

  • Low-stakes practice and assessments must tie to real-world objectives. These assessments, whether summative or formative, need to be authentic to the situations in which learners will find themselves once they leave their digital classroom. It’s best if these assessments can be deeper than a simple text-based quiz. Video questions woven into the experience to check comprehension are one example of how this can be done. With one of our clients, a prominent university’s business school, Studion worked to bring the “cold call” to life as part of the digital learning experience because cold calls are a crucial part of in-person business. This approach ensured that every learner came to class prepared and gave learners a chance to hear how their peers would handle different situations. We built the feature to pop up randomly and to time the learners so that they have to answer in the moment, without turning to research. Then, after each learner responds, they can not only hear peers’ answers, but they can also access a library we created of past responses and feedback.    

  • Actionable feedback is crucial. Learners must be able to course-correct if they aren’t doing as well as they’d like on part of a topic. Machine-graded quizzes can offer robust feedback quickly and are a solid option. The popular language learning app DuoLingo uses a generative AI–powered tool called Explain My Answer. Whether a student gets a practice question right or wrong, this tool explains why the answer is graded the way it is. Peer assessment (with guided rubrics from the learning experience and/or the instructor) are also invaluable.

Future real-world value

For learners, it’s not enough anymore to see how they can use what they’re studying in the short-term. They also need to see the future real-world applications of their digital learning. In other words, they expect that their experiences will lead to professional and/or personal opportunities. 

  • Learners should be able to showcase their learning as it happens. Options like badges, activities and assignments that can be shared on social media, and credentials that learners can list as they move through and complete experiences contribute to their pride in their work and, thus, their motivation to complete it.

  • Make it clear what doors can open thanks to this digital learning. Learners need to know what the stakes of a successful outcome are: if finishing a course is likely to help them land a new job, if it will create new networking opportunities for them, if it will set them up to go for other professional or personal achievements. Some digital learning experiences are even starting to open other doors for their learners. Coding academies like General Assembly and Bloom Institute of Technology have worked to align incentives with education using programs like Deferred Tuition at Bloom and Pay After You’re Hired at General Assembly. These programs provide links to coding jobs to their graduates, and those grads don’t have to repay their tuition if they don’t get jobs earning at least a certain base salary. 

Bringing Everything Together

To succeed at being highly engaging, digital learning must connect learners to more than knowledge: it must connect them to concrete, real-world value and outcomes. To do so at scale, it requires the deployment of personalized pathways that give learners the ability to use where they’ve been to get where they’re going. At Studion, our expert learning designers know how to make the most of the tools and techniques that empower learners in digital environments. With our attention to real-world outcomes, we help set learners up to reach the opportunities they seek.

Does your learning experience meet High Engagement at Scale benchmarks?

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