On motivation – Boredom and overload

Part 9 of a series on motivation

A big mistake of some eLearning is to bore the learner with screens of information. A lot of text on screen is likely to be dull, repetitive and will take too long to read. For those who are not really motivated, it can be hard to sustain any affort in trying to learn from a computer. This is especially true if the subject matter is complex and difficult. It is misguided, I believe, to use entertainment as the antidote to this from of disaffection. All too often “fun” and “entertainment” is over-played to the extent that the learner is confused about the purpose and doesn’t learn anything useful at all. What is more, those learners whose motivation is predisposed may soon lose interest if the entertainment factor is too high. There is a fine line to be drawn between enough amusement for the bored and too much for the motivated. And yet somehow we have to arouse and enage our learners.


Arousal is a subject much examined by psychologists. Designers and developers of eLearning tend to be rather less in tune with the subject. The tendency is to over-stimulate. That is not to say that high arousal is absolutely bad or good. It rather depends upon the mood of the learner and the type of activity in which they are engaged. Taking account of these two factors it is true that too much arousal is always as bad as too little. How much is right depends upon the learner and the circumstances. Relaxed in a comfortable chair with your favourite libation in a glass, you might open a book or start a video with a promise of instant gratification – a good story, a pleasurable experience transporting you to a more wonderful here and now. In this state, a good rousing start might fuel your excitement and satisfaction whereas low arousal might result in boredom and disengagement.

Contrast this with the act of reading a user manual to set up your smartphone or the need to revise irregular verbs in preparation for a language exam – the focus is on your need for achievement and efficiency rather than pleasure. In this state low arousal may be quite satisfying, but high arousal might cause anxiety.


The German writer Goethe, famous for the play “Faust”, was celebrated for his words of wisdom as much as for the poems and plays he wrote. He commented, “Correction does much, but encouragement does more. Encouragement after censure is as the sun after a shower.” The first phrase of the quotation can translate equally well into, “Instruction does much, but encouragement does everything.” Either way it fits very well into what we know to be true today. In packaged learning we have only three ways of achieving arousal and encouragement – though words, through images and through sounds. Some of these we may use as deliberate stimuli to provoke a particular response. Others by default, because of the cultural, intellectual or emotional overtones they carry, may stimulate a positive or a negative reaction in the user.

In part 10 we’ll see how words, images and sounds affect motivation.

About Phil Green

Phil Green has written 84 post in this blog.

Phil identifies himself as a perfomance consultant and teacher who helps people and organisations to do the best they can at work. He has strong skills in designing learning materials and workflow support, and draws from a wide spectrum of methods and technology. Co-designer of a certificated qualification in blended learning, he has trained hundreds of others from many industry sectors in how to create effective learning solutions, both online and offline.

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