On motivation – If you are of a nervous disposition, look away now

Part 10 of a series on motivation

Training designers have to use the tools of their trade with maximum precision. It is very easy to dismiss careful use of language and imagery as mere poliitcal correctness. Here are two illustrations of what I mean, drawn from experience of real pieces of learning.

The first example is an experiment by a lecturer in Educaion way back in the 1960s.

He would select eight volunteers and ask seven would leave the room. Then he would display a picture for two minutes.

The picture was divided into four quarters – a collage of elements that were not necessarily meant to be connected; a boat, a girl, a man, a churchyard.

The picture included some comfortable and some disturbing elements. For example it showed the girl sunbathing beneath a brilliant bright sun on a beach. Closer scrutiny showed her face to be badly disfigured, and by the way, she was completely naked. The white sails of a boat contrasted with a deep crimson sunset. The heavily tattoed man in the picture was smoking a thick cigar.  Prominent in the churchyard was a tombstone and a quotation from Thomas Gray’s elegy in a country churchyard – “The paths of glory lead but to the grave”. Each of the remaining seven volunteers was reintroduced to the room in turn. For 30 seconds their predecessor was allowed to describe the picture for the current volunteer to keep in mind. Then they took their turn to pass on the description as faithfully as possible to the next volunteer. Of course each put his or her own “spin” on the end result, tying together disparate elements to try to make a context and tell a linked-up story. But most significant of all, each of the volunteeers in turn did something to sanitise the image so that by the time all eight had created a version, the uncomfortable elements had been erased. Volunteer number eight was asked to sketch the finished version on a flipchart.

Selective memory

Gone was the scar on the face, and the girl was clad in a very modest swimming costume. The sunset was as brilliant as ever, the man had somehow become a sailor on the deck of the boat, but he had lost his cigar. There was no mention at all of a tombstone nor of a quotation from a poem. So we can draw two conclusions – we strive to make sense and connections where they may not actuially exist and we filter out anything we find uncomfortable or unacceptable such as nudity, death, smoking or disfigurement.


You know what it’s like when your parent/spouse/partner says, “You have not listened to a single word I just said”. It’s not true; you HAVE been listening; you just haven’t heard! If you are a teacher or youth worker or organiser of a children’s party you will know when you’re working with groups of excitable young people just to say “stop” is not enough. Typically teachers of small children might clap hands and say “…and, 3,2,1 Stop!” That brief countdown makes all the difference in stopping the child, refocusing attention, and then delivering the instruction. You might have seen this referred to in “trainerspeak as “freezing” and “refreezing”, or “advance organisation”. It has a bearing on how we present e-learning too. If we change focus too rapidly then we might lose control. I’m not suggesting you clap hands and count down from 10, but a simple, “Next we’re going to…” may arrest attention better than switching too rapidly to a new theme of media. So when we feel moved to create e-Learning that bombards the user with sensory input from all directions, we might do well to think about some experiments in 1958 from a researcher called Broadbent. A subject hears two voices at the same time through a set of headphones. They are instructed to listen carefully to one of the voices and repeat everything word for word. After a little practice they can do this very well, however they must filter out the “unattended” voice to succeed. Very soon they have no idea what the second voice is saying, or even if it is speaking English. They may be able to say whether the speaker is male or female, but they cannot recall or make sense of any part of the content.

In part 11 we’ll continue with the themes of arousal and grabbing attention.

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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