‘Why’ Matters: 3 Ways to Make Learning Stick

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What’s the difference between an Arts degree and a pizza?

A pizza can feed a family of four.

I’m not what you would call a risk taker by any means but when I was in my last year of grade school I did something a little risky. I enrolled in a degree in the performing arts. 

So naturally, I hedged my bets and paired my Arts degree with a major in Afrikaans, my mother tongue. The goal was to have a backup plan if I couldn’t cut it in theater. 


Which would hopefully at the very least feed a family of one.

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Alexandra Gorn / Unsplash

Plan B

Like me, you may have been advised against having a backup plan. 

A backup plan undermines your decision and subconsciously invites the possibility of failure to enter and infiltrate your present mind. More often than not having a backup plan means abandoning plan A and making a beeline for backup town. 

That’s exactly what happened to me. 

Very soon into my degree, I realized that theater wasn’t for me. It became painfully clear that I wasn’t as talented as everybody said, and that I wasn’t prepared to do what I needed to, to make it in this very small and often unforgiving industry.

I also learned a whole lot about myself during this time:

  1. I was much more introverted than I pretended to be at school.
  2. I didn’t truly know who I was and what I wanted out of life.
  3. I was struggling with low self-esteem.
  4. And most importantly that 18-year-old me made a terrible mistake in choosing a career for myself.

Whose stupid idea was it to allow hormone-filled teenagers, barely able to drive, to make important life-altering decisions anyway?

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GIF courtesy of Tenor

But, Mamma didn’t raise no quitter, so I stuck with it. In truth, I was deeply ashamed of this realization and would sooner die than disappoint my parents by changing course and wasting a year of their money (I was lucky enough to have my first degree sponsored by my folks).

I completed my degree, walked across the stage in my academic regalia, and got patted on the shoulder by the Dean – then swiftly proceeded onto plan B – a Postgraduate in Education with the intention of making some cash to fund my existential crisis and buy some time for putting a total career overhaul plan together.

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Why am I sharing this story with you? 

Well, it’s because I don’t remember much of what I learned during my first 3 years at Uni. Close to nothing has stuck. Now 10 years later, I can’t share quotes from Greek tragedies or laugh at theater puns with the rest of my graduating class – because quite frankly, I don’t remember anything. My only focus was to pass and then carry on with my life. 

Why‘ Matters

I was today years old when I had this realization: I didn’t learn (and by learning I mean actually retaining knowledge) because I didn’t have a compelling reason to

Yes, I wanted to pass and give my parents the naches they deserved, but these two motivators were extrinsic. They motivated me just enough to keep content in my short-term memory long enough to pass my tests and exams, keep my attendance above 80%, and write research articles with an acceptable amount of plagiarism. But I had no intrinsic reason to retain any of this knowledge. 

So, I didn’t. 

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Midjourney image

“Learning is stronger when it matters, when the abstract is made concrete and personal.” – Peter C. Brown

If your learners, no matter their age, level of education, experience, or background, are not invested in what they are learning, the learning won’t stick. It won’t matter how brilliantly you applied ADDIE, how many interactive learning activities you’ve weaved through your course, or how engaging your material is. For effective learning to take place, the learning must be meaningful. 

Don’t get me wrong, these are all very important and definitely warrant a follow-up article, but these strategies are all secondary to first getting buy-in from your learners.

Think of it like Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. You first need to satisfy the base level of needs (in our case allowing the learner to find intrinsic motivation for learning) before you can move on to the next level. 

Find the Meaning in the Learning

Make the learning meaningful, show your learner what’s in it for them, and get them invested.

“Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Okay, so how do you do that? 

The short answer is to create motivation for the content you want to teach. This might require some reverse engineering. You’ll need to understand your learner, what makes them tick, and what they might find a compelling enough reason to learn before creating your well-designed learning journey.

Simply slapping some motivational slogan onto an otherwise dry course isn’t going to cut it.

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Andragogy has taught us that, while adult learners are responsive to external motivators (better jobs, promotions, higher salaries, etc.), the most effective motivators are internal (job satisfaction, self-esteem, quality of life).

To quote Andrew Barry in his article: “We can stimulate this intrinsic motivation by articulating clearly why something is important; by beginning at the end. If you have to rely on extrinsic rewards such as leaderboards and badges, at best you haven’t spent enough time clarifying your why, and at worst, you don’t have one.”

Internal motivation doesn’t just happen, you need to guide your learner to that motivation – help them find the reason for retaining the valuable knowledge you are about to impart. And this isn’t always an easy task. 

Make Learning Stick

I am not talking about maintaining motivation throughout the course, that’s a whole other ball game and you can read a bit more about that here. I am talking about igniting a fire right at the start. If the fire is big and warm enough it will last for the duration of the course and keep the momentum going.

Here are 3 of my favorite techniques to guide the learner to their personal why and make the learning stick. 

1. Ask And You Shall Receive

How can you possibly know what matters to your learner and what will motivate them? 

Have you tried asking them?

Before creating a course for your team designed to encourage specific behavior, the adoption or better application of new or existing tools, or to upskill -, think about asking your team what they think, and what they want to learn

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If you involve the people who will ultimately be taking this course at the grassroots, you will see a noticeable difference in the excitement around the launch thereof. 

“What matters is not what we teach; it’s what they learn, and the probability of real learning is far higher when students have a lot to say about both the content and the process.” – Alfie Kohn

Of course, you’ll want to make sure the conversations you have in focus group discussions are centered around data and facts, you might even do some gentle guiding to get the answers you were hoping for. But listening and acting on feedback is a really great way to give people what they want while getting what you want. 

In my experience as an HR professional, I often hear questions like: ‘What can we do to motivate, Johnny?’, ‘Why do you think Pete is not meeting his KPIs?’, ‘What do you think our people want from an inclusive leave policy?’ or ‘Jane is a great worker, I think we should promote her to team leader. Do you think she would be open to this?’. 

My answer is always: ‘Well, let’s ask them/him/her.”’

2. Connect The Dots

Seeing why a course, learning, or training will benefit the learner might not be immediately obvious to them. When you spend months thinking about creating a course to address a specific issue or to deliver a specific result, you are so deeply in the weeds that you might think the why is self-explanatory, but it rarely is.

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Connect the dots for your learner. Help them understand why taking a course or engaging in a learning experience will ultimately benefit them. Focus on the results and make the learning objective very clear. Remember to avoid relying on external motivators and focus on the intrinsic instead. Explaining or better yet, demonstrating the how is important here too.

To create an effective learning experience, answer the question: What’s in it for me? 

I am currently working on a course designed for student-athletes – what motivates young people is definitely different from what motivates adults. 

What I’ve learned from designing these courses is that the why behind the learning is always important, no matter the audience! 

The first step to designing this course for aspiring young sports stars was to understand them and what they want from a course and for their futures. Why are they so invested in their training and what result would compel them to learn?

The why we settled on, was to offer them a competitive edge over their peers fighting for the same college scholarship. By completing the course they would be working on a very important element of their game, that not everyone else is, giving them an unfair advantage and a better chance to succeed.

We used this why as fuel to fire our inspiration. We were able to create an effective learning experience that learners were excited to complete and, that delivered on what we promised. We made learning stick. 

3. Keep Your Learner Top of Mind

A lot has been written about learner-centered instructional design. But what I want you to think about here is designing your learning and the why behind that learning for your learner and possibly with their help. Keep your learner’s prior knowledge in mind, meet them where they are, and make it matter to them.

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One-upping a competitor is a great motivator for a student-athlete, but it would definitely not be a compelling reason to complete a course in confidence for a young professional just starting their career.

If I were to design a similar course for this type of learner, I might help them come to the conclusion that being more confident will allow them to gain a seat at the table, speak up on an important issue, unlock opportunities to pitch an idea, or even start their own company and design the life they’ve always dreamed of.

At the end of the day, what matters to you and motivates you, isn’t necessarily going to be the same things that motivate your specific learner. 

So, always keep your learner in mind when crafting a why for them. 

As a course creator or an internal L&D professional, you’re in the exact right position to do this. When you’re designing a course for your team (or a client’s team), all the information you need about your learner is at your fingertips. You can talk to them, ask for their input, you can get to know them, and find out what makes them tick. You don’t need to make any assumptions. 

Understand what’s in it for your learner before designing your course – what will make it worth their while? Then design your course to speak to that why. Never stray away from this why, your why is your north star. 

Nobody likes a false promise. Give your learners what they came for and deliver a return on investment for their time.

A Happy Ending

Mine was a long and winding road to reach my vocational destination but I’m glad I had the courage to put on my hiking shoes and keep walking. 

After spending 3 years teaching, I discovered a love for knowledge and people and decided to try again, this time with a self-funded Commerce degree in Human Resources. I worked a full-time and part-time job while completing this degree. I wanted to change the course of my future and I wanted to do work that I was passionate about.

My motivation this time around was internal!

I graduated Cum Laude and even received a special award for being a top achiever in my class. To this day I still remember, use, and apply a lot of what I have learned to my work because I had a very real and intrinsic why to fuel my motivational fire. 

Learning is never wasted when it is meaningful to the learner. From where I sit, in my L&D seat, all my learnings have led me here, to Curious Lion where I hope to use my experiences to always put the learner at the heart of everything I create and never forget the why behind making learning stick 

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