Thursday, June 7, 2018

Small Rewards Encourage Independent Lifelong Learning - Tip #190

“How do you engage online learners?”

It’s a perennial question that bugs learning and development professionals of all skills and responsibilities. From the designer to the trainer, it’s the one question that so many of us has sought to answer. Why, this blog is filled with tips on how to do just that!

But, here’s one more tip that you may not have considered.

Use Small Rewards to Engage Online Learners

In a study by Christian Garaus, Gerhard Furtmuller, and Wolfgang H. Guttel published in the Academy of Management Learning and Education, they found that “small rewards enhance autonomous motivation.”

Because small rewards (e.g., small points for performing an action) are large enough to affect the desired behavior (e.g., engage in online learning) but too small to justify continuing it, learners feel a “sense of dissonance (why am I doing this?)” and they link their persistence to learn to an intrinsic motivator(e.i., an internal desire, such as interest or enjoyment), which makes sense because autonomous learners are driven more by intrinsic reasons, such as a drive to meet personal and professional goals.

A small reward is an extrinsic motivator, or an external factor that pushes learners to do something to earn a reward or avoid an undesirable outcome. It only serves to push learners to start engaging in online learning and they don’t perceive it as a motivator to keep on going. Extrinsic drivers are a great source of motivation not because of external rewards but because they are associated with the goals a worker must do.

For example, Mary wants to feel good about doing great work and making clients happy. That’s a very intrinsic motivation. She is also responding to feedback of her actual work. So when the client says, “Can you do this?,” her inclination is to assist. That work demand is an extrinsic driver.

Other Ways to Apply Small Rewards in Training and Development

The research also suggests that small rewards can be used as a feedback mechanism for online learning. The rewards confirm a learner’s “current level of mastery” or performance and could motivate them further to learn independently.

Remember the IKEA Effect? When DIYers finish a project, they feel proud and accomplished, which further nurtures their passion for DIY. This is the same cycle: Small rewards motivate workers to start learning, they learn (“I did it!”), and they receive the small reward.

In addition to online learning, small rewards may also help employees take that first step towards accepting changes in the organization. But, because they can’t really attribute their behavior change to the small reward, they assume they’re embracing the change out of more internal reasons.


Christian Garaus, Gerhard Furtmuller, and Wolfgang H. Guttel. The Hidden Power of Small Rewards: The Effects of Insufficient External Rewards on Autonomous Motivation to Learn. Academy of Management Learning & EducationVol. 15, No. 1
Gerhard Furtmüller, Christian Garaus, and Wolfgang H. Güttel. Even Tiny Rewards Can Motivate People to Go the Extra Mile. Harvard Business Review, June 7, 2016
Sophia Bernazzani. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: What's the Difference?. HubSpot, originally published October 10, 2017, updated October 11, 2017
Tip #49 - Instilling a Love of Learning

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

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