Motivating Learners: Tips from Robert Mager’s Book “Developing Attitude Toward Learning”

We all want to motivate our learners. Motivating learners during the training so they’ll have a better chance to learn is important, obviously. And it’s also important to motivate learners AFTER the training so they’ll be more positively disposed toward the topic in general and more likely to apply the training at work.

But how exactly does a good trainer motivate learners? One good place to look for tips is in the book Developing Attitude Toward Learning (or SMATs ‘n’ SMUTs) by the noted human performance improvement/learning theorist Robert Mager.

A quick note about Mager’s title: Mager is a funny guy and his books often have humorous subtitles. In this book, he explains that a “SMAT” is a “subject matter approach tendency” and a “SMUT” is a “subject matter unapproach tendency.” These originated as joking phrases he used around the house with his family while writing the book. A SMAT–or subject matter approach tendency–is a learner’s tendency to have a continued interest in the subject matter after the training is over. A SMUT–or subject matter unapproach tendency–is a learner’s tendency to avoid the subject matter after the training. Mager designed the book to teach us ways to increase SMATs for our learners and decrease SMUTs for our learners–in other words, try to make them want to engage with our topic and try to avoid turning them off our topic.

In this article, we’ll pass on some of the tips from Mager’s book. Of course, we recommend you buy the book and read it yourself. In fact, we recommend that you buy and read the entire “Mager Six Pack,” which we’re currently in the process of reading and writing about ourselves. Currently, here are the articles we’ve got about the Mager Six Pack:

Book Reviews:

Explanations of Techniques Described in Mager’s Books: 

With that out of way, let’s see what Mager has to teach us in this book (Developing Attitude Toward Learning).

Need any help with your training program at work? Check out the e-learning courses from Convergence Training, our family of learning management systems, or just contact us.

Also–feel free to download any of the following while you’re here? They’re all free–

Motivating Learners with Your Training

Mager begins his book by making a few bedrock arguments.

First, the reason we train learners is because we want them to perform certain desired behaviors on the job after the training is over.

Second, our learners are more likely to put their new knowledge, skill, or attitude to use on the job if they feel positively about the subject and they are less likely to apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes if they feel negatively about the subject.

Third, trainers can influence how learners feel about the training topic–either positively or negatively.

And fourth, the obvious goal is to create a training experience that leaves learners with a positive feeling about the topic, meaning they’re more likely to perform the desired behaviors on the job. Or, at minimum, to avoid creating negative feelings that turn the learners off from the topic.

Simple enough, no?

Learner Responses to the Training Topic: Approach (They Like It) or Avoidance (They Don’t)

After a training, the learner is going to respond to the training topic in one of two ways.

An approach means the learner somehow wants to get “closer” to the topic. In short, this means they feel positively toward it. A learner who feels positively about the training topic is more likely to be interested in the topic and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes covered in the training on the job.

An avoidance means the learner wants to “distance” him or herself from the topic. This means the learner has a negative feeling about the topic.

Learners may feel positively or negatively about a topic, and therefore display approach or avoidance behavior, for any number of reasons. One thing that can influence a learner’s reaction to a topic is the training they went through. And so it’s a trainer’s job to design and lead training that does two things:

  • Creates no negative feelings about the topic and therefore doesn’t cause avoidance behaviors–in other words, the training shouldn’t turn the learner off from the topic.
  • Creates positive feelings about the topic and therefore helps contribute to approach behaviors–in other words, you want the training to help the learner develop an interest in the topic.

In short, you want to help facilitate some form of interest or passion in the topic, and you don’t want to turn your learners off from the topic.

Motivating Learners: Training Conditions, Training Consequences, and Training Modeling

Mager notes that there are a few different ways that a trainer can motivate a learner or turn the learner off from a topic. He offers the three categories below.

Conditions: These are the conditions that the learner experiences when preparing for the training or during the training. This includes things like the temperature in the room; the speed at which online training is delivered; boredom; or anxiety caused by a hostile, abusive, or nervous trainer.

Obviously, the goal is to reduce the number of negative conditions that the learner will associate with the training topic and  increase the number of positive conditions. For example, make sure the room’s not too hot and provide comfortable chairs to sit in. To use the language from the previous section, negative training conditions will make the learner more likely to display “avoidance” of the training topic, and positive training conditions will make the learner more likely to display “approach” behavior toward the topic.

Mager goes to lengths to point out this doesn’t mean that the training has to be “fun” or that people can’t be expected to ‘work” during training. Instead, he says “…do your best to see that these activities are associated with positive conditions and with as few aversion (negative) conditions as possible.”

Consequences: These are the things that happen to the learner as a result of the training. This can include things like the trainer’s reaction to a learner’s question. Responding to the learner in a positive, supportive, encouraging manner will make the learner more positively disposed to the topic. Responding in a short, condescending, or rude manner is more likely to cause the learner to feel negatively about the topic.

Mager makes two additional points about consequences. First, he reminds us that the positive consequence should happen AFTER the desired learner behavior, not before. And second, he notes that the LEARNER must see the consequence as positive–don’t fall into the trap of creating a consequence the trainer thinks is positive but the learner doesn’t.

Modeling: This is how others, notably the trainer, react toward the training topic. Showing an interest in and enthusiasm about the topic is more likely to lead to your learners having a similar interest. You’ve probably seen this happen in real life–if a trainer thinks a training topic is fascinating and shows real enthusiasm, you might be more inclined to give it a shot yourself.

Modeling negative feelings and behaviors about the topic is more likely to lead to negative feelings in your learners. Think about it–would you be excited about a training topic if the trainer spent all day saying it was boring?

Positive Conditions and Consequences: How to Motivate Your Trainees

Mager lists some positive conditions and consequences that increase the chances your learners will be interested in and excited by your training topic. Here are some elements from his list:

  • Make sure training is relevant to the learners and their job
  • Teach only material that learners don’t yet know; don’t cover material they already know
  • Give learners as much choice and control as possible over training topics, sequence, and methods
  • Give learners as much choice as possible over the length of training and timing of breaks
  • Making instructional/learning objectives clear in advance
  • Make sure learners know in advance what to expect from each part of the training (return to the relevant learning objectives, etc.)
  • Be and act happy to see learners
  • Treat learners as individual people, not faces in a crowd. Get to know their names; talk to them during breaks.
  • Deliver training in small, appropriate-length “chunks” of time to reduce fatigue
  • Relate new information to information the learners are already familiar with
  • Help learners develop confidence
  • Acknowledge learners’ questions, comments, and responses
  • Give immediate and specific feedback
  • Use supportive, accepting language
  • Reinforce and/or reward positive responses from learners; let others see you doing that
  • Use good student behavior as an example for other learners
  • Test learners only on materials covered in training and included in learning objectives; don’t randomly test learners on things you never covered

Negative Conditions and Consequences: How to Turn Off Your Trainees

Mager also lists some positive conditions and consequences that decrease the chances your learners will be interested in and excited by your training topic. Or, in other words, the things that might turn them off from the training topic. These include:

  • Physical pain (kinda goes without saying, huh?)
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Frustration
  • Humiliation
  • Embarrassment
  • Boredom
  • Physical discomfort
  • Doing the opposite of anything listed above in the Positive Conditions section

Modeling Positive Reactions to the Training Topic

Another thing that makes learners more likely to feel positively toward the training topic is if others model feeling positively toward the topic as well. With that in mind, Mager gives some related tips.

Because people learn by watching and imitating, they will often behave in the same way that they see others behave. So, during the training, the trainer should behave the way that he/she wants the learners to behave after training. That means you should model good behavior, including having a positive attitude toward the training topic.

In addition, remember that people are more likely to imitate someone they admire. So, if the training can include a respected, admired figure, that’s great. But know that people often respect “average people” who are in a training role as well (like you and me) , so don’t underestimate your own awesomeness. 🙂

Finally, keep in mind that people are also more likely to imitate a desired behavior if they see someone else being praised/rewarded for performing that behavior. So, if one learner performs the desired behavior during a training, praise that person. Doing so will make the other learners more likely to want to perform the desired behavior correctly too.

The Training Environment, The Training Materials, The Trainer/Instructor, and the Instructional Policies/Procedures

Mager wraps up his book by listing some negative conditions and consequences to look for and try to avoid in four different areas: the training environment, the training materials, the trainer/instructor, and the instructional policies and procedures. We recommend you buy his book to check out his list, and then cross-reference it against the training sessions you lead.

Additional Resources: Some More Tips for Motivating Learners

There are LOTS of great folks writing about learning, so we figured we’d  browse the web a bit to see if we could find some more good tips about motivating trainees for you. Here are a few good ones we found:

Hope you found that helpful. The next book by Mager that we’ll look at is going to be his Making Instruction Work, and then we’ll end the series with a look at his Measuring Instructional Results.

In the meantime, why not download the free guide to effective manufacturing training below?


Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. Jeff has worked in education/training for more than twenty years and in safety training for more than ten. You can follow Jeff at LinkedIn as well.

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