How to get your learners to act, not just know

March 3, 2022

Focusing on performance means that the true measure of learning is whether learners take actions after the learning experience that improves their performance. So while motivation and memory are hugely important; the trump card is whether that gets translated into action. Two behavioural insights can really influence the likelihood of an individual choosing to take action: social proof and specific instruction. 

Social proof

We’re all influenced by other people. Even if we like to think that our opinions and actions are completely our own, the truth is that they’re not. Our friends, families, teachers, role models and - yup, even instagrammers and youtubers! - influence more of our actions than we’re aware of. 

According to psychologists Morton Deutsch and Harold Gerard, this comes down to our human needs to be right and our need to be liked. In an effort to be right, we tend to copy the behaviour of those around us. We accept information from others with limited evidence of our own. This is known as Informational Influence or Social Proof. To be liked, we’re willing to change our behaviour in order to fit in - particularly if the group is one we aspire to be a part of. This is known as Normative Influence.

So ask yourself: how can I role model behaviours that learners will aspire to?


Two ideas for using social proof in learning:

Leverage your early adopters.

Whenever a change is taking place, there will be some people who jump on the bandwagon quickly and others that follow some time later, when the ‘new’ has become the ‘norm’. Make the most of your early adopters by encouraging them to spread the word to their peers. Consider building their stories into your promotion for the learning experience and encouraging them to take on the role of ‘champion’.

Give experts a voice.

Have you noticed how much more impactful a message can be when it’s from an expert? Celebrate your SMEs by asking them to explain concepts in their own words. If you’re worried they’ll get carried away with the detail, ask them to record their explanation in a 30 second voice note. The time limit forces them to keep it concise and the format encourages a more conversational tone.

Specific instruction

In To Sell is Human, Dan Pink references a study from The Person and the Situation that looks at the impact of specific instructions alone on college students’ likelihood to donate to a food drive.

Different letters were sent to two groups of students about the food drive; one that asked them to donate a specific type of food and included a map, and another that asked them to donate food in general and didn’t include a map. The results were significant. 

Students who had been identified by their peers as intrinsically unlikely to donate but had been given the letter with specific instructions, donated food at three times the rate of students who were intrinsically motivated but not provided with specific instructions. 

The clear instruction made more of a difference than their intrinsic motivation to donate.

So ask yourself: how can I give specific instructions for turning learning into action?

Two ways to include specific instruction in digital learning:

Tailor calls to action

Designing learning experiences for the masses can lead to content that tries to be relevant to everyone and ends up being relevant to noone. 

Calls to action are where it’s worth investing the extra time and effort in creating tailored instructions, whether through personalised digital learning experiences or team-based follow ups focused on practical application.


Give reminders over time.

There’s a reason that your favourite online stores send you emails every week or so. A gentle nudge every now and then helps keep the action they want you to take front of mind. 

So don’t expect your learners to remember that one time you asked them to do something; keep the message alive through regular, spaced communications. 

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