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Be Motivated and Motivate: An Interview with John M. Keller

Special Issue: Paradigm Shifts in Global Higher Education and eLearning

By Hasan Ucar, Alper Tolga Kumtepe / May 2019

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John M. Keller is a distinguished professor emeritus at Florida State University, where he specializes in educational psychology and learning systems. Dr. Keller is the creator of the MVP theory and ARCS-V model.  He is also the author of the book Motivational Design for Learning and Performance: The ARCS model approach, and many articles on motivation and volition issues.

Who is John M. Keller? Can you briefly introduce yourself, please?

John Keller is an alumnus Professor of Instructional Systems and Educational Psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. Prior to going to FSU in January 1985, he was a member of the faculty at Syracuse University which he joined in 1974 after earning his Ph.D. in instructional systems design and organizational behavior at Indiana University, During his career he has had extensive experience working with corporate, governmental, and educational organizations in the United States and abroad on training design and development and other areas of performance improvement technology. He has made major contributions to the development of approaches to assessing motivation and designing motivational systems, and he has contributed to the design of performance improvement and systematic training design processes for several major corporations and government agencies. In addition, he has extensive international experience in Europe, Northeast and Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Prior to embarking on his career in higher education, he taught secondary school in Southern California and served a four-year tour of duty in the air wing of the U.S. Marine Corps where he specialized in electronic flight simulator maintenance and pilot training.  He has delivered addresses, participated in conferences, and completed consultancies in more than 30 countries. Also, he completed visiting scholar appointment at the Univsrsity of Twente in Enschede, The Netherlands, and a visiting professor assignment at the University of Salzburg, Austria. He is best known for the motivational design process he created that is called “the ARCS model.”

Motivation is an enigmatic issue, how do define motivation?

To characterize motivation as being enigmatic almost by definition makes it difficult to define! On the one hand motivation can be transitory and difficult to predict but on the other hand a person’s motivation can be strong and stable over many, many years as when a child has a goal that he or she pursues throughout his school years and into adult life. This dilemma results because motivation is a multi-dimensional phenomenon; it can refer to one’s attraction to a new flavor of ice cream which diminishes after a while and, at the opposite extreme, to an enduring desire to achieve a large and complex goal such as becoming a scientist or nurse.

Thus, an adequate definition of motivation must provide for these extremes in stable levels of attraction versus short-term interest among multiple goals. Motivation is generally defined as “that which explains the direction and magnitude of behavior, or in other words, it explains what goals people choose to pursue and how actively or intensely they pursue them” [1]. Enigmas result because, as indicated above, people can have multiple goals and they are not always logically consistent.

What inspired and drove you to work in the area of learning motivation?

My intellectual curiosity has basically always been drawn to questions about why people do the things they do and to books that explore this question. In my life, I have read hundreds of novels purely for the vicarious thrills resulting from action-adventure thrillers and other entertaining fiction, but I have also been drawn to explorations of the why questions about life; questions that are addressed by poets, novelists, philosophers, and yes, psychologists. There is a great deal of psychological research and consistent theory about what and how people can do what they do, but research to explain what they want to do and why they do or don’t persist in their efforts has always been my primary interest.

Why and how did you decide to theorize the motivation, volition, and performance theory that incorporate the ARCS-V motivational design model?

The ARCS model has proven to be very powerful in providing a basis for research and design for motivational issues, but it doesn’t always cover the gaps that sometimes exist among multiple goals or why people don’t persist in their efforts to accomplish a goal. The ARCS model can explain this, but I added volition to the model because it deals more directly and parsimoniously with this issue.

The MVP theory is a macro theory and covers a lot of theories. Are there any theories that stand out as the most supportive to the MVP theory?

There are many independent theories and constructs pertaining to motivation, volition, and learning and the total number continues to expand. In contrast, it could be beneficial for guiding research and practice to have more theories that are integrative in nature; that help explain relationships among theories in relation to motivation, volition, learning, and performance. Typically, researchers focus on a bounded set of questions within a given area of interest that incorporates a specific paradigm of inquiry. However, to have integrative theories it is necessary to move outside of the given paradigms and demonstrate how these various approaches can be combined to provide more explanatory frames of reference than any one of them can by itself. Accomplishing this gave rise to the ARCS-V theory.  It preserves the integrity of the constituent concepts and theories and provides a basis for cross-paradigm studies. This theory of motivation, volition, and performance (MVP) builds upon an established integrative theory as represented in the ARCS model but expands it by adding volition which incorporates the concepts of intentions, action control, and information processing within the framework of a system model. The scholars who are most prominent in the area of research on volition are Gollwitzer and Kuhl in Germany, and Corno, Zimmerman, and Schunk in the USA. Furthermore, the theory illustrates how environmental (external) influences on behavior combine with internal psychological constructs and processes in relation to goal directed effort, performance, consequences, and outcomes.

Considering the paradigm shifts in education, how do technological opportunities in learning environments affect today learners’ motivation and volition?

Technological opportunities can add tremendously to learners’ motivation and volition by improving the capability of students to build connections among themselves, adding increased levels of relevance within their exercises, and building functional interactive teams whose members can work effectively at a distance from each other. They also provide access to materials on an “as needed” basis instead of having to go to the library or other settings requiring physical presence. And, technology allows virtual face-to-face committee and small group meetings.

What do you see as the biggest obstacles in motivating online learners?

I believe the biggest obstacles in online learning are how to overcome the “distance” in distance learning, how to avoid procrastination, and how to provide exercises and activities that make the instruction relevant to the learners. The physical distance between learners is fixed but reducing the psychological distance can be achieved by including small group as well as large group activities that require students to interact with each other in meaningful ways. This also helps reduce or even eliminate procrastination by having group task activities that depend on the timely contributions of individuals within the group. Failure to do this leaves students feeling a lack of comradeship and shared purpose but having this interdependency helps build feelings of relevancy.

What are the biggest motivational challenges facing online instructors?

It is challenging to make a course meaningful to widely dispersed students with different backgrounds, life experiences, goals, and interests. These can also be problems in face-to-face (F2F) courses, but it is easier to overcome these challenges in a F2F setting because of the sheer proximity of the students with each other. Of course, this does not always happen and F2F students can leave a course at the end of a semester not knowing any of their classmates any better than they did at the beginning. However, it is potentially easier to build meaningful, interactive situations in a F2F setting than an online one.

Another major obstacle is that there is usually a more heterogenous set of backgrounds among the students in a distance learning course. This creates communication challenges that can be more easily overcome when students are together in the same physical setting. However, just as in the previous example, the psychological distances among students can remain just as great throughout a course as they are at the beginning especially when class time consists primarily of sitting and listening to lectures.

Thus, it is important in both settings to include learning activities that require student interactions in both the learning and performance activities that occur.

And, still another obstacle to the instructor is that it can be difficult to have high levels of student activity without overwhelming yourself with activities to monitor and assignments to review. This is another reason for having learning activities and assignments that contain team work and peer reviews to reduce the number of products that the instructor has to personally review.

What are the critical factors in implementing ARCS-V motivational design process?

The two most critical factors in implementing an ARCS-V process are to use a problem-solving approach, not a purely prescriptive approach, and integrate motivational strategies with learning activities.

A problem-solving approach means that you analyze each situation to determine what motivational problems actually exist before designing motivational strategies. This design activity is built into the early stages of applying the ARCS model. For example, if learners know that a given subject is important, but they are concerned about their ability to learn it, then that block of instruction should contain learning tasks that are graduated from easy to difficult in order to build their confidence.

This is tied to the next point which is to integrate motivational activities with learning activities. Sometimes instructors will have “motivational” activities at the beginning of a seminar or course that have no relationship to the actual content that will be taught. These so called “ice breakers” can be an annoying waste of time. It is far better to do things that contain actual content from the course objectives but to vary the level of “fun” activities depending on the students’ levels of intrinsic interests.

What are the key suggestions you want instructional designers or instructors to take away from your works?

Of the many things that could be said about motivation with respect to instructional design, there are three that are, I believe, particularly important. They are:

  • Motivation of students is not just a personality issue. Having the right personality can be beneficial, but even more important is doing the right things. That is, instructors sometimes believe that they must be entertaining to be motivating, but it is far more important to do things that are focused on behaviors that are contained within the four elements of the ARCS model. I can illustrate this by asking you how many of a comedian’s jokes can you remember at the end of a half-hour monolog? Normally, the answer is zero or close to it. In contrast, motivating instruction engages the students in ways that facilitates information processing and problem solving which results in high levels of memory and performance.

  • Motivation can be studied and influenced in predictable ways. This is related to the previous point, but the important point here is to realize that motivation is not just a transient state resulting from subjective connections between a source (an instructor or instructional materials) and the students. There are key attributes of people that can be investigated and incorporated into the interactions that occur between instructors and students to stimulate and sustain student engagement in learning, especially to sustain student engagement. It isn’t too difficult to stimulate interest, but sustaining it is far more complex which is why there are so many elements in the motivational design process!

  • Research on motivation is a very different process than designing for motivation. Psychological research tends to follow a classical inquiry model in which specific variables are defined and isolated by means of coordinated measurement tools. Then, the variables are studied with regard to their relationships with other variables and in terms of their effects. Even in applied research, these variables are defined as “independent” variables to test their influence on dependent variables. In other words, the emphasis is on analysis to isolate and define specific concepts and variables. In contrast, in design the emphasis is on integration of variables to build solutions that work successfully.

Valid design models must consider the influences, if not the effects, of multiple and interacting variables in actual learning environments, Thus, the frame of reference in design is more holistic. A designer must assemble various parts into a meaningful whole in order to test their effects. For example, in classical research on motivation, there are studies of specific motivational concepts such as need for achievement, curiosity, learned helplessness, and so forth. But, a designer must determine what all of the relevant variables are in a given situation and how to incorporate all of them together with the instructional strategies in the design plan.


[1] Keller, J. M. Motivational Design for Learning and Performance: The ARCS model approach. Springer, New York, 2010.

About the Authors

Dr. Hasan Ucar is an instructor at Bilecik Seyh Edebali University, Turkey. He received his Ph.D. and master's degree in distance education from Anadolu University, Turkey. His research focuses on online and distance education, specifically the motivational design of instruction in online learning environments. Additional areas of research include instructional design/technology, teaching and learning in online technologies, and motivation and engagement of online learners.

Dr. Alper Tolga Kumtepe is an Associate Professor in the Department of Distance Education at Anadolu University, Turkey. He also serves as a coordinator for research and development of instructional technologies at the university. He received his Ph.D. and master???s from Florida State University. His research interests include distance education, blended learning, measurement and evaluation in online learning environments, learner motivation and learning analytics.

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