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What Motivates Adults to Learn?

The labour market is changing fast. Fifty-four per cent of all employees will require extensive upskilling or reskilling by 2022 (World Economic Forum, 2018) and eighty-five per cent of jobs in the European Union now require at least a basic level of digital skills (Cedefop, 2018). To meet the evolving needs of the job market, workers, business and governments need to adapt to a culture of lifelong learning by providing citizens with high-quality training opportunities.

However, a well-designed skills policy or training service doesn’t always translate into uptake. Workers also need to feel motivated to learn new skills and those who are most vulnerable to labour market changes are not always receptive or willing to reskill. So uncovering what drives motivation to learn is a priority.

Using evidence from a rapid evidence assessment (REA), carried out by CFE Research, this report by Nesta's Digital Frontrunners identifies what motivates working adults to take part in and complete training in digital and digital-complementary skills.

Key findings

Motivation to learn is complex

Many factors drive people to learn. On the one hand, learners are motivated by external rewards, such as financial incentives, improved job opportunities or approval from a manager. However, learning also needs to be personally rewarding to feel worthwhile. Regardless of the external rewards like accreditation or incentives, it must be enjoyable, challenging and interesting (Kantar, 2018).

Without both these internal and external motivators, people are unlikely to take up or complete training. Therefore, skills policies and training services which consider both are the most likely to succeed.

Behaviour change models can help policymakers understand how external and internal factors interact to drive motivation to learn and design accordingly. The report outlines how the COM-B model (Michie et al, 2011) could be particularly useful in this respect.

Drivers to learn are personal

It’s tempting to give policymakers a list of general barriers and enablers to learning for them to consider when designing training services. However, in reality the choice to start training is complex and personal. For each adult, the decision to participate in learning comes at a tipping point where ‘personal benefits outweigh personal costs’ (Kantar, 2018). For some people the balance might be tipped when the financial costs of training are reduced. For others, it might be when they have access to childcare.

There is also some evidence that demographic factors like age, gender and education level affect motivation to learn. Across Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, women tend to participate in training slightly less than men (OECD, 2019). Younger adults, those with higher education levels and higher socioeconomic groups are most likely to be learning (Kantar 2018). However, we need more granular research to understand the motivators and barriers for different groups when it comes to learning digital and digital-complementary skills specifically.

Self-reflection and goal setting increase motivation to learn

One of the most effective methods for helping learners to stay motivated is by pairing the learner with a trusted advisor who knows them personally, and knows the job or training course the learner is interested in (Kantar, 2018). The advisor can help the learner navigate their own personal barriers and enablers to training.

Some studies suggest that careers guidance techniques that promote self-reflection and goal setting successfully encourage workers to learn new skills (Stauffer et al, 2014; Eisele et al, 2013).

We need to test and learn to find out what works

Crucially, our rapid evidence assessment highlights a lack of evidence about what works to motivate workers to learn digital or digital-complementary skills. Although Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs) are being rolled out in several countries, there isn’t yet much strong evidence that they work - although a forthcoming OECD report is expected to conclude that ILAs can be an important, emerging approach to training interventions which help structure learning over a career. We believe it is critical that governments invest in evaluating what works and identifying best practice.

Currently, there is no shared framework to measure the success of training services, which makes it hard to compare and contrast approaches. There would be value in creating a shared set of measures for effectiveness that could be used across the skills system.

What next?

There is more to be done to understand what policies can effectively increase workers’ motivation to learn digital and digital-complementary skills. Throughout 2019 and 2020, Nesta's Digital Frontrunners will test training and learning interventions to help policymakers understand what works for lifelong learning. Digital Fronrunners will also use evidence from the REA as a foundation for primary research, and to inform discussions and practical projects in the future.

Digital Frontrunners is a programme led by Nesta that aims to find solutions to the challenges of digital transformation.

Our thanks to the authors of this report:
Dr Deirdre Hughes OBE
Alex Beard
Alex Stutz
John Higton
Dr Guy Birkin
Andrew Corley
Chris Milner

Authors

Jack Orlik

Jack Orlik

Jack Orlik

Programme Manager, Open Jobs

Jack is the Programme Manager for Open Jobs.

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Benjamin Reid

Benjamin Reid

Benjamin Reid

Head of International Innovation - Development Programmes

Benjamin is head of the International Innovation team within Nesta's Policy and Research division, examining new global trends and practices in innovation, with an emphasis on emergi...

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Georgie Whiteley

Georgie Whiteley

Georgie Whiteley

Senior Researcher, Future of Work and Skills

Georgie will be working on the research needs for the Digital Frontrunners and Futurefit programmes.

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