ARCS Model of Motivational Design in E-Learning (John Keller)

ARCS model of motivational design, explained below

John Keller’s ARCS model helps elearning designers to create motivational elearning content.

The model emphasizes four design considerations for the development of learning materials. These four considerations aim to maximise student engagement. These are, following the ARCS acronym:

  • Attention
  • Relevance
  • Confidence
  • Satisfaction

Keller’s model, outlined below, has been the focus of significant research since its inception, including from John Keller himself, who has primarily focused on how the ARCS model might be of value to eLearning (Keller & Suzuki, 2004; Keller, 2008).

ARCS Model of Motivation in Instructional Design

1. Attention

The first focus of the ARCS model is attention.

Attracting and sustaining students’ attention is often a prerequisite to learning. Strategies for engaging attention should therefore be considered when developing educational content.

Keller suggests the following methods: active participation, humor, conflict, variety and real world examples.

  • Active participation involves ensuring students are contributing to their own learning rather than sitting back being passive. It is the difference between watching a movie (passive) and discussing ideas from the movie (active). The more active the learner, the more you’ll be able to sustain their attention.
  • Variety involves making sure you mix up the ways you can present information to prevent monotony. In his later work (Keller & Suzuki, 2004; Keller, 2008), he specifically notes the use of digital animation and graphics as attention-grabbing strategies. Similarly, content that is incongruous or surprising might be of value for re-focusing students over the course of a lesson whose attention has faded. Making learning surprising might involve the withholding of information from students until an opportune moment, or introduction of a degree of mystery to maintain students’ attention.
  • Humor can be used to interrupt the monotony of a lesson as well. By making students laugh (or even roll their eyes!) you’re injecting a memorable moment that can be used to recall information. Be careful to ensure the humor is not offensive!
  • Conflict involves providing a moment of cognitive dissonance. Highlight new ideas that might conflict with existing ideas, and use them as a launching pad for discussion.
  • Real world examples can help students to associate what they’ve learned with something in their life so they have an anchoring point for exploring ideas. For example, making a math lesson related to a shopping experience (Keller & Suzuki, 2004).

Related Article: 6 Great Lifelong Learning Examples

2. Relevance

Secondly, John Keller suggests ensuring content is relevant to students.

Showing that what is being learned is relevant helps students to see the purpose of the learning activity.

There are several ways you can show relevance, including: links to prior knowledge, showing the present worth of the task, showing the future usefulness of the task, and modeling usefulness.

  • Linking to prior knowledge can help students see that they’re building on knowledge they already have. Here, you’re making content relevant to the students’ existing thinking on a topic.
  • Linking to students’ lives, interests, chosen careers, or common relatable experiences can make the content more relevant. This shows how the learning might be relevant beyond the scope of the course and its outcomes, and be applied outside of the classroom.
  • Showing present worth involves explaining how the knowledge can be used to improve your life today. Here’s an easy way of doing it: tell the students the lesson’s in the exam! This really makes them focus. They know they’ll need the knowledge immediately. (This is mentioned as a requirement in Biggs’ (2003) constructive alignment model, too.)
  • Showing future usefulness can highlight that the task will need to be remembered as it will be required in the future, such as showing students how this knowledge might be valuable in the workplace.
  • Modeling usefulness can build on the ‘showing future usefulness’ point, and might involve showing successful examples of how someone us using the information being learned to improve their lives.

See More Relevance Examples

3. Confidence

Keller’s third factor for consideration is confidence.

This factor highlights that we should give students a sense that they are capable of succeeding.

Self-confidence can be achieved when teachers create lessons where students can see that their personal effort will lead to success (linking to Bandura’s (1997) idea of “self-efficacy”).

A person with self-confidence believes they are capable of completing a task. They also are more likely to feel the task is a reasonable one (because they know they can do it!).

Keller’s emphasis on confidence overlaps with a few other theories:

  • Creating clear objectives gives students a benchmark to judge themselves against. Without clear objectives, students will often not be able to judge how well they are doing at the task, which can decrease their self-confidence (see also: Deci and Ryan’s (2017) “self-determination theory“).
  • Providing formative feedback can help students get a clear understanding of how well they’re doing at a task and allow them to gauge their competence. This in turn can give them confidence to proceed knowing that they’re going in the right direction.
  • Increasing perceived control is at the heart of attribution theory’s concept of ‘locus of control’ (Miltiadou & Savenye, 2003; Reeve and Jang, 2006). But it’s also used here to let students choose to do tasks in ways that they are most comfortable with.

4. Satisfaction

Student satisfaction will occur if the teacher has considered the three other factors in their lesson design (attention, relevance and confidence).

Satisfaction occurs, in other words, when activities are engaging, relevant, and inspire confidence.

But barriers to satisfaction can happen when content appears too hard or too easy (the Goldilocks principle) or when fFavoritism occurs (or is perceived) in the classroom.

Satisfaction is achieved in two ways:

  • Intrinsic satisfaction is the feeling that you have achieved something good, usually for the sake of the task itself. You didn’t do it for someone else’s praise or reward, but for the satisfaction of achieving something.
  • Extrinsic satisfaction is the feeling that you have done well because someone provides a praise or reward. This can be in the form of points in a game, grades on a test, or the teacher giving you a pat on the back!

Read Also: Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation


arcs model of motivation by john keller

The four factors outlined by John Keller (1987, 2008) have been extensively used in many studies. They’re widely used in the design and analysis of curricula.

Keller’s work is particularly widely used in eLearning. Most studies highlight that Keller’s model leads to positive perceptions of lessons from students (Keller, 2008; Keller & Suzuki, 2004; Hodges, 2004).

Overall, the ARCS model is a simple and effective way to think through learning design to help ensure it motivates students.

Related Motivation Theories:


Bandura, A. (1993). Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning. Educational psychologist28(2), 117-148.

Biggs, J. (2003). Aligning teaching for constructing learning. Higher Education Academy1(4).

Hodges, C. B. (2004). Designing to motivate: Motivational techniques to incorporate in e-learning experiences. The Journal of Interactive Online Learning2(3), 1-7.

Keller, J. M. (2008). First principles of motivation to learn and e3‐learningDistance education29(2), 175-185.

Keller, J., & Suzuki, K. (2004). Learner motivation and e-learning design: A multinationally validated processJournal of educational Media29(3), 229-239.

Miltiadou, M., & Savenye, W. C. (2003). Applying social cognitive constructs of motivation to enhance student success in online distance education. AACE journal11(1), 78-95.

Reeve, J., & Jang, H. (2006). What teachers say and do to support students’ autonomy during a learning activity. Journal of educational psychology98(1), 209.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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