A Shot of Theory - Keller's ARCS Model

If you know us at Kineo, you know we don’t like to get too bogged down in academic theory. We tend to the pragmatic and practical – what really works in learning design?

That said, it’s good to brush off the books now and then and revisit some of the formal theories behind how adults learn and how that can be applied to e-learning.

This is our first in an occasional series on learning design – little shots of theory to give you some foundational background or to refresh what you may already know. We start with John Keller’s ARCS Model of Motivational Design.


What is it?

Keller’s ARCS Model of Motivational Design provides strategies to make instruction more appealing. What makes a learner eager and willing to sit through that e-learning? How do you keep the learner interested?

We can load up courses with bells and whistles to make them loads of fun, but that’s not the point. The strategies and tactics we use must support the instructional goals. Remember, it’s education, not entertainment.

Keller (2006) writes, 'motivational design is concerned with connecting instruction to the goals of learners, providing stimulation and appropriate levels of challenge, and influencing how the learners will feel following successful goal accomplishment, or even following failure.'

The ARCS Model defines four categories of motivational variables: attention, relevance, confidence and satisfaction.

Are you motivated to learn more about ARCS? Well then. Let’s go.

A is for Attention.

First, you’ve got to get the learner’s attention. That’s right. Make ‘em sit up, lean in and listen.

Keller breaks Attention down into three subcategories: perceptual arousal, inquiry arousal and variability.

Perceptual arousal: that’s when you get them to notice. Perhaps you turn a topic on its head in a surprising way or present a startling – even shocking – fact or statistic.

And it’s true, enquiring minds do want to know, so inject a little inquiry arousal to incite curiosity. Ask some hard questions and put forth some real-life problems that the learner might want to solve. Get them curious and wanting to know more.

Variability means turning on the beat box and mixing it up. Don’t present your content the same way every time. Mix it up with a little video, a little animation, a little text. Throw in an exercise when they least expect it. Make each page a new surprise and keep ‘em guessing.

Want some other ideas? Read our Tip 12: Have I Got Your Attention? 

R is for Relevance.

How is this content relevant to this learner and their goals? What’s in it for them and why does it matter that they sit through the next twenty minutes, let alone the next hour? When content is relevant to the learner’s needs, they’ll be motivated to complete the program.

Keller breaks relevance down into subcategories: goal orientation, motive matching and familiarity.

To make your program relevant, show examples and case studies that the learner will connect to. If you’re creating a course about a hair salon, make sure the examples show a hair salon, not a car factory!

Use familiar terms that connect them to what they already know. Build on existing knowledge and then take it to the next level. When the learner understands why they need to sit here, can connect it to what they need to do, and even have some choice in how the experience unfolds, they’ll be more motivated.

C is for Confidence.

Help your learners stand tall and proud. Confidence isn’t just about doing a great job, but rather being sure they know what’s going on.

Keller defines the Confidence subcategories as learning requirements, success opportunities and personal control.

To build confidence, you need to let the learner know what is expected of them and what’s about to happen. What does the program cover? How long will it take? How will they be evaluated? Is there a test? What do they need to score?

Know your audience and design the content for them. If it’s too easy, they’ll be bored; if it’s too hard, they’ll lose confidence.

Let the learner have control. Ideally, keep the navigation open and let them move through at their own pace. Let the learner decide when they want to take the assessment. Don’t force them to wait if they’re ready to test themselves now.

In the assessment, and throughout the program, provide meaningful feedback. Pats on the back are nice when they get it right (but don’t patronise!), and if they get it wrong explain why and help them explore the reasons for this type of mistake.

We’ve got lots more to say about feedback in Tip 6: Feedback

S is for Satisfaction.

When Mick Jagger complains, “I can’t get no satisfaction”, we hope he’s not singing about our e-learning programs! Your program might be tough and frustrating at times, but make sure the learner walks away from the e-learning with a sense of accomplishment, knowing that this was time well spent. Interactive case studies that conclude with a successful sale or a happy customer leave the learner with the warm glow of success.

And don’t just let it end there. Put forth a call to action that will trigger further explorations or activities, or even application in the real world. The learner has just invested their valuable time into your program, so help them see that the investment was a wise one by helping them put it to use right away. This might involve follow-up activities with a manager or live workshops or coaching sessions.


A short little acronym with a lot of punch to it, don’t you think? John Keller’s ARCS Model of Motivational Design provides a model for selecting instructional strategies that connect to instructional goals, while generating interest and motivation on the part of the learner. By attending to the four variables that influence motivation – attention, relevance, confidence and satisfaction – you can create a program that’s aligned to a learner’s needs and keeps them focused and engaged.


References and Further Reading:

Keller, John M. (2007, July) http://www.arcsmodel.com/

Keller, John M. (2006, June). What Is Motivational Design?

Learning Theories Knowledgebase (2009, December). ARCS Model of Motivational Design