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Getting the Horse to Drink: Motivating Apathetic Learners

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

As the old saying goes "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink."

I've written quite a few posts now that talk about encouraging a culture of learning, providing timely feedback to learners, and focusing on learner needs. They work, for the most part, from the premise that people are open to learning. In these posts, my goal has been to help leaders deliver the right kinds of learning experiences to those that they lead.

But sometimes, people are not open to learning.

When you come across an apathetic learner, you're usually dealing with one of these three situations:

  1. Time scarcity: Someone who doesn't believe they have any more time left in their schedule for anything, including learning.

  2. Irrelevance: Someone who sees the content as extraneous rather than applicable to their life/work/studies.

  3. Know-it-all: Someone who is convinced they know the subject well and have nothing left to learn.

Let's talk about strategies for re-engaging each of these apathetic learners.

Dealing with Time Scarcity

When you've got someone saying "there's not enough time," what they're really saying is "other things are priorities." You need to respect that, but also to challenge it.

One of the best ways to do this is to remind them of the risk associated with not learning the content you have to offer. For example, I work with an airline, and one of the biggest departments is Stations, which covers everything from ticket agents to gate agents to the ground operations agents out on the ramp. Sometimes, agents feel overwhelmed by the amount of learning that needs to happen. They are trained as new hires, constantly given updates, and forced to take recurrent training annually. This can lead to apathy for the learning. In these cases, it's important to remind them the risk of not learning what's in the content-- typically, those are safety and security risks. If you fail to learn the proper hand signals, for example, someone could be seriously injured or killed due to miscommunication.

Fear of missing something important can be a great emotional motivator. Do try not to terrorize the learner, though. There's a fine line between giving a warning and breaking confidence.

You can also focus on ways that learning now will lead to more time availability later. Is a new process going to take 4 hours to learn, but cut at least an hour of work a day out of their schedule later? Let your learner know that. Show them how making a planned investment of time now can lead to time dividends later.

What's in It for Me

When you're dealing with people who think content isn't applicable to them, it's your job to help them see how that learning might impact their life. If your learners are able to answer "what's in it for me?", they're more likely to engage with the content.

There are number of simple ways to do this. You can add in real-life scenarios, you can tap social learning, or you could provide systematic incentives (like badges and credentials).


The best way to deal with a know-it-all is to show them they're only a know-somethings (or maybe even a know-nothing). When students realize they have something to learn, they are more open to learning.

To get learners to open up, you can use self-assessments at the start of learning experiences. These self-assessments help learners tap prior knowledge, identify areas where they need improvement, open their mind to new information, and start to introduce new knowledge.


Need help reaching apathetic learners? Contact me to learn more about instructional design consulting and content development.

Nicole Papaioannou, Ph.D. is the founder of Your Instructional Designer. Through her learner-centered, performance-targeted approach to instructional design, she empowers people to learn, perform, and lead.

For instructional design inquiries, contact Nicole.

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