Imagine you’re teaching algebra to a class of kids. Sooner or later, some smart-mouth in the back row is going to raise his hand and ask, “Why do we need to learn this junk anyway?”

You might explain that algebra is really, really important if he wants to get a great career in engineering, accounting or science. Or that it helps people think more clearly. Or that if he doesn’t learn it, he’s going to be held back while all his friends go on to high school next year.

How effective do you think such arguments would be in the face of adolescent attitude?

Not so much, I’d guess.

And yet we often do the same sort of thing with sales training. Conventional wisdom suggests that before you can get people to buy in to training, you have to sell them on the benefits. You have to explain why it’s relevant, and how it will help them get more customers, close more sales and make more money.

So does that approach work?

Not so much, according to research.

In a 2007 study, researchers looked at how to motivate adult learners in subjects they didn’t like. The researchers found that participants who didn’t like math actually performed worse when their instructor told them how important math is. In a related study, the instructors didn’t try to sell the learners on the benefits of math. Instead, they asked the learners to write brief essays about what they were learning and how it was relevant to their lives.

The writing exercise had a positive impact on every learner’s interest. But the effects were especially pronounced among learners who’d said they weren’t interested in math. In effect, the learners sold themselves.

So the next time you’re tempted to kick off a training session by showing learners why this stuff is important, you might want to resist the urge. Instead, have people reflect — in writing, preferably — on how the new skill is relevant to their job, and how it will help them.

Source: Durik, A. M., et al. (2007). Different strokes for different folks: How individual interest moderates the effects of situational factors on task interest. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(3), 597-610.

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