Introducing the ARCADA model for student motivation and retention: Building on the ARCS and ICEBERG approaches

December 10, 2018


Mirko Ahonen, Lecturer in Online Media, Department of Culture and Media, Arcada UAS


The world is filled with different learning models, theories, paradigms and perspectives. From constructivism (creating learning from experience), behaviorism (modify behavior through consequences), cognitivism (how information is received, organized, stored, and retrieved); to design models like the ADDIE model (analysis, design, development, implementation, evaluation), backward design (starting from the goal), and gamification (applying game-related principles). With the advent of distance-learning instructional designers are using these models, or underlying theories, to create pedagogically auspicious online courses.

One challenge with distance education (and especially MOOCs) has been student retention; in other words, how to keep students ‘in class’ and have them graduate. This was one of the main goals of my 2015 thesis “Developing an Educational and Engaging Online Course: A literature review”, where I analyze recent studies on best practices regarding distance education. In my thesis, I emphasize the importance of having motivated students for student retention, and I bring up the ARCS model of motivational design; which is an instructional design model that tackles the problem of how to motivate students. Recently, I stumbled upon an article called “Learning Design for Student Retention” (2018) that deals with similar questions I’ve been trying to answer. As a conclusion in their paper, they created a new model called ICEBERG which is an instructional design model focused on student retention. My hypothesis is that there is a clear correlation between student motivation and student retention, and I’m intrigued to see how these two models compare. This blog post considers how they can be incorporated into teaching at Arcada.

MODEL 1: The ARCS model of motivational design

The model by John Keller was first introduced in the year 1979. His latest book (Motivational Design for Learning and Performance: The ARCS Model Approach, 2010) informs the version of ARCS used below. The model suggests that there are four key steps that must be met for student motivation: Attention, Relevance, Confidence, Satisfaction (ARCS).


Attention is key when learning, and it can be gained by stimulating senses and thinking. E.g.

  • Using relatable examples
  • Stimulating thinking by conflicting ideas
  • Using humor and making learning fun
  • Having hands-on tasks
  • Asking questions that provoke thinking
  • Using a variation of teaching methods


Relevance is gained by focusing on that the students want to achieve, aligning teaching with the student’s basic motivations, and by using familiarity. E.g.

  • Showing how the information will help them now and in the future,
  • Talking to the students to align with their needs
  • Giving options and control over their learning
  • Use their existing knowledge and skills


Confidence is gained by challenging the student and removing doubt. E.g.

  • Set expectations and provide evidence of learning
  • Provide several ways to learn and succeed
  • Give them control, so they feel it is they who are succeeding


Satisfaction is gained when the student feels the goals and needs are met. Try to augment their motivation with intrinsic and extrinsic factors. E.g.

  • Encourage students to achieve higher goals and to continue learning on their own
  • Give feedback, encouragement, and rewards for a job well done
  • Have high standards so they can be proud of their achievements

MODEL 2: The ICEBERG model for student retention

ICEBERG is also an acronym and it stands for the following words: integrated, collaborative, engaging, balanced, economical, reflective, and gradual. The model was founded as a conclusion in the 2018 paper called “Learning Design for Student Retention”, where they came up with these seven key factors that influence retention.


The course content works together in a meaningful way, so that the learning outcomes, assessment, activities and support material effectively help the student pass the course.


Meaningful collaboration and communication lead to deep learning, and social support.


An interesting course keeps the student enthusiastic. If the curriculum matches student interest and career aspirations, they are more likely to be retained. Use relevant case studies and different activities to contribute to an engaging curriculum.


The study workload is well-paced and evenly distributed. Student’s know exactly what they are expected to do. Discuss organization skills and planning.


Prioritize key concepts and outcomes. Clear link with activities and learning aims. Don’t overwhelm students with excess information.


For the students to engage in deep learning it is important that they can reflect on their learning. Incorporate regular summaries and self-assessment.


Gradually introduce more complex tasks. Build their confidence as you go.


My hypothesis was that the models for student motivation and student retention are ultimately trying to solve the same problem: how to have satisfied students that learn and graduate. Below, I create a picture on how these models intertwine.

While not necessarily intuitive, by examining characteristics of each theme it is possible to combine the models in a productive manner. The ICEBERG model emphasizes that a course should be a coherent whole, with clear connections with learning outcomes, assignments, and activities (integrated). While balanced, economical, and gradual, all connect to the same underlying issue of “rationality” by pointing out the importance of having an even workload, with gradual increments in complexity, and not overwhelming students with too much or unnecessary -information. All these points boost student confidence that seems to be a key element for student retention. While a clear structure also leads to student satisfaction in the end. By keeping the content applicable, the ‘relevance’ point is realized in the ARCS model. On the other hand, “engaging” and “collaborative” are themes that propose advice for course content and delivery, and are linked with ‘attention’ in the ARCS model. Reflection is key for deep learning, which the ARCS model does not especially address, while it’s important for understanding the relevance and in the end will lead to satisfied students.


Creating our own Arcada model

So what if we would create a model for Arcada based on the strengths of these two? How would it look? Let’s start by having a look at Arcada’s pedagogical policy before proceeding.

The key points in Arcada’s pedagogical policy are:

  • The student as subject
    • Student should be in the center of everything we do, but also give the student responsibility for his/her own learning.
  • Arcada as an innovative university – A place for space
    • Link research with education. Emphasize problem-solving and cooperation.
  • Competence driven curriculum and active learning
    • Courses should be relevant and flexible.
  • Teacher teams and pedagogical competence
    • Teachers work together to provide sufficient knowledge in courses.

When I attempt to combine ARCS and ICEBERG in line with Arcada’s pedagogical policy, I find the following:

  • Coherent whole and a clear narrative
    • Constructive alignment. (Integrated)
  • Engaging activities and content
    • Active learning, real life questions, problem-solving. (Attention, relevance, satisfaction, engaging)
  • The student in focus
    • Flexible curriculum. Relevant content for future career. (Relevance, confidence)
  • Even workload in manageable chunks
    • (Balanced, gradual, economical, confidence, satisfaction)
  • Time and space for reflection
    • Deep learning. (Relevance, satisfaction)
  • Communication and collaboration
    • Emphasize the importance of communication and teamwork. Between teachers, teacher-student, student-teacher, student-student. Everyone is working for a common goal. (Collaborative)

These steps incorporate both the ARCS model of motivational design and the ICEBERG model for student retention, while being in line with Arcada’s pedagogical policy.

The ARCADA model

By twisting the words a little, let me propose the ARCADA model for student motivation and retention:

Active (Engaging activities, content, and active learning)

Relevant (The student is most relevant)

Coherent (Coherent whole and a clear narrative using constructive alignment)

Achievable (Even workload in manageable chunks)

Deliberation (Time and space for deliberate reflection and deep learning)

Association (Striving for a common understanding, by communicating and collaborating)



Arcada. 2016, Arcada’s Pedagogical Policy  Available:

Keller, J.M. 2010, Motivational Design for Learning and Performance: The ARCS Model Approach. New York: Springer.

Weller, M., van Ameijde, J. and S. Cross. 2018, Learning Design for Student Retention. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice 6.2.