Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Explained for Learning Professionals

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs have proven to be influential in a variety of different fields. Given what it tells us about the nature of human motivation and goal attainment, it’s also a very important theory for learning professionals to understand.

With this in mind, we will now detail the theory and examine what implications it holds for you and your learners. 

Who is Abraham Maslow?

Abraham Maslow was born in 1908 and raised in Brooklyn, New York. After his studies, he went on to teach psychology at Brooklyn College, Columbia University and other prestigious institutions.

He’s perhaps best known for creating his ‘hierarchy of needs’, but this wasn’t his only contribution to our understanding of psychology.

He also came up with the idea of ‘peak and plateau experiences’, coined the term ‘meta motivation’ and characterised the qualities of self-actualising people. What’s more, he’s credited with the phrase, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. In fact, the cognitive bias that results from over-reliance on a familiar tool is known as ‘Maslow’s hammer’. That’s a cool name for an interesting theory.

He’s still a well respected figure in the world of psychology. In fact, a survey published back in 2002 ranked Maslow as the 10th most cited psychologist of the 20th century. 

What Is Maslow’s Hierarchy?

Maslow’s best known theory, his hierarchy of needs, was first published in his 1943 paper, ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’. The theory does exactly what it says on the tin.

Learning Theories: Maslow's Hierarchy

It helps us to categorise and prioritise human needs within a five-tier model. The hierarchy is often displayed as a pyramid, with basic needs at the bottom and more complex needs at the top. 

The bottom four levels of the hierarchy consist of ‘physiological needs’. These needs are basic biological requirements for human survival. The fifth and final level is a ‘growth need’. This is a need that has arisen out of our desire to improve ourselves and our standing in the world. 

In order for our growth needs to begin to influence our behaviour, we must first satisfy our lower-level needs. That said, Maslow did recognise that need fulfilment is not an all or nothing deal.

As such, you don’t need to completely satisfy a lower level need before the next need emerges. However, he did note that we tend to have made the most progress towards our lower level needs.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at the structure of the hierarchy.


The first level of the hierarchy consists of our physical needs. This includes things like air, food, water, sex, sleep and so on. If these basic needs aren’t met, it’s very difficult for us to focus our attention elsewhere. 


The second level of the hierarchy focuses on our need for a safe environment. This includes things like our health, our employment status, our property and so on. When the safety of these assets are at risk, we tend to direct our efforts towards safeguarding the status quo.

Love & Belonging:

The third level of the hierarchy hones in on our need to feel loved and accepted. This includes things like romantic and platonic love, family, relationships and so on. This is all driven by a sense of ‘belonging’. It is difficult to conjure up motivation if we don’t feel like we belong. 


The fourth level of the hierarchy centres on our need to feel good about ourselves. This includes things like self-esteem, status, achievement, confidence and so on. In other words, our value within a social context holds significant motivational power. 


The fifth and final level of the hierarchy is the need to feel purpose-driven and fulfilled. This includes growth needs like our sense of morality, creativity, problem-solving ability and so on. If we are able to meet these needs, then we feel like we are doing what we were born to do! Maslow believed that individuals rarely achieve true self-actualisation. 

Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy to Learning Contexts

Let’s consider the implications of Maslow’s theory for learning professionals. As learning is a ‘growth need’, it sits at the very top of the pyramid. As such, we know that it’s difficult for us to learn if our lower level needs are unsatisfied. You’re unlikely to want to learn to play the piano if you haven’t eaten in 24 hours. Likewise, you probably won’t be interested in taking some compliance training if your safety is in jeopardy.

As learning professionals, there’s only so much we can do to satisfy our learners’ physiological needs. However, we can and should be aware of them and the impact they have on motivation. In turn, this awareness should drive understanding and empathy. 

Instead of growing frustrated when learners struggle to make progress, we should pause and reflect. At this stage, we should consider which physiological issues are affecting our learners’ motivation levels. We can then see if there’s anything we can do to help.

Where possible, we should also create learning environments that help to meet these different needs. After all, if we can achieve this, motivation should be easy to come by. With this in mind, here are our three top tips for using learning technologies to climb up Maslow’s hierarchy. 

Tip 1: Provide Social Learning Opportunities:

The third level of Maslow’s hierarchy tells us that motivation and a sense of ‘belonging’ are intrinsically linked. To generate this sensation, you should offer your learners opportunities to collaborate and compete with one another. On a learning management system, you should utilise features like social streams, forums, expert areas, FAQs and live chat to create an incentivised learning community.

Tip 2: Use Gamification & Virtual Rewards:

Game mechanics like Badges, Experience Points, Levels and Leaderboards are powerful motivational tools. They help us to meet our need for ‘esteem’, the fourth level of Maslow’s hierarchy. Virtual rewards give us a sense of achievement and improve our reputation within the learning environment. Gamification also helps to make learning more fun, encouraging repeat visits and improved knowledge retention

Tip 3: Find Your Epic Meaning:

The final level of Maslow’s hierarchy focuses on self-growth. This is linked to finding your purpose and then working towards it. We recommend imbuing your learning environment with as much Epic Meaning as possible.

Epic Meaning is the sense of purpose that fuels our passion for a cause. In a business context, your epic meaning is powered by your mission, vision and values. As such, you should take every possible opportunity to customise your learning environment in line with these assets.

Final Word

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will be 80 years old by 2023. But despite showing signs of age, it still packs a powerful theoretical punch. It helps us to deepen our understanding of motivation, goal attainment and personal fulfilment.

It also provides structure and clarity to an area of human psychology that previously seemed to be difficult to parse. This simplicity of the hierarchy has helped Maslow’s theory to maintain its influence over the years.

It should also give learning professionals pause for thought. The model shows us that people don’t struggle to learn because they are lazy. They struggle because other more pressing needs are asserting their dominance over their capacity for motivation.

However, if we can provide support through our interpersonal relationships and technology platforms, we can help learners to climb the hierarchy. Once they reach the tip of the pyramid and begin to self-actualise, there’ll be no stopping your learners. 

Meet your learner’s needs and achieve mass self-actualisation with Growth Engineering LMS. Create social learning communities, gamify your learning environment and customise your platform in line with your mission, vision and values. Sign up for a live demo now!

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