If you can do it with your eyes closed and your brain out to lunch, it’s not learner engagement. Unfortunately, many “interactive” courses and training rely solely on the “next” button to create what they claim is an interactive element. Read, listen, click. Read, listen, click. Hum. Drum.
It doesn’t take a neuroscience expert to understand that to increase engagement, recall, retention, and all that other good stuff your brain needs to make the information stick, you need to flex more than your mouse finger; you need something more.
So, how do we define that? What does learner engagement look like, and how do we reverse engineer it as instructional designers?
Perhaps it’s easiest to get the most common pitfalls out of the way. Let us begin with what engagement isn’t, then, before we review what it is.
What Learner Engagement Is Not
Learner engagement requires the participant’s interest and full attention. That being said, any course that can be taken while one is spacing out is not taking advantage of learner engagement techniques.
- Long, droning lectures with generic review questions.
- Gimmicky “interactive” features, like clicking the “next” button, simple yes or no questions, etc.
- Upsell offers disguised as surveys.
- Poorly relatable content, even with some learner engagement techniques.
- Lack of collaboration and/or discussion with groups, instructor(s).
That’s all good and fine in terms of what to avoid, but what exactly is in this secret sauce? How can instructional designers, especially newbies, reap the benefits of learning engagement techniques? Let’s start by finishing our definition.
Learner Engagement Best Practices
According to the Glossary of Education reform, the term learner engagement refers to how interested, optimistic, and attentive someone is in the material that’s being presented. There’s no shortage of objective data supporting learner engagement; its importance is almost unanimously agreed upon.
Simply put, engagement is a motivator. It turns passive listeners into active participants.
Now to the burning question: how? How can you encourage this effect in face-to-face and online environments?
Obviously, your training course needs a framework to guide learners through the technical and objective info, but who says you have to spoon-feed every small step to them? When you allow learners the autonomy to accomplish objectives in their own way (to a degree), you create opportunities for them to actively invest in the process.
If your instruction is too detailed and overbearing, the ability for the learner to personalize the process with their own innovations is limited.
This engagement technique derives its effectiveness from a subtle little phenomenon. Think about it: when you help to build something, don’t you care what happens to it? That should be your mindset when asking questions. You’re inviting the learners to partner with you, increasing their incentive to embrace and apply the material that they helped to refine.
Let learners know that you value their input and that you want the course to reflect their interests.
How can you ask? You can ask questions in class, through knowledge checks, chat boxes, in communities, and even through the end-of-course surveys! When you find trending answers in the survey results, you can actually implement them into the course to improve it.
Make it personal:
The use of personalization to encourage engagement is easier in an in-person, one-on-one scenario, but it can absolutely make the difference in online courses as well.
If you want to reach a high level of engagement and retention when instructing someone face-to-face, you’ll need to resist the urge to simply jump into the training with your own directives – that would defeat the purpose of face-to-face instruction.
Instead, you become the listener for a moment. When you are doing all of the talking, you can bet your learners are not learning as much as they could be if you silenced yourself every now and again.
Consider the learner’s context. What do they do for the company? What’s their cultural background? What interests them? How have they responded to different media (print vs video vs email, etc.) in previous trainings and communications?
It’s questions like these that will allow you to customize the experience for maximum engagement.
When it comes to online courses, be careful not to spin off into twenty different branches in an attempt to accommodate every possible learning style. If you have been on LinkedIn or Reddit lately, you have probably read that learning styles are a myth so there’s that.
Oh, do you remember those awesome surveys we talked about? You can use them as learning assessments to place your learners into categories and adjust your delivery for their interests and level of readiness to perform specific activities.
Emphasize practical problem-solving:
Time and time again, I’ve seen even the most brilliant of subject-matter experts (SMEs) get lost in the theory behind their teachings, losing most of their audience with them. Do you remember your college math class where you sat through 45 minutes of watching your professor walk through the proof of a formula? Pinch me now to wake me from the nightmare!
Sometimes pragmatism gets buried under the passion, which is a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.
The solution requires a more problem-centered approach. That may sound negative at first glance, but hear me out. If you signed up for a baking class, would you want to sit through a two-hour food chemistry lecture before even touching an oven?
You don’t need or want to know the molecular weight of glucose – you just want to make a souffle that doesn’t deflate. Layout the action steps to a common problem, and the audience will naturally relate. Boom!
Support learning communities:
Learning communities have been objectively proven to enhance engagement, retention and application for learners in all environments.
As a learner, you can gain new insights by discussing relevant problem-solving tactics with people of different backgrounds. As an instructional designer, learning communities are the perfect opportunity to assess your methods, engage your learner base and make the right changes.
Keeping all of these best practices in play may seem like a heavy load when navigating your first course, but the more you learn about learning itself, the more intuitive these key principles will become. To help you over this initial hump, I have dedicated an entire course to the 7 essential learning strategies that every course should have. It’s free and you can check it out here.
You can also enlist the help of the many learning-enhancing apps that have surfaced over the past decade and changed how we interact with learners. Check out my favorites below.
The Top 5 Learner Engagement Apps
Several of these apps can be used in live and online environments for just about any training or professional course program.
The ultimate live-polling interface. It’s easy to set up, compatible with Powerpoint and Google products, and very engaging. Pose a question to your audience and watch the results pour in.
If you want to gamify your participant’s learning experience, Kahoot might be just the tool for you! This is a super easy, cheap, and effective way to create fun interactions. Create simple, engaging games to check for understanding, review, reinforce a topic, or just have some fun.
The nice thing about SurveyNuts is the quick and easy posting. Like Poll Everywhere, you can give your audience surveys with live feedback, but with SurveyNuts, you can easily share survey results via email or posting on a website.
Moodle is like a heavy-hitting version of Schoology for creators who want feature-rich community pages surrounding their topics. Imagine a secure, open-source platform that can do anything you want it to. Post and share anything and access the platform from any device.
Educreations is a platform that allows you to teach on any topic from anywhere and interact with participants. The platform provides an excellent way to make tweaks to your content without painful editing. Collect your feedback, decide on the change or addition, and use the app’s screen recording and illustration features to make attractive videos.
Is Engagement Really That Important?
Engagement compels action. It’s the bridge between (the brain’s) musty janitorial closet and regular application. Remember that lecture – or that entire class – that you just seemed to gloss over and instantly forget? Without engagement, every course would be like that. In order for instructional designers to create it, however, we have to learn a little something about the adult brain.
Adult learners acquire, access, and store information differently than children. To most effectively engage the adult mind, you have to appreciate what it values in terms of learning.
Renowned educator Malcolm Knowles has thankfully brought this distinction forward with The Adult Learning Theory (aka Andragogy). He made five assumptions therein.
First is the concept of self. When we become adults, we no longer see ourselves as dependent, but self-motivating.
Next is experience. Unlike kids, whose “cups” are fairly empty, adults can draw from their experiences to help interpret information.
Third is a readiness to learn. As part of our socialization, we are compelled to learn things that improve our ability to fit into our respective roles.
Fourth is an orientation to learning. As a child, what you learn may not be applied until years later, but adults often apply information right away. Problem-focused approach, remember?
Finally, the motivation to learn. When we were kids, we needed to be coerced and coached by others. As adults, our thirst for knowledge is often intrinsic and driven by a desire to know something or by a change in our lives.
Let’s piece it all together, shall we?
Creating engagement in your instructional design materials goes far beyond clicking the “next” button. You have to encourage autonomy, focus on the problem, foster learning communities, ask your audience for their input, and personalize your approach. Think in terms of how others learn. Ally yourself with helpful courses and apps of your own. Don’t be afraid to make changes. It’s a constant effort, but the rewards are great.
My Facebook page is a great place to add your questions and engage with other instructional designers on different topics related to instructional design, so jump on in and join the conversation.
The Testimonials are In:
Working with Shanwtay and Katie at the Instructional Design Company was a dream come true. Their creativity, expertise, and professionalism throughout the entire process was beyond top notch. I engaged them to help turn my first book into a training course, and I could not be happier with how the final product turned out. If you have an instructional design project and you’re considering which company to work with, you can stop your search and thank me later. They are truly the best in the business.
I joined the Instructional Design & Tech Accelerator Certificate Program because I struggled to find jobs in instructional design beyond the development phase. I’ve done a couple of training programs with lots of random projects, but I was overwhelmed, not connecting the dots, and not good at structuring my writing to hit learning objectives. I was looking for motivation and direction at beginning a better Instructional Designer.
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I love how this course let’s you work at your own pace. I got great tips and learned many things. The ongoing support for multiple people and groups is what I love the best. You are never alone in this process. I have been able to adjust my resume and began creating a portfolio of work I’ve completed to add when applying for jobs. I use many of the PowerPoint skills in my lessons and trainings. I would highly recommend this for anyone wanting to become an instructional designer.
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I have searched for the last few years to find some suitable career change where I wouldn’t have to earn another degree and where I could use the talents and skills I already have as a teacher. When I came across the Instructional Design Accelerator course, I loved the fact that Shawntay was a former teacher and could relate to a teacher’s need to transition from the classroom. This was what sold the course for me. Her experiences are invaluable especially when translating teacher duties to instructional designer duties. I would (and have) recommended this program to other teachers I know who are looking to transition out of the classroom. I do appreciate ALL of her feedback on my projects!
L&D Project Manager
The Instructional Design & Tech Accelerator certificate program is one of the most comprehensive ID programs out there for beginners. If you’re looking to grow your schools in ID and development then I highly recommend this program. Not only will this program give you an overview of theory, but you will receive a thorough walkthrough of how to apply what you have learned. Although I had already secured a position in Learning & Development when I bought this course, it helped me to move up into a new position as a Learning & Development Project Manager!
Future Instructional Designer
If you have any interest in ID, sign up for this program NOW! Shawntay and her team are top notch! The course content exceeded my expectations in a big way and the encouragement and support continues to be so valuable. You will not feel alone going through this course, you will learn so much, you’ll have many cheerleaders, and you will have fun!
Future Instructional Designer
I am really enjoying this program! It’s prerfect for someone who is thinking about a career shift to Instructional Design and does not have a lot of experience. This is my first real introduction to Instructional Design and it’s been the perfect beginner course to help me get my feet wet. The modules are broken down well and it’s great to go at your own pace and at your own time. The modules themselves are very comprehensive and you learn a lot from all of them. I really like how each one build upon each other and you’re working towards the bigger project of designing your first training course from scratch. I’m learning so much from going through this course! I was provided great feedback from Katie and Shawntay through the process via Trello Boards, comments on the Google documents, and Facebook group. This course has been well worth the time and effort and I appreciate the fact that I will always have the resources available to me after I complete the training (just in case I’m not quite ready to transition yet).
Future Instructional Designer
I can’t say enough great things about the Instructional Design & Tech Accelerator Certificate Program! The length of the program is perfect; it doesn’t feel rushed and there’s just the right amount of structure to give you the accountability you need. There are so many opportunities to get live answers to any questions you have related to the course content or anything ID-related! This program gave me the support and structure I needed to both feel affirmed in the relevant skills I already had coming in and to fill in the gaps I had as a career-changer going into ID. Shawntay, Katie, and all the coaches are super helpful and supportive. I now feel confident that I have the tools and access to resources I need to apply for ID jobs without wondering if there’s something I’m “missing” in the preparation process. I’d highly recommend this program to anyone wanting to transition into ID or who just wants to brush up on their skills in the field.
Krista Johnson Awomoyi
Freelance Instructional Designer
I’d highly recommend the Instructional Design & Tech Accelerator Certificate Program. I’m blown away by how much I learned in just 12 weeks. I had ID experience prior to taking this course and was just looking to get a better understanding of applying adult learning principles. This course well exceeded my expectations! Not only did I gain a clear understanding of adult learning principles, I was also able to apply those principles by creating assets for your portfolio using PowerPoint, Adobe Premiere Pro and Storyline. The hands on support that we received was top notch.
This program is one of the most robust yet fulfilling L&D programs I’ve seen. I learned so much about the industry and about the limitlessness of my own capabilities. I am so appreciative of Shawntay and all of the trainers who took part in the program. They went above and beyond with not only guiding, but communicating live and working one on one or in small groups. If you are on the fence, I say take the leap and you will not regret it! There’s so much to learn, not only from the trainers, but also the learners in your group. Everyone comes in with their own skills and can be additional support and guidance for you. Thank you for creating this program!
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Shawntay is an amazing individual. She is very knowledgeable in all aspects of ID and eLearning. She is also very compassionate and loves to help and see everyone around her grow and prosper. Shawntay has been a great mentor to me and she has helped me mature as an instructional designer and eLearning developer. She has provided me with opportunities when others have overlooked me. I am very grateful to have met and built a lifelong relationship with Shawntay.
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My teacher-to-instructional-designer journey began two years ago when I left my teaching comfort zone and started my first freelance ID job. Now, I’m stepping out of the classroom and taking my freelance work full-time, so I’m thrilled to be joining the Tech Accelerator program. Adding technologies like Articulate 360 and Adobe Premiere Pro to my qualifications will help me take my courses to the next level and attract more clients!
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I am genuinely grateful for this course. I wanted a real-world perspective and feel like I got it. I’m teaching now, but nearing retirement age but can see myself working as an instructional designer well into my retirement years. My other goal is to take as many courses in statistics as possible in hopes of bringing some mathematical precision to the ROI question. Like you say, getting accurate metrics to measure ROI can be a challenge, but I intend to work on that part. That’s unimportant right now, what is important is the fact that I feel like this course was well worth every penny I spent and I would to it again in a heartbeat. I have too much going on right now, but as soon as I get some time freed up I intend to take your course in project management.
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Get yourself signed up for Shawntay Skjoldager’s Instructional Design & Tech Accelerator Certificate Program today and be on your way to success! Within the first week of taking her course, you will experience growth! Be sure to plug into her Facebook Q&A sessions for personalized help, too. This is THE course to take if you are new to instructional design or have landed on the training team and need help getting started.
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