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 trainings 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 platform that allows you to teach on any topic from any where 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 Malcom 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 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 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 Group 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.