How to Make Learning More Engaging

By: Beverly Feldt, Partner, Workplace Interactors
July 28, 2013

Whether online or in the classroom, the principles of how to engage adult learners are the same. Here are some ways facilitators can keep people involved in a memorable and useful workplace learning session.

Set the tone. When they come into a learning session, people are wary. Will you waste their time? Worse, will they somehow be embarrassed? Let them know through your own behavior that this session will reward curiosity and experimentation. We find that playfulness and humor (not jokes or sarcasm!) help create a learning environment in which people are comfortable taking risks. And risk is a necessary part of learning.

Break down the teacher/student paradigm. After years or even decades of school, everyone has a default setting for how they relate to teachers. You can wake people up from these tired assumptions by positioning yourself as a guide, not an expert. Tell learners that they'll be creating a lot of the content – not passively taking in information. If they want to gain useful career skills from the session, they'll have to get involved.

Create trust. If you're going to be a good guide, the learners must take a leap of faith. Here's how to help them:

  • Do what you say you'll do. If you schedule a break for 10:15, take it at 10:15.
  • Make instructions clear. Adult learners don't want to feel foolish. Make sure everyone understands what's required of them at each step of the training.
  • Model the traits you want the learners to bring. Non-defensiveness, for example. If you make a mistake, laugh and move on. Show participants that their mistakes won't be held against them. Since they can't learn without going through some discomfort, create as much ease as you can.

Demonstrate respect. Don't dumb anything down. Honor learners' experience and knowledge. Adults know what will be useful to them on the job and what will waste their time. Always tell them why you're introducing information or techniques; be as clear as you can about how this will help them in the workplace.

Let learners have power. Ask their permission. Ask for their opinions. Let the group make its own decisions whenever they can: for example, in choosing partners for exercises. When there's controversy or challenge, let the group decide. Instead of defending your position, ask them if they agree.

Practice, practice, practice. Real interactive practice is the bridge from theory to action. Create a safe space in which learners can try things out – and fail. Then let them try again, until they've begun to create a set of behaviors that they can actually perform when they're back on the job.

Hit the sweet spot. Psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified an optimal state for performance and learning, called flow. People in flow are completely engaged in an activity, using their skills fully and freely. You can help this happen in your learning sessions by setting tasks that are challenging but achievable. Design exercises that allow participants to make their own discoveries.

Give clear feedback. People need to see the results of their actions during learning and practice. For example, in simulations, what participants do must make a clear difference to the situation, for better or worse. And the feedback must be immediate, while they're still grappling with the problem. Waiting until the next session to find out how well they did won't work; they won't remember the details by then.

Keep the engagement going. Create blogs or online discussion groups that encourage learners to talk about what they've experienced when using their new skills in the real world. They can share resources they've found useful, ask for help in tackling difficult situations, and keep the new learning alive in your workplace culture.

You can create dynamic, engaging learning experiences in any medium, if you keep these basic principles in mind. Use your imagination in design and facilitation, and you can help your participants discover new ideas and skills that will make a difference in the workplace.