Creating Engaging Programs is not Enough, Written by Sherwin Chen

I recently attended a session on how to increase learner engagement. It was a lively discussion where many good ideas were shared on how to get learners to be more engaged with different forms of training including classroom, virtual, and web-based. Many of the techniques shared were ones that have been widely written about recently such as personalization, peer-to-peer learning, and gamification.

Interestingly, it seemed that the session revolved more around motivating learners as opposed to increasing the effectiveness of the learning. While instructional designers and trainers have long focused on how to keep learners motivated, I left the session wondering why it was such a challenge. When I got back to my office, I looked up the definition of the word “engage” and came up with occupy, attract, or involve (someone’s interest or attention).

In a recent Learning Solutions article, Marc Rosenberg wrote, “Giving them (learners) value from the learning is much more important than giving them a completion certificate. Motivating them to apply what they’ve learned is much more important than motivating them just to get the course over with.”* In his article he goes on to ask how much interactivity was there in the last good movie you saw or great book you read?

Then it struck me . . . if the story is compelling to me, it doesn’t take much else to get me engaged. So shouldn’t the same be true for training?

Is Good Training Like a Good Movie?

A possible initial response might be, “Of course not, most people go to see a movie because they want to, not because they have to.” So if one is not a fan of action movies, not only will he be less likely to go see one, but when he has to watch one, there’s a good chance he’ll be disinterested. There’s been more than one drama that I struggled to stay awake through that my spouse wanted to see, no matter how many Oscars it was nominated for.

So for a movie to be engaging, just being “good” is not good enough – first it has to be in a genre that is relevant to the viewer… then it has to be good.

This is an important point to think about when it comes to the subject of learner engagement. It can be argued that there are three primary reasons that a learner takes a piece of training:

  • The learner has identified that this is training she needs to take. For example, imagine that a company changes the system used to enter travel expenses. Associates that incur travel expenses are likely to be highly motivated to take any related training because they need to get reimbursed.
  • The learner has identified that this is training he wants to take. An example of this might be someone who is interested in becoming a more effective manager. In this case, he might look for and be receptive to training on subjects like feedback or delegation.
  • The training has been identified as something the learner should take by someone else. In this situation, left to her own devices, the learner probably wouldn’t have sought out this particular program, but for any number of reasons has been directed to take it. Compliance training is typically used as an example of “have to take” training. However, think of a situation where a course has been recommended as a result of performance feedback. If the associate hasn’t totally bought into the feedback, it is not likely she will buy into the training either.

So in the first two cases, because of the relevance of the training, learners would be expected to start with a higher level of motivation than in the case of a training program they’ve been directed to take.

Does That Mean Interactivity Isn’t Important?

Absolutely not. A poorly executed film can ruin a great story. However, it is rare that sets and costumes can rescue a bad story. On the other hand, a well-executed film with a compelling story…

In other words, the main goal of engagement should be to enhance and amplify the learning, but it needs to start with relevance. If we can honestly say that the content is something that learners feel that they need or want to learn, then motivation is much easier. Using tools like personalization, peer-to-peer learning and gamification then become ways to make the learning more effective and increase the learner’s ability to apply the content.

However, if we’re not sure whether the content will be seen as relevant by the learner, that makes our jobs more complicated. Engagement in these cases has to start at establishing relevancy. If the learner cannot connect to the learning, then just adding “special effects” won’t make the training more effective.

Bottom line – is it clear to your learners as to why they are taking the training? And more importantly, how it will benefit them? If not, then making that connection is job number one.

Research

  1. SHRM Research for Career Advancement. (2012). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/search/pages/default.aspx?k=research%20on%20promotions
  2. Yates, M. (September 19, 2017). Your Career Q&A: Getting a Promotion Takes More Than Tenure. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/organizational-and-employee-development/pages/your-career-qa-getting-a-promotion-takes-more-than-tenure.aspx
  3. Learning Solutions article, Marc Rosenberg wrote, “Giving them (learners)