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How Do You Engage Learners?

Submitted by  on February 14th, 2014

Finger pushing LEARN buttonI recently published a series of articles on engaging learners. For me, getting participants involved in the learning is critical to organizations obtaining the most benefit from their training spend. Just as importantly, it helps training program participants get the most rewards for their time and effort.

In each article, I examined one of four key areas I think trainers need to focus on to get program participants motivated and engaged in useful learning. These four areas are:

  1. Goal orientation
    When the training is goal orientated, program participants have a reason to learn and are stretched to apply the learning to achieve concrete workplace outcomes.
  2. Real work relevance
    Making the training relevant to real work hooks into participants’ existing knowledge and aspirations, leading to immediate practical application.
  3. Practice
    Providing plenty of opportunity for practice strengthens neural pathways in the learner’s brain, increasing learning efficiency and learner proficiency.
  4. Interpersonal interaction
    Relationship building mediates the other three factors through engaging program participants to strive for goals, connect with existing knowledge and practice skills.

I asked readers for their thoughts on what I wrote. The most comprehensive comments I received came from Adele Sommers. Adele is the owner of Business Performance Inc. She been designing and delivering programs for a variety of clients over many years. So, I was particularly interested in what she had to say. With Adele’s permission, I’d like to share with you her insightful comments. She wrote:

I love the focus on engaging learners from so many insightful points of view! While all of the topics were highly relevant, those of particular interest to me revolved around the following key points:

  1. Goal orientation – Having learners complete a Personal Action Plan as they proceed through a program is a sustainable way to help support training transfer — even if no other support mechanisms exist. So, even if a learner manages to arrive on the scene completely bereft of organizational objectives and department goals for applying the training back on the job, an Action Plan can help the learner anchor, digest, and transform the material into usable ideas. I usually include an Action Plan in each module I design for a client course.
  2. Building course material around real work experience is an invaluable, and necessary, approach in my book. On multiple occasions, I’ve informed clients that I would not develop or deliver custom courses for their employees unless I could build in examples and exercises related to real, job-related work samples and project challenges. Although that often meant a lot of last-minute content customization, I’ve learned the hard way that the difference between teaching this way and teaching more generic content, even if well-designed, is like night and day! This approach is especially impactful when the samples the employees provide have a direct bearing on their performance.
  3. I’ve found that when practice sessions are designed to dovetail with the real work experience above, they produce, at a minimum, a deeper level of comfort at one end of the spectrum, and mastery and fluency at the other end of the spectrum, with enough exposure. An excellent example is the just-in-time training for meeting facilitation and problem-solving techniques, where people learn in teams and apply on the tools on the fly. There is no downside to realistic practice, and any type of team learning powerfully applies this principle!
  4. I loved your tips on effective interpersonal interaction through asking a variety of questions. Here’s an anecdote that shaped my view of when to use certain types of questions with a group of strangers. As a trainer, I had always leaned toward using non-intimidating questions that would not put any one participant on the spot. I therefore steered away from a highly directive style of questioning that named an individual respondent, such as, “Bob, can you please summarize for us what this idea means to you and explain why you agree or disagree?” or “Mary, would you recap what we talked about just before the break to bring everyone back up to speed?”

    One client for whom I was delivering five identical classes finally took me aside and asked me to start using these kinds of very pointed questions that did put individuals on the spot. The client explained that the participants were all very used to being “confronted” in this way in the training sessions they attended (since they were trainers themselves) and were wondering why I wasn’t doing it! So, from that point on, I was happy to oblige, and so were they. In the end, with this particular audience, a directive questioning approach turned out to be a very good fit.

Thank you, Adele, for taking the time to let me know your thoughts. What do you think of Adele’s comments? I was pleased to read her confirmation of the usefulness of Personal Action Plans when other pre-training organizational supports are missing. I was also delighted to see her emphasize the importance of building in real work examples into the program materials, exercises and practice sessions.

What intrigued me most was her story on how she uses questioning. Adele does make a good point that we sometimes underestimate the capacity of our learners. What do you think about the way she uses questions? In many programs, I start by directing the question I am asking to the whole group. That’s so all the participants pay attention to the question. It is only when no one attempts an answer that I then direct the question to a specific individual. What do you think of this method? Have you tried this approach in your own programs? Can you see any downsides to asking questions this way?

Thank you again, Adele, for your instructive comments and feedback. Please let me know what you think of her ideas. How do you go about engaging your learners? What challenges and successes have you experienced? Please share your thoughts below.

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