Engaging Learners with Goal Orientation


Setting the Scene for Effective Training

As trainers, we all want to deliver effective training programs for our organization and our employees. To do this, we need to satisfy some fundamental requirements for effective training program design and delivery.

For a start, we need to make sure that the right employees are invited to the training program. This means checking that each employee has satisfied the prerequisites of the program and that the training will be relevant to their role in the organization.

We must make sure that the training is delivered at the right time; not so early that employees will forget what they learned and not so late so that they will become demotivated through frustration. Of course, we also need to ensure that the learning outcomes are relevant to what the organization wants to achieve with the training program. And lastly, we must use training methods and delivery modes that match the program content and the program participant profile.

These essentials set the groundwork for encouraging enthusiasm and commitment from participants. Without the basics, getting employees on board with the learning will become much more difficult to accomplish. In this article, I want to go the next step to explore how trainers can use goal setting and feedback in particular to engage employees in the learning.

Getting program participants working towards goals is the first of four essential actions that trainers must do to engage learners. In essence, these four areas of training design and delivery that I consider need close attention are:

  1. Goal orientation

I deal with the three latter activities in separate articles. However, you may already appreciate that there exist interdependencies between each of the four actions. It does help, though, to look at each of these areas in their own right as they inform your thinking about your training design and delivery. Let me now turn our attention to the first essential activity; goal orientation.

Goal Orientation

Think for a moment about the types of participants who undergo your training program and how they are motivated. One type of program participant has an intrinsic interest in the subject matter or skills being taught. These participants strive to learn for its own sake. Another type of participant exhibits no or little native interest in the learning. This type will need an extrinsic justification for their expenditure of time and effort to complete the program.

This need for an extrinsic rationale leads some experts to phrase the advice to trainers in the following way: trainers need to tell employees the WIIFM ("What's In It For Me") of the program. The concept of "What's In It For Me" and the attendant acronym probably have their origin within the United States. These days, the acronym has reached into many countries and is common parlance in a number of disciplines, such as change management and marketing.

The extrinsic justification referred to by the acronym may be distinctly personal for the program participant, locking into their prior values or objectives. For example, this could be the social acceptance that will come from passing the course, or it may be earning the eligibility to join a respected professional association.

On the other hand, the external rationale may simply be the stated objectives of the program, which the participant comes to adopt during the course of the learning. These objectives could be, for example, reducing time to market for new products or minimizing the company's environmental impact. Either way, the key message here is that people actively engage the subject matter when they see a purpose in the learning.

Contrast this with what happens in many training programs. In these programs, employees are treated as "empty vessels" in which to drop volumes of "information". These "brain dumps" easily lead to sensory and cognitive overload. Not only that, without a connection to the employee's sense of purpose and meaning, what little information is remembered in the short term is not transferred to the participant's long-term memory. The "learning" is quickly lost.

The external rationale does not necessarily need to align exactly with the employee's existing values and goals. If there is a sense that the program is "going somewhere", that there is a significant point to the training beyond the training room, many participants will latch onto that purpose – so long as there is a "hook" to make that connection.

For example, learning to work in teams may seem a "fuzzy, feel good" timewaster for many program attendees. If you are conducting such a program, then to allay this skepticism you could introduce the program to the participants as giving them the potential to improve their relationships. As participants come to see that the skills taught could increase their credibility and influence, many will become the program's staunchest advocates. The "hook" here is people's innate desire to be respected and be persuasive.

The second important aspect I want to emphasize here is that many people like to be stretched. Set people a goal, such as reducing the product defect rate to 2% or typing 50 words per minute with no errors, and employees will rise to the challenge. If you set the objective as a goal for the entire team, then the resulting feeling of "team spirit" can act as an added incentive. People are social beings. The act of pursuing a goal that requires social interactivity and collaboration can tap into and be driven forward by our basic social needs.

As a trainer, what are some practical steps that you can take to incorporate the power of goal setting in your training program? Here are my top four tips.

  1. Ensure that the organizational objectives of the program are clearly described to participants at the start of the program. To start the process of internalizing the goals, ask employees what these goals mean to them. Ask them individually, or if the class is large, break them into groups to discuss.

  2. Clearly spell out the learning objectives of the program. Make sure that these are stated in behavioral terms; what the employee will do once they are back on the job. This gives each employee a concrete behavioral objective that is immediately relevant to them.

  3. Ask participants to complete a Personal Action Plan as they proceed through the program. The Personal Action Plan documents the participant's practical plan for implementing the knowledge and skills they learn to their job. The activity of adding to the form at the end of each session and at the end of the program encourages employees to set personal workplace application goals. Committing their goals to writing helps to strengthen their personal commitment to them and makes their achievement much more likely.

  4. Provide regular and accurate feedback on each participant's progress toward goal achievement. If employees don't know how close or how far they are from the goal as they try different tactics, they will quickly lose sight of the goal and "switch off".


Training program participants are a mixed bag. Some are internally motivated to learn. Some need an external incentive. Ensuring that your program focuses employees on meaningful and challenging goals helps both kinds of participant enjoy the program and learn the skills required. Use the four tips above to apply this powerful method of employee engagement to your next training program.

Further Reading

The above is an edited extract from Leslie Allan's book, From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance.

Copyright © Leslie Allan

About the Author
Leslie Allan

Leslie Allan is Managing Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd; a management consulting firm specializing in people and process capability. He has been assisting organizations for over 20 years, contributing in various roles as project manager, consultant and trainer for organizations large and small.

He is also the author of five books on training and change management and is the creator of various training tools and templates. Leslie is a member of the Australian Institute of Management and the Quality Society of Australasia. He is also a member of the Divisional Council of the Victorian Division of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD). Leslie may be contacted by email at

Leslie Recommends
From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance

Find out more about how to create and deliver goal-focused training. Check out Leslie Allan's practical resource kit packed with ideas, tools and templates for implementing effective learning. Visit the From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance information portal to find out how to download the free Introductory Chapter and start using Leslie's comprehensive training guide and toolkit today.

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