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5 experts weigh in on how to boost learner engagement

There are several different types of learner engagement, from emotional to cognitive. Here’s how to improve each.
learner engagement
Credit: Blake Cale

Learner engagement will always be top-of-mind for L&D leaders, but the rise of remote work and self-directed learning has made it even moreso. 

Learner engagement is a measure that reflects the quantity and quality of one’s participation in the learning process. Many factors contribute to it, including the mental state one is in while learning, the amount of energy they expend to stay motivated, and their level of interaction with others.

There are several reasons learner engagement could be low within an organization, such as:

  • A lack of relevance of the content to actual job performance 
  • Training modalities aren’t aligned with learner preferences 
  • Inconvenience of training schedule and/or delivery methods

Addressing these challenges when designing and curating training is often the first step in seeing improvements in learner engagement. 

5 learner engagement strategies, from the pros

There are several different types of learner engagement, from emotional to cognitive. Below, we’ll discuss each type and share practical suggestions from learning and development professionals on how to improve each. 

Emotional engagement

This type of engagement exists when learners feel a positive emotional response to a topic or learning experience. That positive emotional response can stem from the learning process being intrinsically enjoyable, or from the perception that the content will be important to them. Positive emotional engagement can motivate learners to persist and succeed in their learning. 

“Adult learners need to be able to see the relevance of what they’re learning. When we can trigger emotions through content that matters to them in their life and work, we create a more engaging learning experience that inspires and motivates. 

For example, in virtual learning environments where learners are less directly connected to their peers, we might lead into a learning module with a more filmic video that taps into the human experience that connects us all. It’s very powerful!” 

–Elizabeth Rodd, Chief Learning Architect

Cognitive engagement

Cognitive engagement is highest when learners are interested in and curious about the topic at hand. And interest builds when learners understand how that knowledge will benefit them and they’re given opportunities to explore it in a variety of ways. Cognitive engagement improves learners’ mental focus and supports retention. 

“When it comes to boosting learner engagement, I like to take a double-A approach by centering autonomy and authenticity. 

By centering autonomy, I mean offering learners choices whenever possible. Present a range of learning activities and let learners choose what interests them most. This helps them get invested in the learning process. 

By centering authenticity, I mean making the learning experience as relevant to the learner as possible. That involves focusing training on learning needs directly related to current or future job responsibilities, which enables learners to see how the training they’re undertaking provides value.”

–Nick Wisseman, Instructional Design Director

Discover how a culture of learning can prepare your workforce for the future.

Social engagement

Social engagement is the result of learners interacting with one another. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be in the same physical space, though. Social engagement can be fostered virtually through the use of bulletin boards, e-mail discussions, and more. 

“In instructor-led settings, trainers should be sure to ask lots of questions that tell participants engagement is a requirement. They should follow up responses with positive affirmation (even incorrect answers) so learners feel rewarded for putting themselves out there. Making sure to include plenty of group work and activities during instructor-led sessions is key.

For virtual sessions, instructors should consider using breakout room features or chat and poll functions. Encourage participants to raise their hands, and build in time to pause and engage with remote audiences.”

–Michael Wiseman, Learning & Development Manager

Behavioral engagement

Learners should be active participants in the learning process, and behavioral engagement is seen in the effort they put into tasks and activities. It’s commonly observed in the extent to which learners follow instructions. 

“Learning needs to be interactive on some level and as experiential as possible. This goes all the way back to the educational philosophies of John Dewey. 

You want learners to be doing practical activities that help them process the information, apply it to their own jobs, and learn through doing (and even failure). Get learners to walk through what a lesson would look like when applied to their specific daily tasks, instead of just asking them to reflect on concepts abstractly.”

–Jeannie Kidera, Instructional Designer

Physical engagement

Physical engagement occurs through movement, such as a hands-on activity, and is particularly beneficial for kinesthetic learners. Even movement for the sake of movement, such as a minute or two of standing and stretching during a classroom-based training, helps improve focus. Physical engagement can also be accomplished virtually through VR training

“VR simulations are highly engaging on a physical level. They evoke a visceral physical reaction. You know the environment you’re operating in is artificial, but you still feel it in your nerve endings. 

When you master a challenge in VR or any other gamified learning situation, the dopamine starts to flow and that feels good. There’s a physical rush that can be incredibly motivating and engaging. It’s our biological inheritance from our caveman ancestors — the thrill of a successful hunt.”

–Jim Wexler, Gamification Expert

Final thoughts

It’s relatively easy to gauge learner engagement in an instructor-led training environment. Are learners actively contributing to discussions, or staring at the clock? Do their facial expressions and body language express an interest in what’s going on, or boredom? 

But aside from direct observation, L&D teams can collect concrete data on learner engagement through post-training evaluation. Learners’ responses to questions about how interesting, relevant, and worthwhile they found a learning experience can be particularly revealing. In addition, an LMS can offer real-time data such as watch time, completion rates, and so on. 

Regularly monitoring this data, as well as looking for trends and patterns, isn’t just beneficial for learners but the entire organization. Highly engaged learners become highly engaged employees, leading to increased talent retention, performance, and ultimately – improvements to the organization’s bottom line. 

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