5 ways to maximise learner engagement

November 22, 2019 3:52 pm Published byAzesta

Everyone knows me as an experiential learning specialist but not everyone knows what that means. Many people assume that that means that I use games, exercises or tasks in my training programmes and that is true, but it is only a small part of the story. I don’t use games to spice up a boring training session, every aspect of the programme must be designed to maximise learner engagement and that means getting learners as involved as possible in thinking, learning, doing and planning for application in a way that means they simply cannot be bored or wondering what they are going to have for dinner. It means a lot more time spent planning, designing and creating resources to use and a much bigger car to transport what you need to sessions, but it is worth it for the outcomes and results. It is generally not done well in secondary schools and universities unfortunately where all too often learners are expected to passively consume. There are many different ways that I plan for ‘learner engagement’ and here are a selection of five of them to get you started if you are hoping to improve engagement and outcomes on your programmes…

1) Use only highly relevant exercises. I wouldn’t use an ‘icebreaker’ at the start of a session unless it was going to move the learners forward in a way directly related to the content of the programme. If you do, you run the risk of reducing engagement by doing something that a learner may perceive as pointless as well as wasting valuable time on your programme. At the start of an exercise it may not be completely clear why you are going to use it and this may provoke curiosity, but by the end of the review, the relevance should be absolutely clear to all. In this way you will build up trust with the learners who will be more prepared to ‘go with you’ on some of the things you ask because they know it is going to lead to learning. Only use the absolute best exercise for the objective that you need to fulfil. Contact me if you’re short on ideas for exercises!

2) Whenever possible bring into the learner’s mind what they already know about a subject and enable them to use it. If they make their tacit knowledge explicit and link it to new learning they are far more likely to be able to recall and use it in their working life. If you simply share a model with them and they do not have the chance to connect it to what they already know and their own experiences it will not be able to be readily used. There is much evidence for example that if a learning enabler of some sort (trainer, teacher, lecturer, tutor) shares an acronym with the group, instead of telling them what it stands for they should ask people to guess. That way, even when their guesses are incorrect, they are having to access their prior knowledge of the subject matter first and are then able to link the new acronym to that. They will then have much greater recall of the new content and therefore be more likely to apply it.

3) Get people to do something with new information whenever possible. That is why it is so important that learners think about and interact with models that you might share with them. For example, you might think that your learners would benefit from seeing and considering a simple emotional intelligence four box model. If you show it to them on a PowerPoint slide, learning is minimal. If you show them a broad outline of the model, but ask them to create it themselves (e.g. on a floor or board from components) they will have to actually consider and think about it in order to do it rather than passively consume. If you then get them to do something, for example explain to someone where their strengths and weaknesses are in relation to the model, giving examples, they will be able to recall it easily and potentially think about it again when a situation comes up in the workplace where it might be useful. If you take something as simple as sharing the course objectives, if you write them up on a flip or read them out there will be no engagement. Instead ask them to share with a colleague which they regard as the most important and why, or ask them to score them in order of importance, or to colour code those they need to achieve less or more. They will then need to think! If you share a format for a difficult conversation, make sure they get to try it out.

4) Pique interest by getting people involved in experiments in your training. Provoke interest in a statistic you want to share with them by doing a quick survey in the room first. If you want to share a piece of knowledge or research in your programme, instead of just telling people about it, get them to experience it. Let them be the subjects in a mini-experiment, they are far more likely to remember it. If I wanted you to learn that recall improves with involvement, I could give half of you some information to read and get half of you involved in the content and then test you all and that would be far more memorable than reading this article!

5) Put learners at the centre of everything. They are the centre of the programme, not you, so at every turn ask yourself what they can be doing or thinking in order to be learning, changing, progressing. As Dave Meier famously (at least in our field) said, “Never do for a learner what they can do themselves” and you won’t go far wrong. For example, many people will counsel you to use stories, metaphors and analogies in your training and you can, but even more important to ensure that learners get a chance to create their own metaphors and share their own stories and make sense and meaning of what they learn in their own way. Check that in every section of your programme your learners have a starring role.

So experiential learning is learning through experience or more specifically through thinking and doing and being, not by listening. It applies to every part of every day of the programme. Please make sure you employ it, with or without the games!

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