How to Engage Your Learners: 3 Methods

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Ben Stein is not a very engaging economics teacher.

If you’ve ever seen his iconic scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you’ll immediately recognize the deadpan, monotone repetition of “Bueller?  Bueller?  Bueller?” as his students sit with slack-jawed, distant gazes.

Demotivated students sitting in a lecture hall with one girl nap

Don’t repeat his mistakes with your eLearning courses; you need to build eLearning content that is engaging and relevant. You need your learners to be active, purposeful, and energized by the material they are learning. And, of course, you need them to learn it.

Here are three top methods for engaging your learners while also ensuring they retain the material.

Gamification

The Next Big Thing in eLearning has been hyped up a lot over the last year. But there is actually some truth to the hype: games and gamifying your learning content can lead to better learner engagement and message retention. For instance, Deloitte found that gamified training programs were completed in half the time and resulted in hugely improved long-term engagement.

There are three key rules when gamifying your content:

  1. Fun is not the object: Gamified learning content can be fun, but it doesn’t have to be. According to a study by Traci Sitzmann at the University of Colorado Denver, “trainees learned the same amount from simulation games that had high (d = .26) or low (d = .38) entertainment value.”
  2. It’s more than just badges, points, and levels: Karl Kapp, in his book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, stresses that effective instructional games involve engaging the player in a challenge, where interactivity and dynamic feedback allow for different decisions that affect a specific outcome. In other words, “challenge, choice, and consequences.”
  3. Explain the rules of the game: If employees don’t understand how to use the game, they are much less likely to engage with it, according to a study by Robert Hayes of the Naval Air Warfare Center. Hayes concludes, “Instructional support to help learners understand how to use the game increases the instructional effectiveness of the gaming experience by allowing learners to focus on the instructional information rather than the requirements of the game.”

Games can massively increase engagement, but you must take care to actually make them interactive and engaging, rather than simply slapping a few choices onto a wall of text.

Incentives

You have to be very careful with learning incentives, because it’s easy to create “incentives” that don’t actually incentivize anything, or that incentivize the wrong behavior and lead to unintended consequences. For example, Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the seminal business book Made to Stick, tell the story about NFL quarterback Ken O’Brien, who threw so many interceptions that his team’s lawyer added a clause to his contract that penalized him for each one.  His interceptions went down dramatically, but it was because he stopped throwing the ball.

For your incentives to be effective, they must include the following:

  1. Alignment with not just course completion, but actual skill mastery. If your content can’t be easily tested through an LMS at the end of the course, ensure incentives are tied to an on-the-job practical exam or other measure of knowledge transfer and retention.
  2. Tied to actual employee motivations. Money is not always the best incentive to use. Sometimes other things, like recognition, college credit or certificates, goods (like gift cards or iPads), or intangibles (like executive parking spots) can be more suited to your workforce. Use employee surveys and develop learner personas to have a better idea of what motivates your learners before choosing incentives.
  3. Accountability, not just rewards. Incentive “carrots” are great, but most experts recommend pairing them with accountability “sticks.” This can range anywhere from requiring certain certifications in order to be considered for promotion, to including completion of eLearning courses as a part of performance evaluations.

Because incentives are potentially dangerous, above all make sure you evaluate their effectiveness periodically and be prepared to change them. After six months, are more people completing courses and learning meaningful skills, or are you encouraging negative side-effects like corner-cutting to complete more courses more quickly?

Scenario-Based Learning

SBL can be a type of gamified eLearning, but doesn’t necessarily take the form of a game. In scenario-based learning the key element is story. Chip and Dan Heath argue the effectiveness of stories for learning and behavior modification and conclude that, “attitudes formed by direct experiences are more powerful, and stories give us the feeling of real experience.” Multiple different studies confirm that fictional narratives lead to more engagement, better knowledge retention, and actual behavioral changes among learners.

The important elements of a good learning scenario are:

  1. A relatable character. Learners are more likely to respond to scenarios if the character involved in them is relatable. This doesn’t just mean superficially similar to the learner, but also includes things like realistic reactions to events, emotional believability, and depth of personality. Scenario characters can’t be cookie-cutter, PC, stock-photo-like Stepford wives.
  2. Realistic challenges that are aligned with the learner’s skill level. A good story’s plot is driven primarily by conflict; by challenges the main character must overcome. However, you must be careful that the challenges you include in your scenario do not frustrate or, conversely, bore, your target learner. Scenario challenges should fall within Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow channel” navigating between too hard, and too easy.
  3. Interactivity, ideally. While scenarios can be effective with just a strong story and relatable protagonist, getting your learners to interact with the scenario has been found to increase engagement. Make sure your scenario presents choices to the learner, so that they can apply their real-world knowledge to address the challenges presented by the scenario.

Scenarios, like other types of eLearning, also benefit greatly from the use of video, powerful images, and a detailed explication of the “rules”/guidelines.

More?

What other techniques have you experimented with to improve learner engagement? How did you measure their success? Sound off in the comments below!

Looking for Training software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Training software solutions.

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JP Medved

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J.P. was formerly content director at Capterra.

Comments

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The best way to engage learners in e-learning is to include interactivities. I read a very interesting article on ways of engaging through interactivities and created an article from the moot points. In addition to games and scenarios, it has some more interesting ways to engage your learners. Do give it a read: http://www.gc-solutions.net/blog/creating-interactivities-in-e-learning-10-ways-to-challenge-and-engage-your-learner/

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