Learner engagement leads to improved, more meaningful experiences for learners, and it leads to improved outcomes for learning businesses. But effective learner engagement requires both an understanding of the necessary conditions to foster it and an understanding of how to support it before, during, and after a learning experience.
In this fifth episode in our informal series on tools for learning businesses, we dive into learner engagement: why learning businesses should focus on it, a definition of what it is, and how our free Learner Engagement Loop can help you plan for it throughout an entire cycle of learning.
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[00:00] – Intro
Why Learning Businesses Should Focus on Learner Engagement
Why should your learning business focus on learner engagement? Because engaged learners will have an improved, more meaningful experience than non-engaged learners.
And they’ll be better able to apply what they’ve learned. So engagement helps with learning effectiveness. From the learning business perspective, that’s important because effectiveness drives the triple goals of most learning businesses: reach, revenue, and impact.
- Reach is about connecting with as many of the right learners as you can. It’s not just about quantity but also about quality.
- Revenue is the fuel that keeps your learning business running and growing. Even for nonprofit organizations, positive net revenue is essential.
- Impact is what makes a learning business vital and sustainable over time. If you create significant value for the learners, the organizations, and the market you serve, then your learning business will thrive.
Learner engagement can help with reach, revenue, and impact.
Engaged learners are best positioned to realize the full impact of your learning offerings as they’ll apply what they learn. Engaged learners are going to help you reach more of the right learners by telling others about your offerings. And engaged learners can help to increase revenue through referrals and by returning to you for additional learning products and services.Jeff Cobb
[03:45] – At Tagoras, we’re experts in the global business of lifelong learning, and we use our expertise to help clients better understand their markets, connect with new customers, make the right investment decisions, and grow their learning businesses.
We achieve these goals through expert market assessment, strategy formulation, and platform selection services. If you are looking for a partner to help your learning business achieve greater reach, revenue, and impact, learn more at tagoras.com/services.
What Is Learner Engagement?
[04:20] – Learner engagement is a slippery term that can be used without much attention to what it looks like. A definition can help turn the abstract idea of learner engagement into something that we can recognize, measure, and design for.
There isn’t necessarily a single “right” definition of learner engagement, but we believe in the benefit of a shared understanding. We’ll offer a definition of learner engagement derived (with minor edits) from the Glossary of Education Reform.
Learner engagement is “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that learners show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.”
We like this definition because it recognizes three dimensions of engagement: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral.
The definition mentions attention, curiosity, and interest, which are words that speak to cognitive engagement. It mentions optimism and passion, which speak to the emotional aspect of engagement. The verb show speaks to the behavioral piece—engaged learners do things that make their attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion visible to others.
Learner engagement doesn’t necessarily happen spontaneously. Certain conditions must exist in order for learner engagement to happen, just like plants that need sun, water, and nutrients from the soil in order to thrive.
In the case of learner engagement, the sun, water, and soil nutrients are meaning, safety, and availability.
- Meaning refers to the sense that participating in a learning experience and the related effort are relevant and will provide the learner with a return on investment.
- Safety is the sense learners have of being able to participate as their true selves without fearing damage to self-image or status or career.
- Availability speaks to having the physical, emotional, and psychological resources necessary to participate in a learning experience.
Designing Learning Experiences Using the Conditions of Learner Engagement
[07:18] – Let’s look at how to design learning experiences with meaning, safety, and availability in mind and thereby increase the chances of learner engagement.
You can support meaning by making sure that your educational products and services contain relevant examples and practice opportunities for your learners.
Another way to support meaning is to allow learners to experience firsthand the logical outcomes and results of their choices and decisions. Case studies and role-playing can be great ways to achieve this.
Also make sure learners get meaningful feedback about their specific approach to an activity or answer to an assessment. In addition to feedback facilitators or instructors might supply, look for opportunities for learners to provide feedback to each other.
Another way to support meaning is to create tension between where learners are now and where they want to be. Then resolve that tension by teaching them things that help close that gap. This can apply particularly in your promotion of learning experiences, but it also applies to the actual learning experience. Structuring lessons as stories can be a very powerful approach.
This doesn’t have to be complicated. Even saying there are three ways to dramatically increase learner engagement and then walking through those three approaches creates a sense of tension and resolution.
[09:51] – To support safety, build empathy into your learning offerings. Make sure that those providing and delivering the experiences understand the learners’ needs and desires and are focused on supporting their learning.
To do this, you need to be in regular communication with your audience, continually soliciting input about their challenges and opportunities, and then you need to share that feedback with those on the front lines of developing and delivering your educational offerings. The Market Insight Matrix, which we’ve talked about in an earlier episode, is a great tool for doing that.
Another way to support safety is by having policies that make it clear privacy and confidentiality will be respected. This helps learners feel free to speak their minds, ask their pressing questions, and share their real concerns.
You can signal respect for privacy and confidentiality as part of the sign-up or registration process for a learning experience, but it’s often important to reiterate it during the actual learning experience. It can be part of the expectation setting at the beginning of a synchronous experience, for example.
Also, to support safety, let learners know that it’s expected that they’ll make mistakes—and, in fact, mistakes are good because they’re valuable learning tools. Give learners safe, low-risk opportunities for failure and thereby learning.
Don’t shame or embarrass anyone for mistakes, but instead give them good, specific feedback that helps them (and other learners) understand what to do differently in the future.
Another way to support safety is by emphasizing community.
You want your learning offerings to promote a sense of “We’re all in this together.” Your success and your learning are my success and my learning, and vice-versa. And keep in mind that adult learners usually bring tremendous experience to a learning situation, and they may know as much about a topic—or at least a particular aspect of a topic—as the facilitator or instructor. And so, for everyone’s benefit, you want to tap into the knowledge and experience that the learners can share themselves.Celisa Steele
[13:06] – One way to support availability is by chunking the content into manageable segments to avoid overloading your learners cognitively.
Another way to support availability is by making sure the content is accurately leveled—that is, make sure to align the content to learners’ prior knowledge and experience. You might, for example, need to do some pre-assessment or, at the very least, make sure your course or session descriptions are very clear about the level at which the material will be taught, so learners can pick the right offering for them.
You should either provide or make clear in advance what learners need to fully participate in the learning experience. This could be everything from required reading to a laptop or pen and paper to time carved out for full attention and quiet space for reflection.
Many of the elements touched on here—for example, chunking and relevant practice—are covered in our “An Essential Guide to Andragogy for Learning Businesses.” They’re also discussed in our seven-episode “Learning Science for Learning Businesses” podcast series.
How Do You Focus on Learner Engagement?
[15:16] – To help make focusing on learner engagement concrete and tangible, we created the Learner Engagement Loop, a simple flowchart with three boxes. The loop helps you look at what you can do to support cognitive, emotional, and behavioral learner engagement before, during, and after a learning experience.
For maximum results, signals and supports of engagement should begin before the learning experience, continue during the learning experience, and be reinforced after the learning experience ends.
What you do after a learning experience ends often ideally leads back to the before box, meaning you’re cultivating past learners to be return learners—this is the loop part.
Before the learning experience, think about promotion and conversion.
During the learning experience, work on appropriate design, development, and delivery.
After the learning experience ends, focus on retention and reactivation.
This, of course, ties into the point that learning isn’t an event; it’s a process. You want to provide signals and supports of engagement at each point—before, during, and after—because that’s how you’ll get the most engagement.Celisa Steele
If your before activities make use of engagement (e.g., how you promote the experience is engaging), then you prime the pump, and learners will show up expecting to be engaged.
Then, of course, you have to deliver that engaging learning experience in the during phase. If you do that, retention and reactivation will be easy. The learners will want to come back to you for more because they will have seen firsthand the value and impact of what you offer.
Before the Learning Experience: Promotion and Conversion
[17:45] – Let’s look at how you might approach your promotion and conversion efforts in ways that signal engagement:
- Focus on AIDA (attention, interest, desire, and action) copywriting. (See our related episode “The 4-Part Formula for Selling Education.”)
- Use social proof to share previous learners’ ratings and opinions of the experience.
- Share impact data on how the course, conference, etc., helped other learners achieve goals at work or in their life.
We’ve seen learning businesses that embrace these approaches move the dial both on the volume of enrollments and the engagement level of learners coming in. We mention two specific examples:
- A Value of Learning campaign from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA)
- Value of Certification campaigns from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)
Promotions that focus on gaps prospects feel between their current state and their desired state can connect and engage emotionally. To do this you can leverage storytelling or social proof.
Learners want to hear about people who have challenges similar to theirs. If you can do that, you’ll connect with prospects at the emotional level.
Pricing is also a factor although most people don’t think of price as an aspect of engagement. Pricing is one of the most powerful psychological and communication tools learning businesses have around their offerings.
Whether something is high-priced or low-priced or middle-priced is going to have a big impact on how people identify with a particular offering, how they see themselves in relationship to it. And, if that price is right for that right learner, they’re going to identify and engage as saying, “This is the type of offering that I’m willing to spend this type of money on.” And it does become an initial part, particularly of that emotional level of engagement, in a learning experience.Jeff Cobb
We want some behavioral engagement to begin during this promote and convert phase. This might involve momentum actions and calls to action.
For both marketing and engagement reasons, you want to get people doing something. And that something, ultimately, is going to hopefully be them signing up for the learning experience you’re offering.
During the Learning Experience: Design, Develop, and Deliver
[22:35] – The second phase, the during phase, covers when you design, develop, and deliver your learning experiences.
When thinking about how to engage learners cognitively in this phase, consider assessments, gamification, and other kinds of content interactions that require learners to engage mentally with the content.
Karl Kapp is an expert in gamification for learning. He’s written The Gamification of Learning and Instruction and The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook: Ideas Into Practice. He divides gamification into two types:
- Structural gamification
- Content gamification
Scenario design is another way to engage learners cognitively, and a favorite resource of ours in that area is Cathy Moore.
Stories that tie to learners’ motivations and interests and that help them connect new information and content to past experiences will also engage them emotionally. Stories are memorable, and remembering, of course, is necessary for learning.
Practice opportunities engage learners behaviorally. Doing helps us learn, and, as long as mistakes are welcome and it’s a safe, low-risk environment, we’re more engaged when we’re trying our hand at something, whether that’s landing a plane in a simulator or simply making notes about how a concept might be translated to and applied to our own work.
Social interactions with facilitators, instructors, and other learners also engage us behaviorally and tap into knowledge that those people bring to the situation.
Approaches and activities to use during the design, develop, and deliver phase are usually the easiest to enumerate because this is where people tend to spend the most time thinking about learner engagement.
But it’s useful to think about how learner engagement beginning before this point and continuing after it is also extremely important.
After the Learning Experience: Retain and Reactivate
[26:17] – That brings us to the last phase, the last box in our loop, which is retain and reactivate, AKA the after phase.
Follow-up assessments and review sessions can reinforce content and help combat the forgetting curve. Sharing next steps can extend and continue the learning. Those kinds of approaches can help with cognitive engagement.
Stories of impact and outcomes from other learners can continue to engage learners emotionally, as can badges, awards, and other forms of recognition and celebration.
Behavioral engagement can be extended through on-the-job prompts; coaching that accompanies a learning experience; consulting; and asking learners to provide their own reviews, ratings, or testimonials.
If you get testimonials, data, and stories back from learners in the retain and reactivate phase, cycle those back into your promote and convert phase so that you’re continuously increasing engagement by modifying and improving your offerings over time.
[27:30] – Wrap-up
The ideas we just shared about how to engage learners are by no means a comprehensive list. We recommend that, as homework, you download a resource we offer called “Learner Engagement for Learning Businesses” to help your team think through how and when to support learner engagement.
You can fill in the loop with actions you’re already taking, as well as ideas for what you might do in each of those phases to better support learner engagement. There are no right or wrong tactics for learner engagement, but we encourage you to address each dimension of engagement at each phase.
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