Engage Learners With 4 Thoughtful Tips
As a custom learning solution provider, we work with clients every day to solve their toughest learning challenges. For several years, we’ve leveraged our experience to compile and publish our observations on upcoming L&D trends. This year, as L&D emerges from an era of unprecedented change, we wanted to hear from you—the leaders and practitioners who weathered the storm! In our L&D Trends Survey, we asked you to share your biggest challenges.
And you had plenty to say!
Our report, Current Trends in Learning and Development & Learning Experience Design, reveals the top challenges L&D teams and leaders are currently facing across a wide range of categories.
Among your top challenges are mainstays like learning analytics and skill development, as well as some newcomers such as designing learning in the age of screen fatigue and meeting organizations’ needs around agility and adaptability.
When we asked, “What are the top challenges in your learning organization that need the most love?” The answer with the most votes—with 44.8% of learning leaders in agreement—was: providing engaging learning experiences. Creating a culture of learning was a close second—and is a topic we discussed at length in our recent webinar.
In this article, we’ll dig into the findings around the learner engagement challenge. We’ll explore how we got here and what we can do about it with my four tips to improve learning engagement.
Why Does Engagement Matter?
Learners who aren’t engaged are less likely to learn. And when learners don’t learn, they won’t change their performance or behaviors. And when behaviors remain the same—you guessed it—your solution will not be successful. And—boom!—just like that, you will lose that all-important trust and credibility you have been building with your stakeholders.
How Did We Get Here?
In an increasingly distracted world, it’s not enough to just create learning or training. L&D professionals are looking to unlock the key to learner engagement. The kicker is that the key you had one year ago (or even three or six months ago) may no longer work for the same lock.
L&D leaders are seeing just how important it is to bring in fresh ideas, new mindsets, and ways to create engaged learning. The old way of doing things just isn’t cutting it in today’s landscape.
One of the underlying causes that is driving the need for heightened learner engagement is the pivot from in-person learning experiences to remote learning (courtesy of 2020). As one leader noted in the Current Trends in Learning and Development & Learning Experience Design report, “people are fed up by now with online learning.”
Another L&D leader explained: “Engaging learning takes more time than just having a group of instructional designers throw together quick content they’ve built 100 times before. It has to be thoughtful, everyone has to be on board, and then we have to have the right tools to deliver it in the right places at the right time. But if we fail to build the right, engaging content, everything else after that fails.”
We couldn’t agree more!
How Do We Create Engaged Learners?
Competing for learners’ time and attention in the age of digital “everything” elevates this challenge to dizzying heights.
So how do we reach this lofty goal?
In our experience, designing meaningful and engaging learning experiences involves having a clear understanding of the business needs as well as your learners’ needs. It also requires solid project management and a little help from some friendly collaborators.
But these best practices can also be challenges for many L&D teams. After all, learner engagement wasn’t the only challenge we heard about in our report.
Fortunately, we’ve dealt with many of these experiences in our client engagements. Read on to find out how to tackle these “challenge-tunities” (both challenges and opportunities). Because, let’s face it, anything worth doing in life is a little bit challenging. And a lot of it starts with us first.
Tip #1—Talk To The Learners!
Conducting a needs analysis that includes a learner audience analysis is step one in making sure you are designing learner-centric training. Yet it is often skipped.
Why is this?
Needs analysis is often perceived as difficult and time-consuming, with many stakeholders not understanding its value. In fact, when we asked, “What are the top content creation challenges that have come up for you in the past 12 months,” learning professionals listed needs analysis at No. 1. Getting commitment, buy-in, time, and training to conduct needs analysis was their second biggest challenge (see pages 25 and 28 of our Current Trends in Learning and Development & Learning Experience Design).
And the problem isn’t exclusive to stakeholders. As one survey respondent said: “With everyone so busy, I’m finding more and more that’ project managers’ assigned to address a business need are working on an island with just themselves or maybe a couple of other folks they know to identify the problem and build a solution—before they even ask someone outside of the world they know how they see the problem.”
Needs analysis is the foundation of all effective learning solutions. Getting a broader view of the issue and understanding the business’ and learners’ needs is essential to building the right learning solution—which may not even be training!
While needs analysis should begin with the stakeholders, it’s vitally important that you also talk to the learners. As Emma Klosson, Learning Evangelist, writes in chapter two of The Needs Analysis Playbook: “With the best will in the world, stakeholders and managers will try to ‘help’ you by telling you things like: I know these learners well, I’ve worked with them for years; or, I know what they will respond to. But the truth is: No one can tell you how the learners like to learn but the learners themselves.“
Emma’s advice: Involve your target audience in your learning experience solutioning process. Meet or speak with them to find out what their work life is like, what tools and resources they have access to, and how easy it is for them to fit learning into the flow of work. Find out what they already know and can do and how they like to learn. And take their needs into account when crafting your solution.
Tip #2—Do Things Right (Instead Of Doing The Right Thing)
Timeline concerns ranked higher for L&D leaders in our trends report (page 25). Persistent change and the need to pivot put greater pressure on leaders to rapidly deliver new learning programs. As one leader put it, “Everything has to be done yesterday.” That about sums it up.
This was widely evident throughout the pandemic when the “right thing to do” was to digitally transform content to get it out to learners as quickly as possible. While this met a user need—to access content in a convenient modality/format/timely manner—it didn’t always deliver the greatest learning experience.
Now, the trend is shifting. We are emerging from our initial collective fight-or-flight response and have time to reflect and “do things right.” We can focus on quality, creativity, and creating a better overall learning experience going forward so that we engage learners.
Annie Hodson, SweetRush Director of Client Solutions, explains, “There’s a distinct shift from ‘we need an immediate solution,’ to ‘we need that solution to be better.'”
What can you do?
If you are somewhere between these places (doing the right thing/doing things right) and can’t slow down enough, here are some ways to incorporate doing the right thing within your constraints. Whether it’s you doing the learning design or someone on your team, encourage using design thinking techniques, integrating agile practices, and launching courses or parts of the program over time. This way, you can get timelines where you need them to be without compromising the quality of the learner experience.
To solve the timeline puzzle, find out what’s most important to stakeholders and be consultative and flexible, but don’t lose focus on your learners and effective design.
Tip #3—Remember That Teamwork Makes The Dream Work
Collaboration is essential to creating exceptional, learner-centric programs with high engagement. When the behind-the-scenes team and its many disciplines (instructional design, graphics, multimedia, and technical) come together with a shared vision, that’s when the magic happens.
L&D leaders see room for improvement in multidisciplinary collaboration (see pages 25 and 27 of the Current Trends in Learning and Development & Learning Experience Design report). As one L&D leader said, “Collaboration is tough, unless you have a team that is willing to go out of their way to work together.” And for many teams, virtual collaboration is brand new.
The best way to encourage teamwork and collaboration is when it’s supported by culture and process.
What can you do to encourage collaboration?
Make sure your team feels supported and safe. L&D team cultures that emphasize caring, empathy, and respect have a better chance of creating environments of psychological safety, which encourage everyone to speak up and offer creative ideas. Once that’s established, the sky’s the limit. Harness the innate creativity, wisdom, and point of view of each team member.
SweetRush used the power of meaningful collaboration and teamwork as the basis for our solution design experience, CoDesign℠. During this in-person or virtual experience—that blends design thinking with ADDIE—SweetRush teams work together with client teams (including target learners) to identify the needs and constraints, develop and prototype a solution, and conduct user testing.
The result: solutions that are more closely aligned with the business and learner needs. And when learners’ needs are met, they are more engaged.
Tip #4—Meet Your Learners Where They Are
If you’ve made it this far, it will come as no surprise for you to learn that one of the biggest themes that emerged around learner engagement was connected to competing for learners’ time and attention. As one L&D leader shared, “…finding creative solutions to this problem is a MUST.”
One solution to this problem is to meet learners where they are through strategic and thoughtful learning experiences that seamlessly blend into the flow of their day and that take into account their constraints and limitations (such as time).
While this seems like a logical solution, it requires a mindset shift from L&D. As one L&D leader notes: “Many of the teams I’m bringing together right now have done things in a prescriptive manner for a very long time. Our content will be more impactful for the learner and for the business if we allow the learners more self-direction and in-app experiences.”
Here’s an idea to get started…Rather than shooting for the stars, why not think small? See how you can infuse learning into the format that your learners are most comfortable with, like their phones or even email. Engage learners by showing them how to build habits quickly, effectively, and organically. Build in flexibility and autonomy.
For example, for our client Bayer, we created a leadership development program called Rise & Thrive that creates actionable micro-habits. And it doesn’t require much time from the learner (especially compared to a traditional leadership development program)—the introductory “kick-start” program is only three weeks! We recognized the learners—leaders at Bayer—were already pressed for time and always on email.
So we met learners where they were.
Through inspiring—and short—videos, quizzes, “dares,” and more, participants could engage quickly and immediately put what they learned into practice. The journey created engaged leaders who felt equipped and confident to inspire, balance, and empower their teams.
Learners are calling the shots with how, where, and when they learn (whether reading an article on LinkedIn or learning to cook on TikTok). They want to do it on their terms and in a way that fits their life. L&D just has to tap into the right content and format to connect and make it stick. And it all boils down to understanding our learners. Learn more about Bayer’s Rise & Thrive on page 31 of the Current Trends in Learning and Development & Learning Experience Design report.
The Power Of Engaged Learning (And Engaged Learners)
As L&D evolves to create learning experiences that support, build up, and expand our potential as people and a collective workforce, the need to engage learners is greater than ever.
When learners are engaged in their personal development, they’re more likely to adopt the skills, mindsets, and behaviors that will affect real change.
No pressure, L&D!
But seriously, this aspirational work is not without its challenges. The good news is that you’re not alone on this journey. Your peers are all facing similar hopes and fears. And help is at hand!
Discover more challenges and creative solutions to keep your learners engaged, learning, and thriving in our report, Current Trends in Learning and Development & Learning Experience Design.