Decoding Learner Engagement

decoding learner engagement
Summary: Learning is an activity that requires learners to be engaged with the learning material right from the start. If we lose learners anywhere during the process, for any reason, the result is that learning is impacted. Therefore it is important that we hold their attention.

Engagement Is Premium, We Need To Earn It

We have all heard the saying that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. American Educational Psychologist Ernst Rothkopf modifies that saying: "You can lead a horse to water but the only water that gets into the horse’s stomach is what it drinks." He wrote this as early as 1969 in a paper on learner engagement. He coined a term called "mathemagenic" combining two Greek words: "mathemain," something that is learned, and "gineisthos," to give birth. What he meant to emphasize was that learning is an active process where a learner must be engaged throughout. Therefore, organizations must have an environment that promotes a learning culture.

I had written previously that complex skills that are in demand today mean that learners must be engaged in the whole learning process. This means that a mere consumption of content or acquisition of information is not going to help in the learning process.

Learner engagement is a result of several activities coming together. Some of them are:

  • Good learning design
  • Great content
  • Learner motivation
  • A helpful learning culture within an organization

What Is Learner Engagement?

In the book, e-Learning, and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning, authors Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer, define engagement as a meaningful psychological interaction between a learner and an instructional environment that promotes the achievement of a learning goal. Engagement supports building a relationship between new content and prior knowledge and/or among content elements in lessons.

They further divide learner engagement into 2 forms:

  1. Behavioral engagement
  2. Psychological engagement

In an eLearning course, behavioral engagement takes place when a learner clicks on an object within the course even if it is just to get to the next part of the course. In a classroom, this can be noticed when a learner takes notes or asks questions.

Psychological engagement is when there is mental activity on the part of a learner, such that there is some level of achievement of a learning objective. A learner can be said to be psychologically engaged when they are going through a learning activity; this could be an eLearning course or attending a class, or even reading a book, and are mentally organizing the material into a coherent structure to make meaning out of it. Psychological engagement may or may not be accompanied by behavioral engagement.

In their paper, "Eight Ways to Promote Generative Learning," professors Logan Fiorella and Richard Mayer say that learning is a generative activity. What they mean by this is that learning is a process of transforming incoming information (from learning material) from the form of words and pictures to usable knowledge that a learner can later use. This also means that generative learning depends not just on how information is presented (that is, instructional material) to learners but also on how learners try to make sense of that material (i.e., learning strategies).

How Do We Get Learner Engagement?

Learner engagement focuses on how we can foster an environment where generative learning happens. It must be borne in mind that since we are referring to adult learners, generative perceptions and meanings are a combination of the connections that a learner builds with the "to-be-learned material" and the existing knowledge that is already present with a learner.

If all of the above is not complicated enough to ensure learner engagement, there is also the aspect of learner motivation and learner attention that we need to take into consideration. Motivation is what makes a learner willing enough to invest time and effort to plow through learning material and make sense of it. Attention is when a learner directs the generative processes toward incoming learning material and combines this with previous knowledge.

Motivation can be influenced by several factors:

  • Learner interest
  • Goals
  • Beliefs
  • Attribution about their own learning

Meaningful learning can occur when a learner is motivated enough to engage in the process of making sense of learning material and integrating it into his existing knowledge. A learner holding a false belief about their ability to learn can easily be demotivated at the first sign of challenge or difficulty. A demotivated learner will find it hard to apply the required mental resources to understand the material and so, learning is impeded. So, it is important that learner motivation is catered to during the learning process. Among many ways to keep learners motivated, one is to show them how learning will help them: the WIIFM part.

While motivation can be extrinsic in the form of a reward or an avoidance of punishment, the best results are achieved when a learner is intrinsically motivated. Getting this is easier said than done, it is a hard but not an impossible task.

Why Is Decoding Learner Engagement Important?

Going back to where we started, Rothkopf’s term, "mathemagenics", or activities that will give birth to learning, we can see that it is as if learners have almost complete power over their own learning. When they are engaged in a learning activity, if they choose to focus on facts, then they will probably remember the factual information contained in a lesson. If they choose to focus on how they will be going to apply the information, they will hopefully learn how to apply the same. If they choose to do nothing with the information, they learn nothing. The bottom line is that while everything can be done to give a learner the best training material possible, the only learning that will ever take place is what a learner chooses to learn. It is the learner who has to choose to process the information contained in the learning material. What is learned is what a learner chooses "to drink."

A Learning Environment That Promotes Learning Of Complex Skills

This does not absolve L&D or training departments from all responsibility. They must do all that is possible in order to create an environment where learning can take place so that learners can be motivated to learn as much as possible. They must also do what they can to remove hindrances that can prevent or make learning difficult for a learner.

L&D practitioners need to reconcile with the fact that learning does not end with a course or when a class finishes. The more memorable a learning experience for a learner, the more chances for a learner to be engaged. This calls for L&D practitioners to have advanced skills in planning, production, development, design of courses, and classroom sessions. They also need to have an understanding of modern learners and the latest learning trends.

While all this might sound intimidating, one of the ways of reducing the pressure on an L&D department would be to engage with a learning partner who understands these complexities. This partner would need to provide an environment that would provide multiple means of engagement for learners. One that would not just stimulate their curiosity but could hold their interest so that they persisted in their learning efforts. Learning needs to be delivered in multiple formats: eLearning, classroom, books, practice environments, etc. so that learners can become knowledgeable and make meaningful contributions to their organizations.

What Ernst Rothkopf said was right: "You can lead a horse to water but the only water that gets into the horse’s stomach is what it drinks." We must provide an environment where learners can keep coming back to drink.


  • How Learning Happens. Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice, Paul A Kirschner and Carl Hendrick, Routledge (2020)
  • Eight Ways to Promote Generative Learning, Logan Fiorella and Richard E Mayer (2015)
  • e-Learning, and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning, Ruth Colvin and Richard E Mayer, John Wiley & Sons (2016)