Fostering Employee Engagement In (And With) Adaptive Learning

Fostering Employee Engagement In (And With) Adaptive Learning
Irene Jimenez/SweetRush
Summary: With adaptive learning, the bar for engagement is higher. Your adaptive learning approach needs to incorporate strategies for increasing engagement. These 7 techniques can help get learners thinking, feeling, and doing (aka engaged).

Can Adaptive Learning Foster Engagement?

An organization looking to seed its training with adaptive learning faces a real fear, as does a vendor claiming to offer it.

eBook Release: Hats Off To Adaptive Learning: Tailoring Corporate Training For Each Learner
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Hats Off To Adaptive Learning: Tailoring Corporate Training For Each Learner
Discover how adaptive learning works, when to use it, and its many benefits.

What If Learners Don’t Get The Training They Need?

If you guide learners incorrectly—say via a pretest, learning journey with detours, or Netflix-style palette of training to choose from—they could miss opportunities to gain the understanding they need to grow and improve. And this leads to legal, financial, and cultural risk.

Learners are busy, after all, and short-term priorities (as well as long-term habits) get in the way of committing focused time to learning. Learners who think they already know what’s being taught typically won’t give it their full attention. And if it’s mandated, they’ll do the minimum it takes to pass the hurdles put in place to ensure they stay awake. All of us have done this as a learner; let’s be honest.

This isn’t laziness; it’s logical. We decide what goes into our brains, in order to achieve what is asked of us seemingly every minute of every day, from organizations, bosses, colleagues, projects, spouse/partners, children, friends, relatives, friends’ relatives, our career and interests, and our personal affairs. Only so much can go into our heads, and we only have so much time. Choices must be made about what we focus on, and not all available training has interest to all of us.

With any training, failing to deliver what learners require is a risk, but with adaptive learning, it’s a bigger risk. If you give them options to leave quickly, knowing they may prioritize their limited time and attention elsewhere, how do you ensure they get what they need? It’s a genuine fear.

It’s probably why so much training is mandated.

Not So Fast

But that fear may be somewhat ungrounded. A growing body of research indicates employees want more training:

  • A randstad study found 67% of U.S. employees say they need more training and skills to stay up-to-date, and 40% say their employers haven’t offered enough opportunities for upskilling [1].
  • A 3-year study by MiddleSex university involving 4,300 employees found that 78% of them desired more training [2].
  • A study of 1,200 employees determined that 37% would leave their employer if it didn’t provide training opportunities to improve their skills, and 88% of Generation Z believe it is important to them that an employer offers training [3].
  • A Survey Monkey survey of 666 employees found that 86% thought training was important, and of those in their middle age, 91% thought so [4].

If you build training that your employees need, they will come, even if you don’t mandate it. The key is to get them to want to take it, and not just force-feed it.

Adaptive Learning: Problem And Solution

With adaptive learning, the bar for engagement is higher. If you publish an optional eLearning course, and learners aren’t engaged, they’re going to walk away and gain nothing. Why should they stick it out, unless it brings value?

The good news is, with adaptive learning, you can adjust your engagement strategy to each individual. Make learners crave the training by tailoring it to their particular aspirations and needs. These likely vary across people, but if a course developer can anticipate them, there’s no reason an eLearning course can’t determine (algorithmically or by asking) which to focus on, and give them that.

Wanting To Learn: Engagement

Most L&D professionals recognize the importance of engaging learners, regardless of what kind of training it is. But what is "engagement," operationally?

Reeve wrote that engagement is the "behavioral intensity and emotional quality of a person’s active involvement during a task" [5]. In the context of web applications, Attfield defined user engagement as "the emotional, cognitive, and behavioral connection that exists, at any point in time and possibly over time, between a user and a resource" [6].

So, in both cases, engagement is some blend of feeling, thinking, and doing.

We believe that, even if a class or eLearning course is mandated, these three pieces of engagement are essential. If learners are not feeling, thinking, and doing, the training will have a negligible effect on their understanding and behavior—required or otherwise. Forcing eyeballs on content, regardless of the quality of that content, does not ensure any change in mental model or behavior. That is, it is prone to failure, from a training standpoint.

How To Engage In Training

An adaptive learning approach needs to incorporate strategies for increasing engagement, so learners want to take the training that’s valuable to them and give it the necessary time and focus. Here are some of those strategies:

1. Make It Relevant

People want to learn when they see how it helps them further their goals: accomplish tasks, overcome problems, take on new challenges, and so on. If an optional piece of training can help them do this, they will be motivated to invest in it. To achieve this, make it clear how the training connects to their lives, cares, and concerns. For example, offer examples that show how the targeted knowledge and skills have contributed to someone’s betterment (or conversely, examples of how the lack of knowledge or skill worked against them).

In an adaptive learning course, you can dynamically adjust to each individual’s wants and needs. For example, start with a survey that asks learners to identify their goals, problems, or interests, then use that information to tailor the training accordingly. Some interested in becoming a better manager might see content focused on managers, while others interested in their professional skills might see content focused on their profession.

2. Challenge Them

One reason some people may bypass a piece of training is that they believe they already know what it’s teaching. To counter this, challenge that assumption. Place them in situations in which they must apply their knowledge, then expose gaps in their knowledge. If the world doesn’t conform to their expectations, they will become motivated to fill in their skill gaps by taking the training. This is enhanced if the recommended training relates to the challenges they face daily.

For example, if you are teaching managers how to coach, many managers may believe they’re already skilled coaches and not attend the training. So, you might begin the course by placing them in real-world situations in which they have to coach and give them the freedom to make mistakes, such as not asking questions, missing important clues, jumping to assumptions, and so on. You can then point out their mistakes and play out the negative consequences to make it clear there’s room for improvement. If you follow that by pointing them to resources that will help them improve, they will be motivated to click or bookmark them.

3. Draw Them In

People are by nature curious and often pursue a subject simply because it intrigues them. A compelling story, for example, grabs people’s attention, making them interested in what’s going on, emotionally invested, or both. In an adaptive learning course, you can use different stories to draw different people in. For example, you might present a story about a frontline employee to frontline employees, and a story about a manager to managers. Other techniques to draw learners in might be to engage them in interesting puzzles, or games, or enticing interactivity, that capture their attention and motivate them to see it through.

4. Keep Them Guessing

"Aha" moments are illuminating. These are the times when something doesn’t happen as you expected: you give someone a pep talk and they only get more depressed, you offer a client some support and it complicates the situation, or you expect a program to fail and it instead has resounding success.

"Aha" moments are when our mental models of how the world works have failed. They are at the heart of learning because they indicate the need for us to adjust our models and improve. Good training, adaptive or otherwise, should contain many potential aha moments.

One strategy in adaptive learning that taps into this is to put learners in real-world situations and have them apply their models of the subject to make a decision. They will act in accordance to their mental model and expect a certain outcome. If we can then present a different outcome, we will get their attention, causing them to slow down, take note, and repair the flaw in their thinking. For example, we might present a case about an organization facing an industry change, and ask learners to decide which business strategy makes sense going forward, and why. We can then play out the consequences of their decision, and discuss the flaws. Learners will likely want to dig deeper in order to improve their understanding.

5. Tie Learning To Their Career

Most employees want to get ahead in life: earn more money, take on new challenges, and grow as a professional. If training is integral to professional development, people are naturally inclined to undertake it, if only as of the dues they pay to get ahead. This is the basis for much certification training and professions such as medicine, engineering, and law.

Adaptive learning can tap into this by determining how a learner wishes to develop professionally, then keeping the training connected to it. For example, it might present a professional development journey, or map, and mark off learners’ progression as he or she completes the training. Or, it might use badging: create a set of badges that represent professional milestones, allow learners to select badges that are relevant to them, then provide training associated with each.

6. Bring The Party

Online training is an isolated affair: one sits in front of a device, alone, to become smarter on one’s own. Yet, in life, we often engage in activities—karaoke, bowling, dancing—simply because we’re in a group that’s opted to do so, and we want to go along with the group. And in the end, we enjoy it. We can leverage this in training. If a group of Instructional Designers opts to take a class on game design, perhaps this will nudge other Instructional Designers to invest themselves as well, in order to be part of the group.

Adaptive learning can leverage our instinctual need for group membership in many ways. "Like" buttons can inform us which pieces of training have appealed to others: if the vast majority of our group have indicated they "like" something, we will be motivated to check it out, if only so we can talk about it with others and not feel left behind.

Another way to bring the social element to bear in adaptive learning is to allow learners to make and reply to comments, both on the core content and on the pull detours (optional additional content and links to external resources). This has the potential to transform an individual effort into more of a team one: we are all becoming smarter together, and we can share our experiences with others.

And a third method, increasingly popular in L&D, is to bring in competition. For example, provide optional eLearning but couple it to a leaderboard so you can see how you perform relative to colleagues, or how you and a team perform against other teams (for example, department, region, product line). This too may engage people in a way that the content, sitting as a stand-alone course, does not. On the other hand, research has shown that many people don’t like to engage in such competitions, and moreover, that professionals, who are generally motivated to gain skills and knowledge, find it an unmotivating and unnecessary distraction. Know your audience.

7. Or Just Ask Them

Another way to heighten engagement in adaptive learning is the most direct: ask learners to tell you what interests them, what their goals are, what they hope to get out of the training. Then tailor the training experience to provide it. If the course I’m taking asks me if I’m struggling with time management (I am) and then teaches me how to be better at it, I’m going to be hooked from start to end, because it is addressing something I want to improve.

To accomplish this, you need to determine what people want to know, then fit training to address it. For the former, you can use surveys, focus groups, or interviews. Once you’ve identified what they want, you can survey your existing training offerings to identify how they contribute to those needs and fill in the gaps with new training modules. Once you have the wants, and the means, all that’s left is to add a mechanism to connect the two—for example, by adding a survey to the front of an eLearning course or within an LMS that can create smart learning paths.

Know What Learners Want And Need—And Use Adaptive Learning To Deliver

So, the risk of not giving people what they want and need in an adaptive learning course can be understanding what they want and need, and then delivering it. The process of figuring out what they want and need is integral to building effective adaptive learning. Think engagement: for each audience, what motivates them, what will make them engage? Then deliver training that does it for each. Download the eBook Hats Off To Adaptive Learning: Tailoring Corporate Training For Each Learner, and get to discover valuable insight into adaptive learning in corporate learning.


[1] randstad US study reveals disconnect between employers and employees in upskilling outlook.



[4] Why employees crave more training and how employers aren’t delivering it

[5] Reeve, Johnmarshall, Hyungshim Jang, Dan Carrell, Soohyun Jeon, and Jon Barch (2004). “Enhancing Students’ Engagement by Increasing Teachers’ Autonomy Support.” In Motivation and Emotion, Vol. 28, No. 2, June 2004, page 143

[6] Attfield, Simon, Gabriella Kazai, Mounia Lalmas, and Benjamin Piwowarski (2011). "Towards a science of user engagement (Position Paper)."

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