Learner Engagement: Probably Not What You Think

Learner Engagement: Probably Not What You Think
Summary: An insight into engagement, as it applies to organizational learning.

Organizational Learning And Learner Engagement

You’ve likely heard the word engagement when it comes to organizational learning. People say it’s important. But what is it exactly? For a long while, I didn’t like the term because what learning sciences says about how we learn and what people say about engagement were at odds. I hear people talking about learner engagement as if it means feeling psyched about learning. And others talk about engagement as if it means fun.

In the last few months I’ve been writing Book 2 in my Make It Learnable series, which includes (re)reading a lot of research. Some of the reading helped me think through connections between what engagement really means and how it fits into organizational learning. Okay. I’m willing to let learner engagement be a thing. Like kale chips.

Dimensions Of Learner Engagement

Research helps us understand that engagement, like attention, is hard to measure directly. So, like attention, we measure engagement by what is occurring. Vicki Trowler, in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University, describes three dimensions of instructional engagement:

  1. Behavioral.
    The degree to which people follow expected norms (such as attendance).
  2. Emotional.
    The degree to which people willingly add to their own and others’ enjoyment.
  3. Cognitive.
    The degree to which people mentally invest in the experience.

These three dimensions represent a continuum from engaged to not engaged to negatively engaged (shown in the examples in Table 1). I found thinking about learner engagement this way to be extremely helpful. I’ve experience these examples as a trainer and facilitator. But I decided to add another dimension, social, because research shows that social engagement adds aspects to organizational learning that the other dimensions do not.

<- + Engagement Non-engagement - Engagement ->
Behavioral Listens, available Not involved (or minimally involved if needed to complete) Disruptive or openly rejects
Emotional Connects with others Not involved (or minimally involved if needed to complete) Disruptive or openly rejects
Cognitive Does activities, asks for specifics and clarification, looks for opportunities to tailor to own situation Not involved (or minimally involved if needed to complete) Disruptive or openly rejects
Social Works with others, uses others’ insights Not involved (or minimally involved if needed to complete) Disruptive or openly rejects

Table 1. Four dimensions of instructional engagement, with examples along the continuum (Heavily adapted from Student engagement literature review).

So, what can we take away and use from this understanding of engagement? For me, it’s the knowledge that engagement is mostly about involvement and effort. And it’s clearly multidimensional. Feeling psyched and fun is not what engagement is about, although people may feel those feelings at some points.

Involvement. Effort. Difficulties.

Robert Bjork, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, and a well-known researcher and writer on memory and learning helps us understand that the right kinds of effort are critical ingredients in learning. Without these efforts, we may feel involved but not retain or be able to use what we learn. And we see that this is true with the low transfer results from instruction on the job. (There are other reasons for low transfer and I’ll write about those and what we can do to improve transfer.)

Bjork calls the kinds of efforts that lead to longer-term learning desirable difficulties. And although these types of difficulties may seem unnecessary, they create learning that helps people apply and use.

In organizational learning, where we train mainly for application, this is especially critical. Therefore, I’ll discuss those that are more likely to either improve learner engagement directly or indirectly by helping people better encode and make retrieval more likely. In other words, they help us use what we learn.

One incredibly important aspect of engagement is relevancy. Adults want instruction to be relevant to their lives. They are more likely to engage when instruction fills a need they recognize. And deciding to engage is critical, because deeper learning requires deep mental effort, which can be difficult. Non-engagement and negative engagement may be one way of saying that they see a lack of relevancy. We make content relevant by understanding people’s jobs and tailoring instruction to their needs.

Discussing job needs with people and their leaders is an important aspect of our jobs. On Twitter recently, I asked people to list what they see as 2017’s training fads. Many of the fads listed shared trying to make instruction more fun while potentially being less relevant. How many of us have asked people we serve how important fun ranks? I’ve asked a few people who don’t work in our field (an unscientific sample, of course) what they most want from training and all said similar things: Training or resources to help them learn newer aspects of their work.

What are some of the desirable difficulties that studied by Bjork and others that help people encode and remember learned information better? One is using low-stakes (non-graded) tests and other types of practice to help people practice remembering what they need to be able to apply what they are learning on the job, including spaced activities, which ask people to remember items they need to remember over increasing periods of time. These types of difficulties during and after learning help people remember.

Unfortunately, too many instructional practice activities are trivial and have little to do with job activities. Drag and drop? Only makes sense if putting things in order is something people need to be able to do (for example, filing alphabetically or chronologically). If we are teaching new claims representatives to find the criteria for accepting or rejecting a claim, we should be using those criteria as they do it on the job. Do they need to look up the criteria? In a database? Use the database. Do they need to memorize specific terms and classes? Use spaced practice to help them memorize them so they can understand what they are looking up. Too much instruction doesn’t apply the research that shows us what works (job relevancy, remembering practice, spaced remembering, and varying conditions, which I’m about to discuss).

Another desirable difficulty is having people practice in varying conditions. For example, when trainees work with internal versus external claims, claims for people whose coverage has been in effect for under 30 days versus over 30 days and so on.

Engagement, as it applies to organizational learning, is more about effort to make the information personally meaningful and carry it over to the workplace. If it doesn’t carry over, the instruction may not have been relevant enough or there may not have been engagement. Our role is to first understand what would make it relevant and then offer the types of activities that help them do the work to get from point A to point B.

In a nutshell, engagement is mostly about helping people find reasons to stay involved in the hard(er) work of learning and transferring what they learn to where it needs to be applied.