Understanding Learner Engagement

Understanding Learner Engagement
Summary: Does learner engagement mean having fun? If not, why is this view prevalent? Is it because we equate engagement with entertainment?

Is Engagement Equal To Entertainment?

I attended a workshop the other day. The presenter is an excellent orator and has a great sense of humor. He had the whole class in splits for a good part of the day with his anecdotes and stories. When the participants left the session, they felt good and said that it was a highly “engaging” session. But was it “engaging” from a learning perspective? If not, why is this view so prevalent among a lot of us? Is it because we equate “engagement” with “entertainment”?

What Is Learner Engagement?

“Learning is not a circus and teachers are not clowns.” Donald Clark

I do not consider “entertainment” as learner engagement.  Doing so is like equating learning to watching movies, which we know it is not. Engagement from a learning perspective is a lot more, and must also take into account the following:

  • Was the session enriching?
  • Was the session effective?

Enrichment deals with the “knowledge” and “understanding” part of learning. When you attend a session conducted by an expert in a certain discipline, what you expect is to gain insights from their expertise and experience. If the session doesn’t cause a cognitive disequilibrium (by addressing misconceptions) or help you connect new stuff with what you already know (associate and expand your schema), then the session cannot be considered enriching.

A learning session is effective when you are able to transfer what you learned to workplace situations. This can happen only if the expert addresses one or more of the following: how to perform a task more efficiently, how to solve a problem, where you could be going wrong when you perform a task, or in the case of soft skills, the trade-off involved in making decisions. This may be achieved in various ways: by sharing a job-aid, expert modeling (expert showing how they perform the task), or through activities that provide learners with an opportunity to try out what they learned in a controlled environment.

 Purpose Of Engagement

Instruction, like a trip to the dentist, can be very effective without being at all appealing, but the experience will be avoided unless absolutely necessary.” – John Keller

 Why Do We Want To Engage Our Learners?

The answer is obvious—to get them interested and motivated. Will making the learning material “fun” help us to achieve this goal? Well, some may argue that it will, but in my experience, I have found that such motivation is short term and dissipates as soon as the session or course is over. Adults are driven by intrinsic motivation more than extrinsic motivation. While games and fun may help you keep a child engrossed, adults will look for something much more beyond fun. Even when it comes to children, understanding a concept is what leads to long-term motivation. The more a child or an adult understands a concept, the more they want to learn about it, which leads to intrinsic and sustained motivation. So, let’s not take Keller’s quote to mean that learning must be designed to be entertaining rather what we should infer from this quote is that learning should be made immersive. And when you make your course or session effective and enriching it does become immersive.

Engagement In Online Courses

“Interactivity is in the mind, not the mouse.”– Sivasailam Thiagarajan

When it comes to online learning, learner engagement is inferred as something totally different. In the online environment, every click is identified as an interaction by course designers. So, clicking or selecting something on the screen is an interaction and so is answering a bevy of recall questions (soon after a concept is taught because the standard says interactivity after every 5-7 frames!). Most course designers refer to these question-interactions as Check Your Understanding (CYU), Knowledge Checks, and Quick Quiz. These terms don’t help in any manner to design interactions that call upon learners to reflect, think, or process information deeply.

We have come up with a framework to help us design enriching interactions in online courses. It helps novice designers ensure a) that they have interactions that address the mind and not just the mouse, and b) they include a variety of interactions. The book Making it Stick references research that proves how spaced retrieval, varied activities, and also “desirable difficulties" help make learning stick.


So, the next time you plan to make your course or session engaging, ask yourself which “E” you have addressed. Is it the “E” as in entertainment, or is it the “E” as in enriching and effective?