How to Radically Increase Engagement in Your Training Programs

A colleague asked me to join her on a course design call with her client. At the end of the hour-long call, we had the outline of a very engaging and interesting approach to teaching a new process. As we were about to hang up, the client sighed and said, “But I doubt they’ll even take the course.” I could hear the disappointment and frustration in the client’s voice. My colleague became disheartened, as well. Every developer, HR manager, or other individual responsible for training struggles with a lack of employee engagement in training. “It’s hard enough to get employees to complete required compliance training programs, so forget about getting them to complete anything optional,” is the sentiment we hear often from frustrated HR professionals.


Why is it so hard to get employees to engage in training?

Demands on their time and multiple roles at home, work, school, and in their community can overwhelm adult learners. Research indicates adult workers spend nearly 50% of their work time on activities that give no personal satisfaction or further their work goals i . They’re also distracted and interrupted regularly by social media and smart devices, all leading to information overload ii . These demands leave about 1% of a typical workweek for professional development.

But they find time to engage in activities they WANT to do, so what’s the real issue?

The real cause engagement apathy is the type of instruction provided to the working adult learner. Employee development programs usually consist of passive learning experiences in the form of instructor-led classroom training, slide-based eLearning modules, or a blend of the two iii . In her eBook Engaging Disengaged Learners, Laura Overton states, “45% of staff say that uninspiring content is the top barrier to engaging with online learning.” iv As adult learners have limited time for pursuing developmental activities, the passive experiences seem to waste their time, further demotivating them. As adult learners, we learn most effectively when we feel connected to and inspired by the material, so the more we learn, the more we engage with the experience.

How do we solve this disengagement problem?

Too often, we expect adult learners to change, rather than considering how we can improve our delivery. But committing to meeting our learners where they are instead of insisting they passively receive our wisdom can make all the difference. For example, we first piloted our leadership development program, Gillespie Nimble New Manager JumpStart, as a completely online learning experience. We received feedback like, “I lacked the discipline to complete the modules even when I held time on my calendar to do so,” and “Great content, but I spent too little time on the class to get as much out of it as I wanted.”

We realized that for the program to bridge the gap between what got new managers promoted and the skills they needed to succeed, we had to help these new managers engage with the course content. We knew we’d gotten the content part right—participants expressed interest and acknowledged they needed to improve in the skills we taught. However, we needed to correct the learning experience, so we changed things up using constructivist learning approaches (read more about constructivism here).

Our redesign provided:

  • A facilitated, as opposed to an instructor-led, experience (read more about the difference here).
  • Interactive eLearning modules, including scenario-based activities.
  • Hands-on application of skills through activities for which the facilitator provides extensive feedback.
  • Online discussion forums.
  • Weekly one-on-one facilitator-participant coaching sessions.
  • Weekly live group discussions.
Overall participation percentage by course activity and course overall

Overall participation percentage by course activity and course overall

These activities combine to provide opportunities to interact in a myriad ways, so regardless of the participant’s comfort level or preference, there’s a way for that participant to connect with the content.

After making these changes, we saw overall course participation climb to 93% along with extremely high participation rates in activities like speaking in group sessions (100%), posting in discussion forums (100%) and completing eLearning modules (96%). Most participants performed more than the minimum required for credit. For example, to gain credit for a forum post, a participant had to submit an on-topic post. When we analyzed the posts, we saw 100% of learners posted on-topic, most posted more than once, and they averaged 125 words per post! In comparison, the average online post is about 32 words.

So how can you apply this success to your training programs?

  • Get involved. Facilitate conversations or lunch’n’learns about training topics to get people talking outside of the eLearning module or classroom.
  • Be relevant. Make sure what you’re asking people to learn has meaning for them. No matter how good a training program is, if it has no meaning or importance, no one will engage.
  • Get management involved. Our one-on-one coaching sessions remain the a very successful part of our program because they allow us to personalize content to best meet the training participant’s situation. Involved managers can perform this role. They often know better than anyone how to make training relevant to their direct reports. Also, when managers demonstrate interest and involvement in employee development, employees usually become more engaged and willing to participate! An additional benefit is decreasing the loneliness that is becoming more and more common in our society. (Read more about how loneliness can cause problems in your organization here.)
  • Make it social. Give employees plenty of opportunities to interact with and learn from others. Participation was high in the online forums and group discussions because participants were thirsty for connections with others with similar struggles.
  • Let them practice. Design relevant hands-on activities that allow participants to practice what they’re learning, and give them useful, thoughtful feedback on their efforts.

Let us help!

We love to consult with organizations working to provide effective and engaging training to their employees. It’s our passion and we’re great at it. Set up a free one-hour consultation now!