Six myths about learner engagement

By Toby Harris

5 minute read

The term ‘learner engagement’ has been trending upwards for the past 10 years and it pops up in L&D conversations everywhere: How many active users do we have? How many logins per year, month, week? What is the course completion rate - and how engaged are people in the courses they complete? How. Many. Hours. Of. Learning. Completed? 

This focus on ‘learner engagement’ has also been criticised over the years by learning experts as a woolly substitute for real insight into skill development: let’s talk about real learning instead of throwing around stats about ‘learner engagement’!

Despite these complaints, L&D people and educators just kept on searching for it. And by 2017 the learning research supremo Patti Shank was ready to concede: ‘Okay. I’m willing to let learner engagement be a thing. Like kale chips.’ 

I agree. Learner engagement is certainly ‘a thing’. But we need to be more precise about what learner engagement is and what it isn’t. It’s time to sit down with a bowl of newly recognised kale chips and get to grips with six myths about learner engagement. 

1. Learner engagement is not clicks, active users or logins

Let’s call those things what they are: platform adoption and platform engagement. Let’s not describe them as engagement with the learning process.

It’s great - and it’s important - that your people use your learning management system or learning environment frequently. If no one used it, you could switch the platform off and it wouldn’t matter

But assuming those clicks and logins represent learning is troublesome. In fact…

2. Learner engagement is not a simple (or single) measure

Shank cites research by Vicki Trowler, who identifies three dimensions of learner engagement, which I’ve summarised below:

​​Behavioural - Shows up! The learner listens and is available

Emotional - Enjoys it. The learner connects emotionally and gets others enjoying it too

Cognitive - Mentally invested. The learner does activities, asks for specifics and clarification, looks for opportunities to tailor to own situation

Shank also adds a fourth dimension to round out this model for organisational learning.

Social - Collaborates on it. The learner works with others and uses others’ insights 

This set of levels is also helpful as a hierarchy of learner engagement: engagement with training courses at the social and organisational level is far more significant than just showing up. 

For online training, you could easily find ways to measure each variety of engagement with the course content. For example, you could analyse online group discussions and come up with learning engagement scores in each of these four dimensions against the learning objectives.

But before you go a-measuring, bear in mind that:

3. Learner engagement cannot exist independently of learning relevance

Many years of research show that learning is effortful and requires motivation. We need to consume content to learn, but learning is not the same as consuming content. 

Think about watching TV or listening to a podcast with no learning goal in mind and taking no notes. You’ll pick some stuff up, but there’ll be little real learning transfer unless you act on it.

Real learning can be fun but it still requires effort. And effort requires motivation, which in turn depends on relevance. Cambridge English Language Learning instructor and researcher Jade Blue reminds us that learning relevance is critical to engagement. Or as Patti Shank puts it

​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

​​This has some important implications…

4. More and better interactivity does not (alone) increase learner engagement

As well as making some nice points about understanding and personalising to learner needs (ie, relevance!) and using feedback to improve on experiences, this article on five learner engagement strategies makes two points that need to be challenged.

The authors say that ‘when it comes to online learning, increasing learner engagement means including interactive elements … pop quizzes, videos, and drag-and-drop activities’. In webinars, include ‘polling, annotation tools, virtual breakout rooms, and shared whiteboards’. Conversely, a lack of interactivity ‘results in learners getting impatient or losing focus while taking the course’.

This is a dangerous idea. If the content isn’t relevant then a highly interactive experience of that content won’t increase learner engagement. It’ll reduce learner engagement by turning what was already a boring course into a boring obstacle course. Activities are an important part of learning experiences but only when they are aligned to the skill or task being taught. A breakout session where you role play radical candour? Good. Dragging and dropping different potential examples into a true and false bucket? Not so good - that has nothing to do with the topic.

5. More convenience does not (alone) increase learner engagement

The other misleading claim in the article is that a platform that ‘offers the learners the flexibility to take the courses at their own pace and convenience can help learner engagement soar’. Like in the case of interactivity and learner engagement, this is only true when the content is relevant. 

Imagine a learning platform as easy to use as Google is. Now imagine it has no relevant content. It doesn’t matter if it’s easy to type something in. If you’re searching for a pizza place in London and you only get results for fish and chips in Glasgow, you’re out of there!

Yes, reducing the barriers to access learning will mean that you get people on board who otherwise would go elsewhere. But they will only stay (and learn) if the content is relevant.

This leads me to the final point…

6. Learner engagement doesn’t explain performance outcomes 

For all the reasons above, it’s hard to generalise conclusions based on learner engagement. We might monitor learning time spent in learning environments as an indicator of learner engagement and then pin that against other variables, like sales performance, to arrive at statements like: 

The most engaged learners are the best sales people

Ergo, we work to increase learner engagement and we will sell more! A better LMS = $$$!!

But it’s not surprising that your better sales people are more engaged learners (if that happens to be the case - it may well be the opposite). If it is the case, it’s probably because the top sellers are probably more diligent employees overall. Here we have correlation but not causation.

There is no easy way around this problem (for a good reason, bear with me). Even if you measured all of the four factors properly and not just time spent, you’d still have the "problem" of good sales people tending to be attentive, emotionally, cognitively and socially engaged learners. It doesn't mean if they learn more, or learn in a more engaging way, they will actually sell more. 

That’s because the link between learning and sales performance will always depend on the specifics of what actually happened: what key technique or process impacted sales, and how did you train people to do it better? 

If your new and improved technique or process simply won’t improve sales performance, for whatever reason, then better learner engagement with the training doesn’t help. And if the new technique or process does help, you can expect learner engagement to be high because the knowledge of that fact will make the learning more relevant to the learners’ goals.

Final thoughts

  • Learner engagement is not the same as platform engagement (like social media engagement) because learning is more intentional and effortful than browsing. We spend hours idly scrolling through social media feeds or watching TV but we don’t learn a lot.
  • You need high levels of platform engagement, yes, but you should treat claims that high engagement means a lot of learning is happening with suspicion. You may have something else, like people searching for knowledge or chatting, on your hands.
  • The driver of learner engagement is not interactivity or convenience but learning relevance. This is because learning new things is hard work and requires motivation. Motivation, in turn, depends on how relevant the content is to the learner’s goals.

This is why Filtered focuses our work on relevance. Content Intelligence is designed to identify the most relevant content to the skills that are in demand so you can filter the rest out. Sure, it’s only the start of the learner engagement process. But it’s better to start with relevance than try to boost learner engagement with irrelevant content and fall headlong into one of the traps above!

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