Enhancing Energy & Engagement in Learning Sessions

When I was a trainer-in-training some 18 odd years ago, I was exposed to various Theory and Methodology of training. At that time, all of us called it T&M for short and indeed the way we were taught the T&Ms were also coincidently ‘short’; as in concise. The T&M condensed in to interesting learning posters. We taught using these posters as hooks so that we can internalise them easier. Boy, did it work. I can still remember and more importantly apply them till today.

There was one T&M called Experiential Learning. It was presented in the form of a learning poster similar to the one here. There are three major points to this poster.

Point 1: RA-RA

This T&M tells us that learning requires energy from the learner as well as the trainer. We were made to appreciate that in order for the learner to have the optimum energy for learning, we the trainer has to be the creator and source of the energy. We were taught to never expect the learner to embody a certain ways of being if we as trainers are not willing to do the same.

Point 2: HA-HA

Once energy is present in the learning space, it becomes more fun. Here, fun doesn’t mean just the humorous, funny, hilarious kind of fun. Interesting is also considered as fun. Without energy, learner will not be having fun or an interest in what is being ‘taught’.

Point 3: A-HA

Now that fun and interest is present in the learning space, learning moments will come on their own. Lightbulbs will pop for learners along the way and relevancy to them is created. Ultimately learners fell the time they invested is well worth it.

Ra-Ra, Ha-Ha, A-Ha Model

According to the T&M, all the above can achieved by the trainer facilitating self-discovery of the learning and not by preaching it into the learners. They learners need to be involved in finding it out themselves. They need to arrive to their very own learning.

Another tip is to deploy the technique show and not tell. Yes, you read it right. It is not Show and tell. It is Show and Not Tell J This technique promotes the trainer as the person that shows the way to learning but doesn’t dictate or tell what the learning is. Show the learner the way to the learning and they will learn themselves.

The last tip in tis T&M is to incorporate some form of reflective practice so that the participants can derive to their own conclusion and learning. These are well documented and proven techniques that facilitates a learner to investigate his or her own learning in a personalised and meaningful way.

This T&M has been one of my go to methodology when I design trainings.

As much as this T&M helps, it also opens up an interesting conversation about learning energy or learners engagement. How do we, as trainers, design and determine our activities to fully support engagement in the learning space? This is an important strategy because learners come with various state of energy.

Let’s investigate this issue further.

First, we need to start at what is learning energy? How does it show up in a space? Is learning energy directly proportional to how active a learner is?

Base on my own experience, I feel there are two elements that represent learning energy; participation and focus. These two elements interacts and creates 4 permutation as shown by the matrix on the right.

Learner Engagement

This four quadrant exist in any form of training.

We as participants also have been in these quadrants before.

In fact, our engagement in the learning space dynamic and we regularly go in and out of a few quadrants in the duration of a workshop.

We, as learners, also start a trainings from one of these quadrant. There were days or trainings that we come in as a willing player. Other times we come in as a silent player. We sometimes start a training with low engagement and at time with high engagement.

As designers of learning, knowing this engagement dynamic is very important. Our focus is of course to move our learners all into the top right (TR) quadrant since that is where learning is exponential because of high focus and high activity allowing learning to be absorbed deeper individually and community learning ignited collectively where learners learn from peers.

In order to create this impact, it has to be deliberately designed.

Let’s first look at the circumstance that surround the participant in each quadrant.

Understanding Learner Circumstances

Typically, the bottom left (BL) is the quadrant that represents participants that doesn’t want to be in the training or know why they are there. This leads them to be low in focus and not very active. They are just waiting till the end of the workshop and counting the minutes. Some of us describe this quadrant as prisoners.

The top left (TL) is the quadrant that represents participants that are naturally active. However, they are also like the BL quadrant, unsure of why they are there. Their kind of learning energy is very active. This group obviously are engaged yet in terms of learning, they might need some support. The good news is this group are open to what they will get in the training. They only need a little bit of help clarifying why they are there and what can they get out of the workshop.

The bottom right (BR) is the quadrant that represents participants that are clear of what they want out of the workshop and therefore are focus on the learning. Even though they are focused, they are not naturally active in the workshop but are engaged with the learning. The reason why they are not active could be shy, don’t know how to be active, are not risk takers, introverted etc. There is learning energy however it is a passive kind of energy. This quadrant is perfectly fine and they will derive learning from the workshop. At the same time, they could learn and contribute more to the learning of others if they are more active. We could see this quadrant as untapped learning resource; would be a waste to not utilise them to be exponent of learning.

The top right (TR) is the quadrant that represents participants that are active and have clarity of what they want from the workshop. That later is why they are focused. The reason for their active involvement could be due to their personality, extraverted, excitement for learning etc. Their active nature also contributes hugely to the community of learners in the workshop making learning exponential by creating multiple source of learning. As a designer, you would want to design your activities and processes to move all the participants into this quadrant.

Now that we know some of the circumstance that makes a person be in one of the quadrants, we can now design processes and activities to move them from the quadrant with low engagement (BL)  & low focus on learning (TL) to the quadrants with high engagement (TR and BR). Ultimately, moving them into the most optimum quadrant in terms of engagement and learning; the top right (TR) quadrant.

Let’s now look at some strategy in designing processes and activities to achieve higher engagement in our workshops and trainings.

Designing Engagement

We are all aware, designing involves not only the session but also the pre and post session. In some circumstance, these two phases can be even more important than the learning session itself. There have been instances that the failure of designing a Pre-session has been the downfall of a learning session. The same is true where there have been instances the success of a learning session is credited to the initiatives that was design for after the learning session.

PSP Model

Taking the awareness that design doesn’t just apply to the learning session alone, let us now look at what can we do in our design to increase engagement in reference to the quadrants the participants are in.

Let’s start with what can we design for the bottom left (BL) quadrant. This quadrant is relatively small for paid public programs because the participants are already ready to learn prior to stepping into the training. That is why they sign-up in the first place. Of course they are still possibilities of learners being in this quadrant for a public program when they are ‘forced’ by their company to attend. However, the same can’t be said for an in-house program. The probability of this quadrant being bigger is always there because of poor onboarding, a sense of being ‘forced’ to attend, part of their KPI or PDP etc.

This quadrant can be mitigated prior to the workshop with a thorough internal selection process as well as a comprehensive onboarding initiative. This is an ideal example of how important a pre-session initiative is so important to the success of a training session. Saying all that, there are also interventions that can be done during the session itself for example context set, session framing, what’s in it for me, Focus Intent, Socratic method, levelling down exercises can increase relevancy and focus. Activities such as scheduled sharing, solo-pair-group work, designated & rotated roles & responsibility can increase activity and participation.

As for the top left (TL) quadrant, reflective practices, guided journaling, buddy work, group work etc can support the learners in this quadrant to increase their focus in the session.

The bottom right (BR) quadrant is not a critical quadrant to work on since they are focus on their learning. It is only that they are not as active and this can be an opportunity loss to the whole class. Their wisdom, learning and comprehension could be valuable for the rest of the learners. Therefore, it will be great to increase their level of participation through solo assignments, buddy work, compulsory presentation etc.

Engagement by Design not by Chance

In conclusion, a trainer needs to be aware of the circumstances of the learner and using design , manage their level of engagement. It is never the job or responsibility of the learner to be engaged. It is always the trainer’s responsibility to design an environment that increases their desire and motivation to engage with others. There is no room to blame learners because they don’t know any better. It is up to us as the owner of the learning space to create engagement.