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10 strategies for more engaging training and development programs

From gamification to VR, here are 10 ways to make learning fun and engaging.
training and development programs
Credit: Elena Poritskaya; AntonioLuigi / Adobe Stock

The word “engagement” has become ubiquitous in just about any online discussion of training and development programs, yet the concept remains as powerful as ever. To tap into its potential for driving change, L&D leaders should continuously reflect on what learner engagement is and consider new best practices for achieving it. 

How to create more engaging training and development programs

A recent Training Industry article states: “Learner engagement is not in seat time. It is a measurement of time that is meaningfully invested through strategic direction and purpose.” The challenge for L&D professionals is to develop corporate training programs that employees find worthy of that investment. Here are 10 strategies for doing just that.

1. Encourage self-directed learning

A 2019 Chief Learning Officer article cited statistics supporting the suggestion that employees be given a much bigger say in what, how, and when they learn — but with a bit of a nudge down the right path. Employees want to steer their own learning journey and should have the resources necessary to do so. 

Today, learning tools powered by algorithms make this easier than ever. AI-based platforms can identify skill gaps and learner preferences using their inputs and interactions. Automated content-tagging optimizes the process of curating and recommending personalized content. Additionally, a robust LMS can auto-enroll employees in relevant learning pathways based on their position, team assignments, and other criteria.

2. Create learning pathways

Another way L&D teams can create engaging training and development programs is by using formal learning pathways, defined in a Harvard Business Review article as “a designated sequence of activities, often from different sources and in different formats, devised to develop [employees’] skills and behaviors.” 

Developing a learning pathway begins with the identification of a training need and translating it into the primary goal of working one’s way through the path. Then, a framework is fleshed out with relevant content in a variety of modalities. This stage is largely an act of curation that is part art, part science and it should take learner analytics into account. 

Look for ways to highlight relevance throughout the pathway, linking the content to job tasks and business objectives.

One best practice is for learning designers to look for ways to highlight relevance throughout the pathway, linking the content to job tasks and business objectives as much as possible. Designers can also incorporate ways to celebrate milestones, such as earning badges, to motivate learners to progress further down the path. 

3. Implement an on-demand strategy

In many ways, on-demand learning is an extension of what people already do at home when they run up against an issue they need to resolve — search the web for information that will help them. But if this is done on the job, it can be difficult to discern the most reliable and accurate sources. 

An on-demand strategy requires curating content and making it accessible through an LMS so as to narrow the search zone and eliminate that ambiguity. Employees can access training at the point of need and apply that knowledge immediately in much the same way that they would consult an in-house subject matter expert.

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On-demand learning, with a vetted “catalog” of materials obtained from vendors or developed in-house, puts knowledge at employees’ fingertips. And with this much ease of access, workers are much more likely to engage in training and development programs. 

4. Provide microlearning opportunities

It’s common for employees to feel they’re too busy to engage in training that requires a significant time commitment. In fact, Deloitte reported that the average worker only has 24 spare minutes to devote to learning per week. 

Microlearning is an effective solution when training time is at a premium. Microlearning can take on many forms — short videos, infographics, job aids — as long as it can be completed within five to ten minutes. When designing these brief interventions, ensure that each micro-lesson only addresses one learning objective. Keeping learners engaged is much easier when they only need to focus for a few minutes at a time on a single topic.

5. Offer immersive learning programs

Immersive learning is all about relevance and approximating the real-world application of newly acquired skills. This could mean incorporating case studies drawn from actual experience, a decidedly low-tech form of immersion. Or it could be the use of virtual reality simulations to provide the highest possible form of verisimilitude. 

Ideally, immersive learning engages the senses as well as the intellect, immunizing employees against distractions and significantly increasing learning effectiveness. The closer training is to real-world performance conditions, the more deeply learners will engage with it.

6. Gamify learning

Gamification refers to the practice of including game-like elements in training and development programs. These are features that appeal to the competitive nature of learners, giving them a chance to beat the clock, earn points on a leaderboard, or garner badges.

To get the most out of this strategy, an International Journal of Training and Development article advises, “Gamification will be most effective when it is used in conjunction with instructional design principles; simply adding game elements to training without carefully reasoning through the psychological impacts is unlikely to lead to desirable change.”

“Simply adding game elements to training without carefully reasoning through the psychological impacts is unlikely to lead to desirable change.”

Incorporating game elements into programs heightens learner engagement when used appropriately and judiciously. Too much gamification can make the content seem less important than the competition.

7. Optimize post-training evaluations

Collecting rich data from employees is vital for creating more engaging training and development programs. To get the most nuanced view of training outcomes, multiple data collection methods — questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, etc. — should be employed in both formative and summative evaluations. Include both closed and open-ended questions, and provide a balanced range of positive and negative response choices.

There are also many digital tools that can help optimize training evaluations. For example, Qualtrics automatically analyzes survey questions and recommends improvements. It also uses artificial intelligence to detect patterns in learners’ responses, and then automatically generates reports with data visualizations.

8. Stay abreast with developing technologies

Taking advantage of the latest technologies is another way to make training and development programs more engaging. For example, some of the nation’s largest, most successful companies including Verizon, Walmart, and FedEx are seeing great results from learning programs that use VR and AR. One study even reported a 76% increase in learning effectiveness when using virtual reality training over traditional instructional methods. 

VR and other leading-edge technologies may be beyond reach for many organizations for budgetary reasons, but with ongoing advancements they’re likely to become more accessible with every passing day.

9. Develop a culture of learning

When the workplace fosters an environment of continuous learning, learner engagement is a natural byproduct. In a culture of learning, acknowledging one’s own need for learning is seen as a sign of strength and character, not weakness. This sort of culture begins at the top, with leaders who not only value learning but actively demonstrate that they do by participating and committing funds to support it. 

This also means allocating time for learning. For example, Google established a policy allowing employees at all levels to devote 20% of their work hours to learning and experimentation – what they refer to as the 80/20 rule. Trying out new ideas, even unsuccessfully, is encouraged in a culture of learning.

In a culture of learning, acknowledging one’s own need for learning is seen as a sign of strength and character.

Additionally, a recent McKinsey podcast suggests that organizations can embed learning into their culture by linking it to their performance review process and having employees use feedback on their performance to create their own development plans. 

10. Always apply adult learning theory

The search for ways to maximize learner engagement must ultimately be grounded in a deep understanding of andragogy, or adult learning theory. Reading up on theories such as the ones below can stir up new ideas for developing effective training and development programs. 

  • Transformative learning, pioneered by Jack Mezirow in the 1970s, emphasizes transforming the way adult learners view the world and themselves through critical thinking.
  • Experiential learning, proposed by David Kolb in the 1970s, focuses on learning by reflecting upon and making sense of one’s experiences, with an emphasis on hands-on learning.
  • Project-based learning, developed by John Dewey in 1897, maintains that adults learn best through active exploration of real-world problems, which Dewey described as “learning by doing.”
  • Action learning, introduced by Reg Revans in 1982, involves learning in small problem-solving groups in which learners take action and reflect on outcomes with the guidance of a coach.
  • Discovery learning, developed by Jerome Bruner in 1961, is based on the premise that adults discover information, correlations, and truths by creating and answering their own questions. 

Final note

Highly engaged learners tend to become highly engaged employees. SHRM has identified training and development programs as a key to building and sustaining employee engagement — an employees’ commitment and connection to their organization. 

The benefits of high employee engagement include talent retention, stronger organizational performance, productivity, and more. This means that keeping learners engaged has a ripple effect that is felt throughout the organization. And using these strategies, singly or in combination, can be the pebble tossed into the pond.

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