Tips For Engaging Learners

A while back we shared almost 300 activities you could use to engage your learners. Some folks say they don’t care about “engaging” training. What does “engagement” even mean, and is it important?

On the podcast this week, Becky Pluth author and CEO at the Bob Pike Group sits down with us to talk about how they approach learner engagement. During this episode she talks about some of the research behind how we engage our learners, the difference between activities that add value and activities that don’t add value, and some evidence-based tips on how to engage learners both in-person and virtually.

Listen using the player below. Please leave us your thoughts in the comment section or on twitter @train_champion.

Transcript of Brian’s Conversation with Becky Pluth

Brian Washburn:   Welcome to the Train Like You Listen podcast, a weekly podcast about all things training in a bite-sized format. Today, we’re here with Becky Pluth, the head of the Bob Pike Company. And Becky is going to talk with us a little bit about engaging learners.  

6-Word Introduction

Brian Washburn:  I’m excited. And I’m excited to start just by what we normally do with our six-word memoir, just to hear how you would introduce yourself in six words. Introducing myself in six words for today’s topic– “I can’t learn if I’m bored”.

Becky Pluth: Mm-hmm.

Brian Washburn: How would you introduce yourself using exactly six words?

Becky Pluth:  All right. So “participant center training is needed and works”.

The Importance of Engagement

Brian Washburn: I see a number of thought leaders on LinkedIn make comments along the lines of “I don’t care whether training is engaging. I just want it to be effective.” So I’d love to hear your perspective on this, in terms of, A, how do you define engagement? And then what do you think of people saying “I don’t care if it’s engaging. I just want it to be effective”?

Becky Pluth:  Yeah, of course I’m going to disagree with that because it’s the basis of what we’ve done at the Bob Pike Group for 40 years. And before there was even neuroscience, we were doing interactive engaging training, and it was working. It was working in the US. And we have partners overseas. It works in Asia. We have South Korea, Japan, Australia. It works everywhere, so, of course, I’m going to disagree.

And research shows– Psychological Science in 2007 came out with this amazing, great article that talked about how psychologists in neuroscience who study the brain tell us that the brain goes into a trance about 30% of the time, even when doing something crucial. And what that comes down to is, reengaging the brain is necessary, not nice. And you do that through engagement, interactivity.

When you’re just listening to a lecture, your brain does go into a trance. Granted, it may not be a crucial task, listening. But it’s really an important element of teaching and learning. So I don’t know what they’re basing it on, clearly not neuroscience. I believe in the importance of neuroscience and neuropsychology, and that’s what we base everything off of.

Defining Learner Engagement

Brian Washburn: And I think that maybe the argument that some people are making is they don’t want it to turn into — what we do to turn in to learner-tainment, right? So we’re not there to entertain people. We’re there to educate people. So how do you define engagement?

Becky Pluth:  At the Bob Pike Group, we talk about the importance of breaking preoccupation, networking with people, and have it being relevant to the content. So it’s not games for the sake of games. Everything is on purpose. So every single thing that we’re doing is content relevant. And it increases engagement and learning.

So every 10 minutes, face-to-face, we have to have some form of interactivity, whether that’s talking with a partner or standing up, going to the wall, doing wall work on flip charts. Or it could be as simple as filling in some blanks, having a discussion about it.  Every 10 minutes, if you’re not doing that, people are– their minds are going other places. They’re checking their phones. And then, online, we found, just through our own research– the Bob Pike Group, with hundreds and hundreds of participants– as to how engaged people are throughout our webinar. And if you go more than five minutes lecturing, people are off. You can tell that they’re no longer engaged. We have to have them engaged, or they’re not with us.

And so we know it’s every five minutes. You can get away with five and a half, or we prefer closer to four. But if you keep them involved and engaged, they stay with you, even if you can’t see their face, if you’re not doing a video conference or having webcams on.

Yeah, I mean, edutainment is out there. And some people, that’s what their shtick is. We believe that it needs to be content relevant.

Effective vs. Ineffective Engagement

Brian Washburn: You mentioned something here. You said you don’t want an activity for an activity’s sake. You want it to have intention. Can you talk a little bit more about what you see as a difference between an effective form of engagement and what might be a superfluous form of engagement?

Becky Pluth:  So an effective form is when you take your content– let’s say we’re talking about instructor-led versus instructor-centered– which is lecture– versus instructor-led, participant-centered. And instead of me just lecturing on, “hey, the difference is– here’s what instructor-led, instructor-centered is. And here’s what participant-centered is…” Is saying, “all right, at your tables…”, or in the virtual world on the whiteboard, “go ahead and brainstorm what you already know”. We believe that people don’t argue with their own data, and we know this to be true. So if they come up with the answer, they’re not going to fight with it and say “oh, well, that’s not true”.

So now we’re drawing out what they already know about those two areas. And then we add our own twist on it, our own subject matter, expertise to it. So that’s an effective engagement.

What would be ineffective is, “alright, so we’re going to toss the ball.” And just– “we’re going to talk about one thing we love about our jobs”. That has nothing to do with the content that we’re teaching. It’s just an activity for the sake of an activity. Does that make sense?

Brian Washburn:  It makes a ton of sense. And I think that what you just said right there, is why sometimes I’ll see those posts, people saying, “oh, I don’t need engagement. I want it to be effective because…” and then I read the comments below. And that example that you just gave, “I don’t want to be tossing balls around the room or picking M&Ms out of a jar and describing myself, according to the color of the M&M.”

However, if there is some way that it connects to the content, then those activities actually have a purpose. I really love what you said there. 

Engaging Learners in a Virtual Environment

Brian Washburn: Now, taking this into online– we’re living in a time right now where people are making a major push, suddenly, to turn in-person training in the virtual delivery. What are some of the things that people should be keeping in mind when it comes to engaging people in a virtual environment?

Becky Pluth:  Well, like I said earlier, every five minutes having some form of interactivity– and anyone can join. We do a free webinar every single month. This month, we happen to be doing more than that. But you can see, we model everything that we talk about.

Engagement every five minutes– that could be text chatting, whiteboarding, turning on your microphone, sharing. It could be a re-engagement technique where I turn on and off my webcam. So if I’m doing a little lecturette, I’m going to turn my webcam on, and I’m going to put my whiteboard to a blackboard.

We make it black because it’s easier on the eyes. And ophthalmologists have done a lot of research on the white screen of your computer and how it causes headaches. So we put a black screen up, and people just focus on me for those few minutes that I’m sharing.

And then we turn them back to the whiteboard. And you might do a poll. Today, I just did a session using Turning Technology. And everybody went on their phones. Even though we’re on the computer, it’s like, “get your phones out. Let’s do this.”

And they log in, and they answer questions. And it just adds variety. And I think variety is one of the most important elements to online training and not getting into the whole whiteboard or chat. That repetitiveness just gets old. We need to keep curiosity at the helm.

The Success of Bob Pike Group Train-the-Trainer Sessions

Brian Washburn: And I’ve had a chance to participate in a Bob Pike Group Train-the-Trainer session. I love the materials that you put out. I’m a big believer in it. But I’d love to hear from you in terms of, what have you seen, or what gives you confidence that the Bob Pike Group is doing it right?

Becky Pluth:  So other than being a multi-million dollar corporation– which would say to me that people are buying it and using it– I think it comes down to– I mean, there’s a lot of research I could go into and spew. But really, it comes down to the fact that people come back, over and over again and say it’s transformed the way that they teach.

They’ve seen huge differences in the levels of evaluation that they do. If you do level one — which is the smile sheets– or two, and just test scores– I personally have run classes where one is engaging and the other is lecture. And then the people in the class are equal in intelligence. And there is a statistically significant difference in recall and retention in the engaged class.

So how can I say that that doesn’t work, when we see it happening over and over again and in every industry? We train everything from pharmaceutical devices to government. The TSA, we’re training them how to train their trainers. So it’s working across industries, and it’s been working for 40 years. People just keep coming back, saying, “it’s made a huge impact and difference”.

Brian Washburn: Well, and I am living proof of the impact and difference. I had a chance to attend several sessions from Bob Pike himself, attending the Train-the-Trainer session and having conversations with you and some of your trainers. It’s made me a better trainer. So I appreciate the–

Becky Pluth:  Yay!

Brian Washburn: –the stuff that you’ve done. 

Get to Know Becky Pluth

Brian Washburn: I’m going to wrap up, here, just with three quick, speed-round questions. So I know that you do a lot of in-person training. What’s your go-to meal before you present?

Becky Pluth:  That depends on the time of day. But my go-to meal– I always make sure it’s high in protein. So if I’m going to have an all-day session, making sure that I have eggs and bacon at breakfast. And if it’s a shorter session, it’s live online, I might just have a handful of almonds. But it’s something with protein in it.

Brian Washburn: What’s a book that people who lead training should be reading?

Becky Pluth:  Of course, I’m going to shameless plug. “Creative Training: a Train-the- Trainer Field Guide” by me. But if I wasn’t sharing one that was by me, I would say Sharon Bowman’s “Using Brain Science to Make Training Stick”, but those would be two.

Brian Washburn: And I appreciate the Brain Science plug that you just had there, as well as that when we were having our first conversation, first question, you cited a specific study, which I think is really important. A lot of people say “studies say…”, or things like that. And it’s really generic. But I love that all of your answers come with a specific citation, which is really cool.

What’s a piece of training tech that you cannot live without?

Becky Pluth:  All right. So C3 SoftWorks— they are a gamification company, where you can make these really fun games. They work for live and online. So I would say that would be one.

If I’m doing microlearning, it would be UMU– you, me, and us. That is our go-to for microlearning. And then for clicker technology in the classroom and online, I would go with Turning Technology, would be my go-to for that.

Brian Washburn: You just gave three brand-new answers that nobody else has given in any of these podcasts. And these–

Becky Pluth:  Oh!

Brian Washburn: –are the things that I’m going to be checking out too, so I appreciate that. Becky, thank you so much for giving us some time. I really appreciate you taking some time out of your schedule. I know that things are busy with a lot of the virtual training that you’re doing. So this conversation has been super fun for me. I’ve learned some things, and I’ve also a fan of the work of you and your organization. So I appreciate everything you’re doing for the field.

Becky Pluth: Ah, thank you, Brian. Thanks for having me.

Brian Washburn: All right. Perfect. Thank you all for listening to the Train Like You Listen podcast, the weekly podcast giving you bite-sized chunks of all things L&D. Feel free to subscribe on Spotify, on iHeart Radio, on iTunes or anyplace else where you get your podcasts.

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