Creating an Engaging Learning Environment

The repertoire of training sessions offered to higher education professionals can span a variety of topics. From event management services to client relationship management tools to content management systems, it’s easy for participants to get lost in all the jargon being thrown at them.

Unfortunately, unfamiliar terminology combined with a new topic isn’t necessarily the recipe for success when it comes to getting employees engaged in training. And when it’s your job to lead these training sessions, it can be discouraging to know that your participants may not be as engaged in the topic at hand as you are. But that’s okay! Don’t let this thought intimidate you.

Many factors can contribute to a participant’s disengagement, from their own level of knowledge on the subject to disruptions caused by a poorly prepared classroom. During my career I have repeatedly heard variations of the same questions being asked of me and my fellow training facilitators around disengaged participants:

  • How do you teach someone who knows more about a given subject than you?
  • How do you get participants interested in a topic?
  • How do you make training sexy?

These questions touch on three major themes in creating a classroom environment that encourages participation and sets both the trainer and students up for success.

Leverage Resources

Imagine prepping for an important job interview and being asked how to train someone smarter than you. (Fun fact: This really happened to me. This is real life.)

How would you respond?

Teaching participants who know more than you is all about leveraging your resources.

I used to find it frustrating when, after building up to big reveal, an eager participant spoiled a moment for me in the classroom. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Instead of thinking about the classroom space as training facilitator versus participant, consider it as a shared learning experience.

Your role in this journey is merely as a guide. Use moments like this to engage with students; have them explain a point you were going to discuss or ask them questions about a recent project that may apply to the topic at hand.

“How many here are familiar with a CMS? Would you mind explaining to everyone what it is?”

“We recently updated the design of our website. Susan, I know your team had several pages that were heavily affected by this. If you’re okay with sharing, would you talk a little bit about how your team addressed that?”

“Users can get really creative with how they integrate details when they add events to the calendar. Mark, that recent alumni event your team posted would be a great example. Would you mind telling us more about how you included information there?”

By creating opportunities in the classroom where students are able to discuss what they know, you add credibility to what you’re teaching and validate the experiences of those who share. Additionally, you’re creating a foundation for participants to network and forge relationships with each other outside of the classroom.

Start with Why

Take a page from Simon Sinek’s model for inspirational leadership when trying to get participants interested in your training topic.

As Sinek has famously said, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

If you have yet to watch his TED talk, I highly suggest you do. (The link is at the bottom of this post because I love it so much.)

Now, when we look at his model for inspirational leadership through the lens of a training facilitator, we also see a model for building a relationship between participants and training material. Or at least I do.

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Why. Why should your participants care about what you’re teaching?

Does it apply to the mission statement of the university?

Does the subject matter apply to them in their role?

Will it make their daily tasks easier?

Will it save them time?

Will it save them money?

Will it help drive traffic to their website?

Will it encourage end-users to open an email or click a link?

Will it spread awareness about their events?

Give your participants a reason to care about your material and what you have to say. It’s not enough for it to be important. To be a good training facilitator, you have to already believe your material is important, so this fact is a given.

Ask yourself how the material you’re teaching, whether it be a web content management system or HR policies, directly impacts your participants.

“Debbi, I know you manage web content and event listings for your department. This new tool I’m about to demonstrate will make it easier for you to integrate event data into the website and will save you time that can be spent on other projects.”

This will create a relationship between them and the material and will provide a strong reason for them to become interested.

Make it Fun

Just like the Cheap Trick song, making training sexy is about wanting participants to want to be there. Okay, kinda like the Cheap Trick song. But it is about being fun.

You set the tone. You are the driver on the party bus that is your training session.

Now, am I suggesting that you literally hang a disco ball and party lights around your classroom? Maybe. But then again, maybe save that for later.

When I say fun, I really just mean not boring.

Try to create memorable learning experiences for your participants.

  • Enjoy what you do. If you lack interest in a topic, your participants will pick up on that. They will feed off the level of energy and engagement you provide.
  • Be dynamic in your voice and movement. Monotone speaking can lead to closed eyes. Providing movement, when and where appropriate, creates another way to connect with participants.
  • Make learning hands-on. Interactive instruction, whether by working on a computer or a handout, allows participants to engage in the material through visual, auditory, and kinesthetic means.

While there isn’t a magic trick that you as a training facilitator can do that will immediately increase the engagement level of your participants, you can create a safe, fun environment conducive to learning. And perhaps that’s the best we can all do.

Just remember that if someone is in your classroom, it’s because they want to learn something new. And it’s your job as a training facilitator to help them discover what exactly that is.

Helpful Resources:

“The Power of Influence in the Workplace” by Jocelyn Bérard
, Global Knowledge

“The Modern Corporate Learner” by Nina Buik
, IBM Training and Skills Blog

By Katie Santo, Web Training & Content Support Specialist, Digital Communications Group, New York University. Follow Katie on Twitter at @HeyJustKatie.

You can also sign up for Katie’s workshop, “Train the Trainer, From Novice to Grandmaster”, on our registration page. Learn more about all our eduWeb workshops here