The secrets to creating engaging eLearning: How to provide your audience with meaningful learning experiences

how to create engaging elearningIt’s said that practice makes perfect. For decades now, a tried and tested approach to delivering new learning has been practice, practice…and more practice. Many L&D approaches, in fact, encourage aspects of repeated review and revision. The prevailing thought has been: The more you do, the better you learn. There’s no denying that significant knowledge transference does occur through continuous drills and exercises. However, the big question is: How engaging do learners find practice-intensive eLearning course when trying to learn new concepts and skills?

Disengagement through practice

The secret to productive knowledge transfer lies in creating learning environments where learners engage constructively with learning content.

When it comes to creating engaging eLearning, therefore, it’s not only essential to include aspects of repeated practice; it’s also important that instructional designers and Learning & Development (L&D) professionals design such activity in ways that keep learners interested and involved in the course. Going exercise-heavy could, in fact, breed disengagement. With little to stimulate learners, practice becomes mundane and less interesting with each iteration. That’s a phenomenon known as “Drill and Kill”.

Engaging eLearning won’t happen through rote practice. To build engaging content, course designers must ensure that their content resonates with each individual learner’s personality. Both theoretical and practical aspects of the courses must also focus on the specific job/role that learners are training for.   And there’s science behind how to create engaging eLearning.


The Science behind engaging content

The secret to creating engaging learning content lies in understanding the motivation behind learning – Why are individual learners prepared to spend time, effort, and money to learn what you are teaching them. High-powered graphics, brilliant animation, and state-of-the-art technology may “attract” learners to courses. However, that attraction doesn’t necessarily translate to engagement.


In a paper titled “The Science of Engagement”, Weber Shandwick, one of the world’s leading global public relations firms, outlined their vision of what drives engagement.  The ideas resulted from a cross-disciplinary panel comprising anthropologist Dr. Grant McCracken, psychologist Dr. Olivier Oullier and neuroscientist Dr. Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy. The 10 “Principles of Engagement” they espouse are based on a set of 19 “Elements”.


L&D professionals and instructional designers can learn much about creating engaging eLearning by understanding the science behind engagement.


What makes eLearning engaging

Here are some of the relevant principles of engagement that L&D must be aware of when designing engaging eLearning courses:

Engagement is not infinite

For every course you create, through which you hope to engage with your learners, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of other eLearning opportunities competing for learner engagement. eLearning course designers must, therefore, strive to capture learner curiosity through their content. eLearners have finite amounts of “engagement capital” at their disposal. If learners don’t get what they are looking for from your course, they’re apt to disengage and move on.

Immediacy delivers engagement

This principle is grounded on learner expectation of immediate satisfaction. An eLearning course that promises to deliver what learners want at the end of 6-months, might not rate too highly for learner engagement as a course that offers aspects of incremental satisfaction following the initial hour of a module.

Delayed gratification breeds disengagement. Therefore, structure your curriculums around small learning objectives that offer learners some gratification immediately – even though it may come in small doses.

Engagement requires reciprocity

Learners expend time, energy, effort, and money to engage with your content. In return, they seek reciprocal forms of reward from the course. If your course delivers content that helps learners address specific skills gaps, assists them in advancing their careers, or aids in fulfilling some professional goals, they will engage more fully with the course.

Negative experiences always outweigh positive ones

The human brain is conditioned to the aversion of negativity. As a result, when it comes to making decisions around engagement, any negative experience weighs twice as highly as positive ones.

It is important, therefore, for course designers to exercise extreme diligence when designing course experiences. A module that takes too long to download, or a video that offends the sensitivities of some learners, could trigger immediate disengagement. To mitigate this risk, L&D professionals must include feedback loops after each learning milestone – quiz, exercise, lesson, module, etc. It is then vital to take immediate steps to address negative feedback.

Engagement feeds off learner experience and expectation

A learner’s prior experiences (related to the subject matter of the course), and their expectations (of what they believe they’ll learn from your course) drive engagement. It is essential for instructional designers to have a full picture of what learners already know (Know your Audience) before putting together course outlines. That addresses the “experience” aspect of engagement.

Next, define individual lesson plans and objectives keeping in mind what learners are expecting to take away from each activity. This gives learners a clear view of what they’ll gain from completing a specific exercise, test, or assignment.

Enhancing engagement in eLearning

While discussing each of the five principles of engagement above, we’ve highlighted specific actions course developers can take to foster learner engagement. Here are four additional engagement-enhancing characteristics that instructional designers and L&D professionals should incorporate into their eLearning content:

Build interactivity

Engagement is a 2-way street. Don’t expect learners to engage with courses that simply exhorts them to “push next to proceed”. Instead, include interactive elements in your course that trigger two-way chains of responses and communication between content and learner. A good example might be to include decision-tree exercises or activities with multiple pathways to the right solution.

Interactivity also includes having live, face-to-face video chats, or responding to learner queries via text messages and in real-time. Ideally, having the ability to interact with trainers, peers, and coaches beyond traditional “training hours” promotes greater learner engagement.

Create personalized learning paths

One learners’ engagement might translate to another’s disengagement. Some learners may wish to engage with the course sequentially, by going through each module. Others may wish to engage directly with core content, skipping introductory materials. If your eLearning course enforces a rigid “Module 1 is a pre-requisite to Module 2….is a pre-requisite to Module 6” approach, it’s likely that learners with more advanced knowledge will remain disengaged for a significant portion of the course.

Allowing learners to choose how and what they wish to learn, and in what sequence they wish to complete segments of the course, can foster greater engagement with the content.

Leverage social learning

Most learners that are active on social media are fully engaged with their social networks. If they weren’t, they’d likely not be part of a social network in the first place. To foster engagement with your course, consider including aspects of social learning. Build learning communities, peer networks, and group discussion forums so learners might engage with peers and fellow learners to further their own learning objectives. Including group projects and assignments is yet another method to foster eLearning engagement.

Don’t underestimate the visual appeal

No matter how many scientific learning principles you apply when developing your eLearning courses, if your content isn’t visually appealing to your audience, expect disengagement. Visual appeal doesn’t necessarily mean using every color combination from the color wheel. Neither does it mean using multiple transition effects and flashy animation.

Following the basic tenants of visual appeal, such as standardized design, appropriate font sizes, lots of white space, evenly-spaced text, high-quality images, user-friendly interface – assures greater learner engagement.

If you want to turn your eLearning courses into truly engaging learning solutions, I’d love to see you inside my Instructional Design for ELearning program

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