For a learning leader, the term “learner engagement” can trigger a visualization of a room full of eager employees participating in training and learning new skills with a smile on their faces. Following training, these same employees eagerly return to their roles with a new set of skills and knowledge to apply on the job. However, the actions that lead to this desired outcome usually remain undefined.

Engagement has become a buzzword in learning and development and since it is directly linked to retention, understanding the specifics of building engagement is critical to delivering effective training programs. To help define this level of commitment, it is imperative to recognize the three dimensions to learner engagement: cognitive, emotional and behavioral. Understanding these dimensions can help guide L&D leaders as they work to build engagement in their training programs.

The three dimensions to learner engagement can provide a holistic approach to building engagement that focuses on the whole learner experience. “Holistic training programs should engage the learner on all levels,” Scott Himes, CPTM, a L&D leader and expert at Medallion Partners, shares. “Engaging learning will inform, inspire and instruct.” By shifting the lens to a learner-centric approach, learners will be more likely to buy in.

Let’s examine the three dimensions to learner engagement and how they can help learning leaders build engaging training programs that create business impact.

The Three Dimensions to Learner Engagement

Much like Aristotle’s “three means of persuasion” that recognizes the combination of pathos (the emotions), logos (factual reasoning) and ethos (ethics) as the three steps to engaging an audience, is how the three dimensions to learner engagement are to building engaging training programs. By breaking down these key elements, learning leaders can have a clear systematic way to building engagement.

Engagement on a Cognitive Level

Engaging learners on a cognitive level begins with setting clear expectations around your organization’s training. Amanda Van Der Heiden, chief learning solutions consultant and coach at Global Talent Development Solutions, explains that before employees can engage on a cognitive level, they must understand what the training is going to be about, why it’s important to the company, why employees are doing it and what’s in it for them. There has to be logical reasoning behind the training for learners to feel curious and engaged.

“Besides the ‘why,’ make it clear what the payoff will be from the training program. Don’t use generic statements like ‘you’ll become a better leader’ … but instead provide quantitative results like ‘you’ll free up two hours each week by leading more effective meetings’ or ‘you’ll reduce quality defects by 17%,’” Himes says.

Himes goes on to describe engaging learners on a cognitive level as the stage for informing. “Introduce novel concepts and knowledge that the learner did not have prior to training,” Himes shares. People are naturally inspired by new information, so make sure to keep training relevant and meaningful.

For learning to be meaningful, it also has to be the right difficulty. Clare Dygert, learning experience design expert from SweetRush, shares that the most important thing on the cognitive level is providing learning that is at the right degree of difficulty or complexity for that learner. “If the [learning] is too easy for them, there’s a lot of people who may say, ‘oh well, this doesn’t matter.’ So you don’t want it to be too hard, but you also don’t want it to be too easy.’” This can be ensured with stretch assignments and goals that work to push your learners to “stretch” their skills.

Lastly, it’s important to follow up with learners after training. Van Der Heiden shares that after a training session, managers and team leads need to reinforce what was learned by bringing the conversation back into focus. This can help learners have that “aha!” moment as they remember bits of information they may have forgotten immediately after training. Since people only remember 50% of what they see and hear, it’s crucial to check in with learners to help make those mental connections.

Engagement on an Emotional Level

Building engagement on an emotional level means ensuring that learners feel emotionally connected to their training. Van Der Heiden shares that the secret to emotionally engage learners is through the art of storytelling. “The most important thing is to pull at their heart strings and to make [the content] relative to their world and/or to someone or something they may know,” she says.

Dygert explains that good storytelling has a well-crafted and engaging story with conflict. If people can transport themselves into the story, it can help them become emotionally engaged with the content and how it relates to their own career development and personal life story. People love to see themselves in what they do. It allows them to feel emotionally invested and motivated in their work.

Himes shares that to engage learners on an emotional level they must be inspired. “[Learning leaders should] use the power of story through different media formats to engage the learner’s heart in the training process,” he explains. Storytelling can help learners visualize how the training can positively impact their performance and development. It provides them with a reason to want to learn.

Engagement on a Behavioral Level

One of the most important learning outcomes training managers look for after the training session is behavioral change. Behavior change can help learning leaders measure the impact of training. If training does not elicit a behavior change, then it’s a wasted investment. To ensure that learners are engaged on a behavioral level, Van Der Heiden shares that it’s important to create convenience in a way where it’s seamless. This means structuring tasks in a way that influences the new desired behavior. “So, if you want behavior change, you have to manufacture it; you have to create a world where it’s easier for them to do it than not to do it,” Van Der Heiden explains.

Himes expresses that to engage learners on a behavioral level, learning leaders should focus on application to make it clear how the learner can immediately apply what they are learning in their job. “Provide exercises and challenges to increase the likelihood of action and behavioral change,” he advises. “Incorporate the learning in the flow of work instead of a multi-hour workshop or conference. Use microlearning or “micro-coaching” to incorporate the learning in the flow of work. Not only is this less disruptive, but it will help the learner immediately apply what they’ve learned.”

At SweetRush, Dygert shares that they have a formula for behavior change: Experience plus reflection equals change. “You have to understand what behavioral changes you’re looking for. And then the best way to approach that is by giving people an experience. And [after that experience], discussing it as a way of reflecting.” To enable a behavior change from their learners, L&D leaders and managers should create an experience for learners and then take the time to reflect on what they’ve learned together.

Moving Forward

When building your next training program, consider the three dimensions of learner engagement. By taking a holistic approach to building learner engagement, you can ensure learner buy-in and knowledge retention. Learners want to feel as if their needs and expectations are being met and that they have autonomy over their learning journey. Taking a learner-centric approach does just that.