How often have people in your organization passed on online training, even though it was free or they could attend remotely from home? How often have they checked out of an in-person training by playing with their phones, staring into space, talking with a colleague or even napping? If you’re like most organizations, the answer is “way too often.” According to a study, the average completion rate for online courses in 12.6%. Research from MIT paints an even gloomier picture: so-called massive open online courses (MOOCs) had a staggering 80 to 90% dropout rate.

Theories of why learners are so quick to pull the ripcord abound. Maybe it’s that abandoning an online course just means logging off a platform instead of gathering up your stuff and doing the walk of shame out of a conference room. Maybe it’s that free courses have no perceived value cost — it’s easier to quit what you’re not paying for. Those theories might be valid, except for the fact that workers check out of synchronous and in-person training, too.

They may be physically present in the classroom, but they’re mentally absent. Learners may not walk out of the room, but many are not getting what they need. A Gartner report found that 70% of employees say they don’t have mastery of the skills they need for their jobs. In a Deloitte survey, 44% of Gen Z and 43% of millennials left their organization due to workload pressure from lack of learning and development (L&D) opportunities and training. According to LinkedIn Learning, opportunities to learn and develop new   skills is one of the top five factors that drive people to pursue new jobs.

Then why do so many learners disengage from training? Some of the answers certainly have to do with the need for updated training modalities, such as implementing “micro-courses” to appeal to truncated attention spans, distraction management and so forth. But there’s something deeper going on that speaks to the fundamental nature of how we learn — a psychological phenomenon that both flags the problem and suggests the cure.

While a huge boost to training opportunities, technology has also compounded the situation, especially for younger workers. We spend inordinate amounts of time on smart devices, immersed in a digital world where an uncomfortable, stressful or discouraging experience can be dismissed with the swipe of a finger. Resilience is passé when it’s so easy to “reality switch.”

Unfortunately, that digital experience has conditioned us to subconsciously feel that we can do the same with our physical experience. If a situation demands too much of us, is boring, challenges our belief in our skills, or embarrasses us, we quit or check out. We call this impulsive mash of the panic button — an escape from short-term discomfort despite the long-term benefits — the “swipe.”

Swiping is a reflex: an impulse that evokes actions that don’t require analysis or even conscious thought. The very conditions that make learning possible — exposure to new information, the realization that one’s skills and knowledge aren’t satisfactory to meet a challenge, the contradiction of what we thought we knew — create a level of discomfort that can make employees swipe. They log off, daydream, disengage, stop caring or even, in more serious cases, resign.

So how can training professionals and departments address the appalling dropout and disengagement number? As part of our research into what causes us to disengage (in training, our jobs and even in our lives), we analyzed over 50 million employee survey responses and identified five elements or “keys.” As organizations design and implement training programs, these five keys — easily remembered by the acronym MAGIC (meaning, autonomy, growth, impact and connection) — are critical. When missing, training simply doesn’t stick. However, when these keys are applied, participants can engage with training better.

  • Meaning — Employees must understand the “why” behind the training. Be clear about the purpose of the training to everyone in the organization, including employees. Share how participating in training can benefit them in their role and career.
  • Autonomy — Too many organizations treat training as a one-size-fits-all proposition. When feasible, let employees choose from a menu of multiple learning platforms or modalities — live in-person, synchronous, asynchronous, bite-sized eLearning courses and hands-on informal learning, for example. Research shows that more than two-thirds (67%) of employees think it’s important to have access to training anytime, anywhere.
  • Growth — Learners can often be heard saying, “What a waste of time! I already know this stuff!” But many of us wrongly overestimate our knowledge and need for growth (psychologists call this the Dunning-Kruger Effect). A key to engaging L&D is to communicate how the learning will help employees master new skill sets — and why this is critical to their success and not just the company’s interests.
  • Impact — Seeing the results of our efforts is essential to finding value in training. Training doesn’t happen in a bubble; it should have a measurable effect on how an organization operates. Share that information with learners. How can training and learning new skills impact sales, efficiency, quality, customer care and/or profitability? And based on past data, how can these new skills sets help them contribute better to the business? Make training practical and connect it with the real world and expected outcomes.
  • Connection — Connection is a sense of belonging, or in other words, being a part of something. No one learns well sitting in a dark conference room fighting to stay awake, or scrolling through their phone while a Zoom course drones on. Develop ways to connect learners with each other and the training facilitator through breakouts, round tables, Q&As, role reversal and/or brainstorming sessions. According to a Degreed study, 55% of employees turn to their peers to learn something new. Peer learning is a great way to instill connectivity while driving engagement.


MAGIC is the antidote to the “swipe.” It’s the key to engaging in whatever is going on around us. It’s not foolproof: Training professionals still need quality coursework and facilitators, not to mention measures that reduce distractions and increase mindfulness. But addressing the natural discomfort of learning and growth — using MAGIC to “rebrand” it as something positive and beneficial — can help increase employee resilience and the willingness to finish what they started.