These science-based tactics revolve around the phases of discovery, design, and delivery.
Engaging learning is both enjoyable for learners and drives the behavior change you're seeking to create with a training solution. It is born from the intersection of three activities done well—the three Ds of discovery, design, and delivery, which unfold in that order. Research in the learning sciences gives critical insight into how to maximize the effectiveness of each phase with these 10 strategies.
THE DISCOVERY PHASE
This first phase is about correctly diagnosing the situation so that you can create the right learning solution. No matter how popular or engaging learning is, it is only effective if it solves the real problem.
Training for adult professionals is always seeking to solve some issue—it may be closing a gap in performance, increasing a team's productivity, or upskilling the workforce for an upcoming change. The learning solution's quality is directly related to the quality of the work you do in the discovery phase.
1. Solve the real problem
One of the challenges we as L&D practitioners must overcome is that the people who ask for a training solution have done their own diagnosis, and it is often wrong. For example, a department leader may believe that their whole team needs a communication workshop, but the real issue is that a few people are not following the project plan or not checking their work for accuracy.
Asking consultative questions will reveal the real problem that needs solving (see sidebar). Start by inquiring about what is happening now—that will become the starting point for your learners' journey, or point A. Next, discover where learners need to get to, or point B, as a result of the training solution. Be clear about what success looks like—what is the ideal state or the words and actions employees need to be doing? How will you measure success? And who really needs to make the shift? Ask follow-up questions as needed.
2. Identify the current habits
Neuroscience reveals that the basal ganglia in the brain creates habits, which are well-grooved neural pathways of a behavior. Your training solution will likely involve shifting people from one habit that is currently easy and comfortable to a new and better habit but one that will be awkward and uncomfortable at first.
To design the behavior change you seek to instill, identify the three elements of the current habit:
- Cue. What is the triggering event that tells individuals to start the routine or behavior? For example, turning on their computer or receiving an order from a customer.
- Routine. What is the current pattern of words or actions they are doing? For example, using software to complete a task or providing helpful feedback during a one-on-one meeting with an employee.
- Reward. What is the reward they get for doing that routine? This could range from completing a task or earning a commission to pleasing their supervisor or feeling part of a successful team.
Next, identify what the ideal routine should look like.
THE DESIGN PHASE
Your learning event is the bridge that takes adult professionals from one state of performance to another, better state. In the design phase, take the information you gathered and build the elements of that bridge.
3. Map the aha moments
The gold standard for learning is insight, because when a learner has an aha moment, that moment creates a permanent change in the brain, one that is unforgettable. Write down the aha moments your audience must have to create the knowledge and behavior shift you seek. For instance, perhaps manager-learners need to assess their team to see the real impact an issue is having on their people. Or maybe employees need to see a demonstration of the behavior done correctly or well so they can emulate it.
Next, start mapping the aha moments across your learning event in the order that best matches where learners are starting from and where you need to get them. Don't edit yourself at this stage—just see what seems right to accomplish the goal.
Consider all the tools you can use to craft each aha moment, such as a theory or model, personal reflection, a case study, or a simulation. Make a list under each moment of all the tools that could work. You'll want a variety across the learning event, not using the same tool twice in a row.
This mapping exercise will also help you determine the size of the learning journey you're crafting. Can you fit it into one event, or will you need to split it among two or three learning sessions? It is best to design what will create the desired behavior shift than to settle for what you can fit into a certain time window. Also think about what you could use as pre- and postevent learning so that you maximize the impact you have on the audience.
You now have the outline for your learning design.
4. Tell a story in images
The brain is wired for story, so leverage that to naturally drive engagement. One option is to use the stories of your organization, leaders, and people.
Also, build your learning event as a story arc with a beginning, middle, and end. Weave together the aha moments you've identified by finding a metaphor or theme that brings them into a cohesive whole. Explore a variety of themes until one or two rise to the top.
This moment is when I like to tap into the power of images. The human brain can process visual images 60,000 times faster than text, and people can understand a visual scene in milliseconds. To find the right imagery, I look through image catalogs such as iStock or Getty to choose the metaphor that will add cohesion to my story arc and visual interest to the materials.
Another science-based benefit of this approach is that the human brain organizes a person's memories into what scientists call schemas, which act like file folders that create infinite categories of an individual's cumulative knowledge and experiences. Learning is stickier when we attach new learning to something that learners already know.
For example, I have built my change training course around the story and metaphor of hiking. Even if participants have never hiked, I know they will know what it is, and as they go through the course, the concepts will be hooked to their schema of hiking. Pick metaphors that are recognizable to a range of ages, identities, skills, and backgrounds and that are appropriate for the region and your audience's culture.
People are wired for connection, so adding images with people in them will create more engagement than inanimate objects. Note: Be mindful of using images that show a wide range of diversity.
5. Weave learning with sensory threads
Neuroscientists have discovered that humans have at least nine different kinds of memory, each related to different regions or structures in the brain. Episodic memory is the most memorable because the person is the star of the experience—think of your memories of a favorite vacation and how that experience is a combination of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures. For instance, any of those sensory threads can trigger a memory of a trip to France—even years later—when you smell croissants or hear a French accent.
You can enhance recall for learners with intentional sensory markers such as a visual metaphor, an interactive social element, a smell, or a soundtrack. Sound is especially powerful because it is wired in every region of the brain, making it nearly indestructible even after injury.
6. Break learning into 15-minute chunks
The hippocampus is the brain structure that moves learning into short- and long-term memory. It is activated when a person focuses on something, almost working like a mini recorder for that content. Studies show that the human attention span maxes out at about 20 minutes, causing an individual to drift away for a bit even though the learning event is still going.
It's better to work with the brain and break learning into 15-to 20-minute content segments followed by a brief processing activity that can be as short as one minute or as long as 30. Doing so helps move that content into memory and readies learners to focus again for the next content chunk. String the chunks together to build longer learning events such as a course or workshop.
7. Create the right kinds and amount of practice
It takes the basal ganglia, on average, 40–50 repetitions of a behavior to form a habit that a learner can do on autopilot. Having learners practice in the room will get them well on their way to being comfortable and confident enough to deploy the new behavior on the job.
One brain structure, the habenula, is designed to track an individual's failures and use chemical guardrails to influence future actions. When we build learning events that are both physically and psychologically safe, we help participants activate the body's natural way of learning—through exploration, error, and correction. Embrace the philosophy that FAIL is an acronym for first attempt in learning.
The bonus is that the practice sessions can become the activities you use when chunking the event into 15-minute segments as well as activities that create those critical aha moments.
THE DELIVERY PHASE
Now that you have built the bridge of learning, the final phase is to deliver training to your audience. Delivery can take many forms—for example, instructor led, self-paced, in person, online, synchronous, and asynchronous. Often, the best form becomes clear through the design phase, and other times you will need to make the most of the format in which you must deliver. Either way, take the time to pilot your training solution so you can polish it to create maximum results.
8. Deliver like a pro
The best learning professionals have learned a few tricks that ensure that their design and delivery go smoothly 99 percent of the time. Here are some to consider.
Pilot and polish. Take your learning design out for a test drive, both on your own and via a pilot with a real audience. Does the content flow smoothly? Have you timed it out correctly, and does it fit in the allotted time? Keep testing and polishing until you get it right.
Practice your presentation. If the solution is instructor led, practice multiple times, in settings similar to how you will deliver it. Speak the content out loud and in real time. Use the equipment and platforms so you are comfortable with the features. Record yourself, and look for filler words (such as "um" and "OK") and distracting body language.
Build in options to flex on the fly. You may have built something amazing, but it may still falter if it doesn't align perfectly with your audience on that day. Anticipate different scenarios, and identify a range of activities you can swap out as needed. Also, build activities that you can lengthen, shorten, add, or cut as needed.
9. Prime the brain Neuroscientists have discovered that priming the brain for learning greatly enhances a person's retention of information and accuracy of recall. The best way to prime learners is to ask them questions about the content before you deliver it. That can occur in the opening moments of the event or in a pre-learning activity.
Essentially, quiz them on content they have not yet learned. Make the activity safe by stating that learners will likely get the answers wrong—and that's OK. Simple questions with multiple choice, true/false, or fill in answers work great.
Studies show that priming boosts learning by creating a placeholder in the brain that the content slots into when you present it. When done right, it can also boost engagement because people will naturally be looking for the answers, and it can add some lightness or fun to the experience.
10. Extend the learning
The amazing thing about the human brain is that it is constantly learning. That means that your learning event is only part of the experience you create for learners. Set them up for more aha moments, and help harvest the moments with extended learning experiences. There are a variety of tools you can use, such as videos, readings, assessments, activities, peer coaching, and assignments.
You will also benefit from extending your own learning. Take time to reflect after the event. What went well? What could you improve? What notes do you want to add to the deck and activities while they are fresh in your mind? What insights do you gain from the evaluations? Use all those sources to continue to improve your learning design and delivery as well as your development as a learning professional.
Consultative Questions for Needs Assessments
- Asking your client questions such as these will help you determine the problem that needs solving.
- Describe what is currently happening that you would like to see shift—what problem are we trying to solve?
- Who specifically is involved with this issue?
- What would it look like if everyone was performing optimally? What are the words you would hear and the actions you would see if people were performing optimally?
- What metrics could you use to measure that?
- What is in the way of employees performing that way now?
- Is anyone already doing an outstanding job at that? What are they doing differently than the rest of the group?
- What do we still need to learn to design the best solution possible?
- Are there any assumptions we need to test or data to gather to gain more clarity?
- What learning format would be most accessible to your team?
- Is there a time of day or week that will be most effective?
- What are our next steps?
- What possible challenges or roadblocks may arise, and how could we overcome them?
Assess the Bigger Context
During the discovery phase, it is helpful to step back to see the bigger picture and how it may be influencing your client and learners. Some considerations:
What stage of development is the organization moving through? Each stage is characterized by certain goals, activities, and pain points that could influence your design.
Are there any industry or market trends that are at play? For example, the rise of a disruptive competitor or supply chain issues could be relevant to your organization's strategy or a need to upskill your workforce.
What is happening in other parts of the organization that may play a role? For example, recent layoffs or a change in senior leadership could be influencing people's emotions and behaviors.
What is the current state of your learners in terms of their skill level and motivation for learning? If everyone has recently completed a major change initiative, they may have change fatigue or burnout that could affect their enthusiasm for training.