Low learner engagement: Why it’s still such a big issue (and what you can do about it)

Low learner engagement is still a problem, but we can do something about it, says Stephanie Morgan.

Reading time: 5 minutes.

‘Low learner engagement’ is a phrase I hear all too often when talking with L&D professionals. Having worked in the industry for over fifteen years now, I would describe it as one of our most persistent challenges.

Low learner engagement can reveal itself in several ways: poor programme completion rates, low usage of digital resources, and learners simply not making any extra time for learning beyond mandatory courses.

To readers of this article, learner engagement will be a familiar obstacle. As recent research shows, it’s still the number one thing that learning professionals want to improve.

It might be tempting to question why engagement is still such a big obstacle for L&D. After all, we have access to more advanced learning tools and resources than ever before, leaving us well placed to come up with some novel ideas.

But, try as we might, widespread engagement just isn’t happening.

If the learner isn’t engaged, then the chances of them absorbing the content are slim.

That’s why many of the L&D professionals I speak to are so keen to reinvigorate their learning, whether that’s by updating outdated elearning, making content more aligned with the brand, or refining their entire strategy.  

As difficult as it can be to think of new ways to get learners on board, it’s so important that we do all we can to spark their interest. If the learner isn’t engaged, then the chances of them absorbing the content are slim. Learning becomes a chore; something they have to do rather than something they really want to do.

And, if left to fester, this can start to impact longer-term job performance; employees aren’t actively looking for opportunities to improve or upskill, and risk getting left behind. So why is learner engagement still such a challenge for L&D, and what can you do about it?

Stakeholders aren’t fully on board

Learner engagement starts long before the solution itself. If you don’t have the support of stakeholders at all levels of the business, you’re going to face an uphill battle to win over your learners. This means you need to think about winning over managers by telling them about the wider impacts that learning can bring.

The first step to encouraging more widespread engagement, managers have a critical role to play in spreading the enthusiasm for learning: 75% of learners would take a course assigned by their manager. But only 46% of employees discover learning through talking to managers, suggesting that leaders aren’t fully convinced by the value of learning to sell it to their teams effectively.

Beyond obvious benefits like improved performance, learning can be the catalyst in your organisation for a host of organisational improvements. Better employee retention, improved motivation and productivity, and integrated cultures of connected contributors are the longer-term impacts of an on-point learning offering.


In short, it will positively influence the bottom line if done well – and what could be more important to stakeholders?

We’re not thinking strategically about tech

Technology alone won’t drive engagement. On average, organisations are using a staggering 19 different types of tech in their learning! Without a well-planned digital learning strategy though, aligning tech with the needs of your learners, this abundance won’t achieve the engagement levels it should.

Although digital learning is popular, there’s undoubtedly still room for more traditional face-to-face experiences as part of a blend. In fact, there have been signs recently that experiential learning is starting to make a bit of a comeback, as the physical experience can create a powerful emotional connection.

Take, for example, forum theatre, which uses storytelling and actors to recreate workplace situations. Using fictional characters, actors present a scene to illustrate learning and spark debate. Learners are involved throughout and can even take on pivotal roles as ‘directors’, freezing the action and guiding the actors towards a desired outcome.

It’s a classic example of what I’d call ‘subconscious learning’; participants are so absorbed in directing and acting that they don’t even realise they’re learning!

As part of a well-crafted blend, you can then use digital learning to reinforce the physical experience. You could, for example, encourage follow-up discussions on social platforms or drip-feed short quizzes via email. Incorporating tech into a blend like this is what strategic use of digital learning is all about.

We’re not making the most of data

It may sound obvious, but have you considered how your learners like to learn? If you’re putting all your efforts into creating content with all the latest gadgets, or even just dabbling with a bit of tech, you need to think about whether it will actually be useful to the end users first.

This goes back to the age-old mantra of starting with the ‘why’ before the ‘what’ – questioning why you need the solution you’ve settled on, rather than going straight in with whatever shiny new thing you can get your hands on. VR headsets sound futuristic and exciting, but unless your learners have a real need for it on a regular basis (and your organisation can support the tech), it may not be the best option.

So be willing to spend some time crunching the numbers first, collecting both qualitative and quantitative insights about your learners’ behaviour to feed into your strategy. Surveys, data from your current learning platform, even talking to people across your organisation – all of this can give you a good understanding of your people.

Are they watching more videos than text-based content? Do they only get halfway through videos before dropping off? Is the content even useful to them? And how does this vary from one department to the next, or from one office location to the next?

Once you have the answers to these questions, you can then start working on personalising solutions to give you a far better chance of grabbing learners’ attention and engaging them – and maintaining it over the longer term.

In practice, this could be tailoring content to the challenges learners face most often in the workplace, or customising it to their specific culture, language and learning preferences.

Now you’ve seen some of the main reasons why I think learning engagement is still such a big challenge for L&D, you’ll hopefully be better prepared to start addressing it.


About the author

Stephanie Morgan is director of learning solutions at Bray Leino Learning


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