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Jul 15, 2020 Jennifer Hofmann

The Foundation of Intellectual Engagement in Modern Learning

07152020 Blog - Adult Learning TheoryLearner Engagement – defining and enhancing it have remained critically important in the modern classroom for years. If content design and delivery do not capture attention, demand participation, and encourage ongoing application, training programs inherently become less effective.

Exclusive research conducted by the InSync Training team focused on the long-standing question, “What is learner engagement?” and uncovered a surprising answer: it is not one single thing. Rather, learner engagement actually includes three separate learner factors: their environment, their emotions, and their intellect. We know that when instructional designers thoughtfully organize content and create activities that consider and generate these three types of engagement, learners benefit.

Theoretically, this sounds simple: design an engaging environment that changes as learners interact with it; encourage an emotional commitment to the full learning experience; and challenge what learners think while expanding what they know. In practice, though, this can feel like a tall order.

Start with the factor that feels most traditionally like learner engagement – work to stimulate a learner’s intellect through the content. I recommend laying the foundation by using a model you’ve likely heard of and leveraged in your work.

Back to Basics

Adult Learning Theory – that’s the foundation of Intellectual engagement. As a reminder, Malcolm Knowles’ famous theory attempts to define how adult learners differ from children, and includes four core principles (quoted from :

  • Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
  • Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities.
  • Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life.
  • Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.

Basically, learners engage in experiences that respect their existing knowledge and background, include them in the process, and relate directly to their work. Sounds reasonable, but these fundamentals can get lost in the shuffle of intricate instructional design processes.

Taking Intellectual Engagement from Theory to Practice

Later research after Knowles in cognition and situated cognition says that to engage intellectually, content needs to be relevant to learners’ desired outcome or trajectory. This does not refer to the outcome of the business. For it to be intellectually engaging, what the business wants you to be able to know or know how to behave, has to align with what you think you need to be able to do. This speaks to learner intent.

To develop intellectual engagement, the learner intent has to be aligned closely to the design intent. As instructional designers, we often identify the business or design intent in the needs analysis or how we make decisions about instructional design. We are trying to develop some level of mastery, but for the learner to get where they need to be, their intent has to be aligned with what the business wants them to do.

This is not to say that all training has to be directly relevant to personal interests of the learner, but the learner has to believe that the instructional design aligns with what they need to do. This is where modern learning, especially webinar-style events, fall down.

Generally, the pattern is to design them as if learners just want to get them over with. Sometimes we put content out there to check a box. We’re designing as if the learner just wants to get it over with, and that makes them just want to get it over with.

To move intellectual engagement from a theoretical concept to a practically applied instructional habit, we need to get in the routine of asking:

  • What do we want learners to get out of the content?
  • What do they think they want to get out of the content and align that?
  • Is it possible to achieve these goals in a particular environment?

To generate a high level of intellectual learner engagement, instructional designers will need to not only go back to fundamental models, but also revise the process they’ve used in the past. It takes practice and commitment, but the outcomes for the learners and the organization make it a worthwhile effort.

Published by Jennifer Hofmann July 15, 2020
Jennifer Hofmann