Motivating and engaging learners
your learning materials sometimes struggle to keep learners motivated
and actively engaged? One of the secrets of successful learning – as most good
classroom teachers or trainers demonstrate – is keeping the learner
active, not just passively trying to take in information. But how do we
keep them active? Wordhouse has produced a simple checklist of learning
activities that can help to bring materials on even the dullest learning
topics to life – making them ‘must do’ rather than just ‘might do’.
of the suggested activities in this checklist can also be used to test
learners’ understanding at the end of a given learning session. But they
are included here because they can also be a great way of enticing
learners into the topic in the first place and helping them to ‘learn by
your learners to write down their thoughts about an experience they’ve
had, or observed, or read about, relating to the topic. Don’t always
lead off with a ‘Write down your thoughts on...’ kind of opener. Make it
more inviting by, for example, giving them the beginning of a line,
such as ‘The last time that I…’. Or give them a brief pro forma to fill
in, with headings or cues such as ‘What happened’, ‘What I was
thinking’, ‘Why did it happen’, and so on.
Keep a diary or log
it’s likely that your learners are currently working or carrying out an
activity which relates to the learning topic, then suggest that they
keep a diary or log to record their experiences. Try giving them a
framework for this, however, rather than leaving it too open-ended –
give them headings to work to, such as ‘Date’, ‘Activity’, ‘Duration’,
‘Outcome’ and so on.
Carry out a task
your learners to take a break from reading and carry out a specific
task related to the topic. Most importantly ask them to record their
experiences or the results. This works well when you know that your
learners may not have direct experience of the topic, and is much more
effective and interesting than just telling them about it, or asking
them to imagine what it might be like. For example, if the topic is
‘interviewing skills’, suggest a scenario in which they interview a
friend on a given subject. If they are studying the behaviour of birds
in a given situation, suggest that they spend some time observing birds.
Find real-life examples
could be asked to find and compare real documents, procedures or
instructions from their own workplace with the models or principles you
have described. They might need help identifying what to look for in
each item, but this can be a far more powerful and useful learning
experience than simply looking at examples or specimens you’ve provided.
Match related items
pairs of items can be a fun and a useful way of identifying and
differentiating key features of all sorts of things – for example,
matching symptoms with illnesses, or countries with currencies, or
plastics with key properties. The items don’t need to be single-word
items: you could have longer descriptions of the attributes of things in
both lists – for example, learners might be asked to match brief
financial scenarios (in one list) with the appropriate taxation
treatments (in the other list).
Complete a table or diagram
in the blanks in a table, or adding labels to a diagram – using given
words or terms – can be a good way to engage learners. As with most of
our suggested activities, you need to be sure that your learners have
sufficient knowledge to be able to complete the exercise, or that they
can have a good stab at it using common sense. Always give a few
examples to start your learners off. One good way of increasing the fun
and making the activity a bit more challenging is to include more words
or terms than they actually need. This can be most instructive when the
‘unnecessary’ words are quite plausible or when they represent mistakes
typically made by learners.
Decide the correct sequence
learners to arrange the steps in a process into the correct sequence
really teases out whether they can identify what is involved at each
stage, and have understood all of the dependencies. This can be used for
management processes, scientific experiments, historical timelines and
Analyse a case study
could analyse a case study or scenario presented by you, and then
suggest a solution to the problem, or simply identify the problem, or
make a decision about what to do. This works well when you think your
learners may not have direct experience of their own to draw on, or
where you’re trying to teach them a particular method or approach.
Sometimes you could tell them what they need to look out for up front.
Sometimes you might want them to read the case study straight off, and
then present them with the questions or problem afterwards. The more it
sounds like a well-written story, the more engaging it will be.
Rank items in order
Whole books have been written based on this idea – most obviously Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity,
which teems with the hero’s all time top five bands, books, films and
so on – so there’s no denying it can be fun. Use it when you want
learners to identify best-fit methods for a particular problem, or
countries by size of economy, or the conductive properties of different
metals, for example.
Complete a questionnaire
a form or questionnaire can be a good way of getting learners to
organise their thoughts about a particular problem, situation or about
their approach to different things. As you design the questionnaire,
imagine yourself writing a questionnaire for a popular magazine – it
might help you to make the questions more immediately appealing.
Compare and contrast
There are many occasions when asking your learners to compare two items, and identify their differences or
similarities, can tease out key features of what is being studied. The
items could be pictures, diagrams or descriptions. Try to limit the
number of differences if you want to draw out specific learning points.
If you really want to get the learning juices flowing, include lots of
differences. But be fair to your learner and include your own list of
the actual differences or similarities in your feedback – otherwise your
learner can be left hanging, unsure about whether they have spotted the
Prioritise action for a task or problem
out a problem or task for your learners, and then ask them to identify
or prioritise key action points. You could describe a situation in which
a manager is facing a problem within his or her team, perhaps, or you
could set out the results of diagnostic tests on an engine. In each
case, you would ask the learner to put themselves in the place of the
manager or engineer and recommend what action should be taken, and in
Read around, with a purpose
your learners to read around the subject matter is always a good idea.
Reading several different authors on a management topic, or a period in
history, or a work of literature, can be an excellent way of both
extending and reinforcing learning. This always works best when the
reading is guided in some way. Ask you learners to look out for
particular things as they read – for example, ‘What do you think this
writer thinks about…’ – if you really want this reading to pay
Predict what might happen next
your learners part of the ‘story’, and ask them to anticipate what
might come next. You might give them the results of a biology
experiment, say, and ask them to draw conclusions. Or you could give
them first half on a business case study, and ask them to predict the
most likely outcome. Be wary of making this exercise too open ended –
you might need to limit the possibilities so that the learning becomes
Apply a technique to your own situation
could be asked to think about how they might apply your ideas in their
own work situation. If you’ve described a new technique, method or
process, ask them to think about how they could apply it in their own
work situation, or better still to apply it in real life if there is an
opportunity to do so.
above checklist only scratches the surface of the many thousands of
types of activities you could offer your learners. Hopefully this list
will have inspired you to try something new. Some of the key principles
to bear in mind when creating activities are:
- offer a wide variety of types of activities in any one learning session
- make sure the activities get learners purposefully engaged with the desired learning outcomes, not wandering off down an obscure or – worse still – irrelevant track
- ensure the task is inviting, and not skippable
- make the task do-able on the basis of what you’re sure they should already know
- always give feedback on the activity, no matter how open-ended it is.
you’d like advice or help to spice up your learning materials, by
making the activities more engaging and motivating, or any other kind of
learning materials development support, contact Stephen Wellings on
0118 961 7578 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.