Motivating Learners

Motivating and engaging learners


Do 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’.


Many 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 doing’.




Ask 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


If 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


Ask 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


Learners 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


Matching 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


Filling 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


Asking 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 so on.

Analyse a case study


Learners 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


Completing 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 right things.

Prioritise action for a task or problem


Set 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 what order.

Read around, with a purpose


Encouraging 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 dividends.

Predict what might happen next


Give 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 appropriately focused.

Apply a technique to your own situation


Learners 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.

The 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.


If 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