Three Reasons Learners Aren’t Engaging

how to engage learnersYou put your heart and soul into your Learning and Development (L&D) program. You work hard to develop training materials that will interest your learners. You introduce technologies that should make accessing learning easier for them. You implement cultural changes within your organization that support training.

Despite all of this work, however, there are always some learners who just don’t engage with your training materials. Mandatory, elective, gamified, mobile — you name it, they’re just not taking modules. Is it you? Is the content? What have you done wrong?

If this sounds like you, don’t worry: you aren’t alone.

Learner engagement is always a challenge

A recent report from the Ken Blanchard Companies put “more learner engagement” at the top of L&D professionals’ wishlist for their remote learning.  No surprise there; learner engagement has always been one of the biggest challenges faced by L&D professionals. Just Google the term “learner engagement” and you’ll find hundreds of articles, guides, strategies, and best practices for reaching the group of learners who just aren’t engaging with training.

To quote training coordinator Charlotte Morris, writing for Training Industry: “L&D leaders are constantly trying to figure out if there is a skeleton key to open the door to a 100-percent engagement rate.” Attaining an 100% engagement rate is probably an overly optimistic goal, but when large chunks of learners aren’t taking or completing learning, it’s a sign that something is wrong, and it isn’t always the learning content that’s the problem.

Three reasons your learners might be unengaged

There is no one reason why your learners might not be engaging, but there are some you might not have considered. You may not be able to reach 100% engagement, but you can increase engagement by better understanding where some of your learners are and why they’re not engaging.

1. Your learners have pandemic fatigue

Chasing the elusive 100-percent engagement rate didn’t get any easier for L&D pros in 2020 and 2021, when the pandemic forced a shift to remote work, and as a result, online training. This was a difficult change — not just for the L&D departments who had to quickly convert in-person training to an online format, but for learners, who tend to prefer live instructor-led training (ILT) according to research. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that in 2020, a top training concern was getting workers to adopt online learning.

What’s more of a surprise is that in 2021, once the lockdown had eased and people were used to working from home, the acceptance of online training was more of a concern. According to Training Magazine’s 2021 Training Industry Report, engagement with remote learning was the top concern for L&D professionals, with 31% worried about getting remote learners to log in to remote learning, up from 19% in 2020.

The fact is, the pandemic has many people feeling burned out. Surveys show that more than half of U.S. adults think 2021 was the worst year in history, beating out 2020. While working from home may be considered a perk, workers are still dealing with pandemic stress, isolation, and concerns about illness. Some may throw up their hands at remote learning because for them, virtual learning is something they associate with the pandemic.

2. Your learners are lonely

One of the reasons learners tend to prefer ILT is simple: interaction. They can interact with each other and with their instructors when they’re in the same room. Remote learners don’t have that option, and that can make learning less engaging for many learners. According to a report from Glint, 31% of employees have felt less connected to their leaders during the pandemic, 37% felt less connected to their teammates, and 40% even felt isolated from friends.

Given that humans tend to learn better when they’re learning as a group, this makes remote learning more difficult to engage with. LinkedIn found that when L&D departments turned on social learning features in virtual learning, however, that changed. According to a report from LinkedIn, learners who used social features took 30 times more hours of learning than those who didn’t. Social features can include chat functions, the ability to recommend or share a course, or virtual instructor-led training. Just being able to connect engages many learners.

3. There is a technology gap between learners

When it comes to mobile learning, the biggest challenge faced by L&D departments is user adoption, according to a report from Litmos and Brandon Hall Group. This is true no matter the business size; 70% of businesses say fewer than 20% of learners are accessing learning on a mobile device.

For L&D leaders who’ve fought to implement mobile and remote training, this is likely a frustrating adoption rate. You may feel that you’re helping your learners by offering modalities like mobile learning, but if your learners are using their own devices, there may be a simple explanation for why some learners aren’t engaging.

While most people do have mobile phones, not all learners may have a mobile phone that supports online learning. In their personal lives, they may use an older device, or a simpler phone that doesn’t support apps. The same goes for other devices, like tablets or computers. If your learners are using their own devices, they may be older or outdated, and they might not be able to access or support your learning platform.

Some learners also might not be as comfortable with technology as others. Live classroom training might be more comfortable for them than remote or mobile learning. In this case, it’s important to work with learners to provide an experience they can access, and to help them get comfortable with training modalities.

There will always be a few unengaged learners — and that’s ok

Not every learner is going to happily open an app and get to learning. That’s the dream, of course, but it’s probably unlikely. Not all of those unengaged learners are L&D’s fault, either. Some may be dealing with crises outside of work. Some may not be able to access training. Some may be what Gallup calls “actively disengaged,” meaning that they’re very unhappy at work to the point that they may undermine the efforts of colleagues. Those employees are unlikely to take their assigned training.

While you may not be able to reach 100% engagement, you can get close. Start by sincerely trying to better understand learners, their needs and expectations, and you’ll be much closer to that dreamy perfect percentage.