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How to Engage Learners

How to engage learners with Cara North

When it comes to how to engage learners, finding the magical formula can seem like catching a mythical creature. In theory, it is absolutely attainable, however, in practice, unexpected obstacles abound.

Speaking of rare encounters, on this week’s podcast, Brian finally meets Cara North to talk about her approach to unlocking learner engagement. During this episode, she talks about the three legged stool of engagement and why it is important not to put all of your weight on one leg, why content will always rule, and some tips and tricks to engaging learners.

Listen using the player below. Please leave us your thoughts in the comment section or on twitter @train_champion.

Transcript of the Conversation with Cara North

Brian Washburn:   Welcome everyone, to the Train Like You Listen podcast, a weekly podcast of all things learning & development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, and I am the co-founder and CEO of a little company called Endurance Learning. I’m joined here today by special guest Cara North who is the Operations Training Manager at Silfex. Thank you so much for joining us, Cara.

Cara North: Thanks for having me.

6-Word Introduction

Brian Washburn: It is very exciting to have you on. I’ve followed your work, and I’ve followed all sorts of things that you post on LinkedIn. We’ve never actually had a chance to connect and talk live. This is really exciting for me to have this conversation.

Today’s topic, we’re going to be focused on the idea of unlocking answers to learner engagement. For me, if I had to introduce myself in six words along the lines of this topic, I would say “I’ve never liked passive learning experiences”. How about you, Cara? How would you introduce yourself using exactly six words for this subject?

Cara North: I like yours. Yours is good, but I think I’ll follow up and say, “stop telling me your learning objectives”.  

Brian Washburn: Hmmmm. That’s a good one. Learning objectives, itself, we could do a whole podcast on those because there is something there. But there’s something more to it than just learning objectives. 

How Do You Define “Learner Engagement”?

Brian Washburn: So before we dig too deeply into the topic, how would you define the term “learner engagement?” Different people have different things in mind, so let’s make sure that everyone has the same thing in mind, at least while they listen to this podcast.

Cara North: Sure. So just like many things in the broad spectrum of learning & development, like micro-learning and even e-learning, if you Google “learner engagement”, you’re going to get a ton of different definitions. So actually, Brian, instead of defining it, I actually prefer to look at the constructs and the types of “learner engagement”. So for these constructs and types I go to the research. And basically, the research says, about us as humans and how we engage with content and how we learn, there’s, kind of, three constructs specifically when we talk about “learner engagement”– “behavioral”, “cognitive”, and “emotional”.

Brian Washburn: OK.

Behavioral Engagement

Cara North: So when we think about “behavioral”, I mean, if you really think about it, that is when it’s incorporating our thinking processes as well as our behavioral, such as challenges. So easy way to think about this…this is something that can be observed.

So what are people doing? Are they asking questions? Are they giving you feedback? Are they reading what you’re giving them? Are they opening the resources?

And people learn best when they are actively engaged. And then after they are actively engaged, then they can deeply encode the material that you’re giving them. So I think it’s really important to think about behavioral engagement. But I say it with a caveat of, I don’t think it’s best for everything. I think it’s great when you’re thinking about you want people to have a baseline of the same information, or if it’s new information for them. I think “behavioral” can be pretty good for that.

Brian Washburn: So it sounds like, when you talk about this construct, it’s a little bit like a three-legged stool, right?

Cara North: Yeah.

Brian Washburn: So you can’t just put all your weight on the “behavioral” leg. It could be something that’s helpful, but why don’t you talk to us just briefly about “cognitive” and that third leg as well.

Cara North: Sure. Yeah, I love that you brought that up about the stool. I never really thought about that, but totally. I definitely think that there should be flavors of all of them in your learning experience. If not, at least thinking about it as you’re constructing it.

Cognitive Engagement: Substantial and Procedural

But for “cognitive”, that refers a little bit to the effort someone takes to complete the tasks with intentionality, and there’s this strategy behind it. So it’s basically them making that cognitive investment into the material. And something I always like to call out when I’m talking about this is this difference between “substantial” and “procedural” engagement.

So “procedural” is someone just going through the motions. So they know what they need to be doing. They’re scanning through. They’re going through the motions.

But “substantial” is when they’re actually going through it with this intentionality. And in “cognitive engagement” people are taking the content, that you’re providing, and they’re situating it in the schema and the knowledge that they already have. And I’m sure you know this, but when people stop paying attention and disengage with whatever it is that you put out there, they’re unable to construct their own knowledge during that because they’re not kind of taking in what you’re giving them. So I think that’s how I would phrase “cognitive”.

Brian Washburn: Yeah.

Emotional Engagement

Cara North: And for “emotional”, that’s one I think doesn’t get enough love nowadays. But, I mean, it is that effective response that people have to the learning activities, and also to the people in the activities. And I think that a lot of times, especially with everything going on now, a lot of people have anxiety, people are preoccupied thinking about different things. And it’s really selfish of us, as L&D professionals, to think we’re going to have someone’s attention 100% of the time, period.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, so this is really interesting. So when we talk about “cognitive” and the difference in going through the motions. The difference between somebody who’s like, “oh, yeah. I get it. I need to put adult learning into practice. Adult learning is good.”

Versus somebody who’s like, “yeah. Let’s integrate ways to get people involved.” I think it’s a really good way to frame that. And then you have the “emotional”, which I think has always gotten the short shrift. When we do training, we talk about dialogue education and thoughts, feelings, and ideas, and actions.

And it’s that feeling of peace that people oftentimes will shy away from. But the fact of the matter is people need to feel it. They need to feel why this is important. And we’re not talking touchy feely, which is– that’s oftentimes a loaded term that people use when they don’t want to do something.

But we’re talking about the need to really, in your gut, feel why this is important. 

Unlocking Answers to Learner Engagement

Brian Washburn: Now, you were recently at the Learnapalooza Conference, here in Seattle. And it was digital, but you were talking about the idea of unlocking answers to learner engagement. So can you share for us just briefly, in terms of what needs to be unlocked when we talk about engagement?

Cara North: Sure. I just think part of that was me trying to play up on a little bit of suspense. So at Learnaalooza, my session was 20 minutes, and that went by like a blink in the eye. And I’ve done a presentation about learner engagement in the past, and I try to be really meta when I do it.

So when I say that, I mean, I hop right into it, whether I have 20 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour. So that first slide, you’re not going to see all these learning objectives, you’re not going to hear this long bio on who I am. You can Google me.

I want to get right into it. Because I think often people forget the need to hook people in, at the beginning, to try to get them captivated. So when I talk about learner engagement, I like to build this mystery around it.

And so I’d say, two of the main things I think people need to think about unlocking is, one, I believe that no tool can save you from bad content. Especially if you’re wanting to focus on cognitive engagement, if your content is bad, putting it in something flashy and frilly isn’t going to save it. So I always believe, don’t bore people. Don’t talk down to them.

And then the second one is you’re not the user. I think that’s a really hard lesson, especially for newer folks in L&D. So just because you think something is clever and witty, doesn’t mean it’s going to be a hit with your audience.

And I always try to tell people, take the time to really dig and know your audience. Take the time to pile at some of that content, that you’re using for that learning experience, and take that feedback seriously. Because if you don’t, you have missed the mark. It’s going to be a waste of everyone’s time. 

Brian Washburn: That is such a good point. You have to be able to put yourself in your learner’s shoes. And I love the idea that you like to start things out with mystery. That’s what we were talking about with that emotional piece and evoking that sense of curiosity.

“What is Cara going to talk about next?” I think that is such an important piece, and it’s such a difficult piece to put into any type of training. So when it comes to learner engagement and whether it’s evoking curiosity and putting a sense of mystery in there, or whatever it may be, whatever your strategy might be, and I like what you had to say, in terms of it doesn’t matter how cool or flashy the technology is that you’re using. If you have bad content or bad design, it’s not going to make up for that cool stuff. When it comes to learner engagement, does it look different when you’re designing instructor-led training versus an asynchronous e-learning module?

The Differences Between Instructor-Led Training vs. Asynchronous eLearning Design

Cara North: This is such a great question. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too, Brian. But I do feel like a facilitator really can help drive the engagement in and ILT or VILT. And then, of course, you don’t always have that in the asynchronous e-learning.

And for instructor-led, you obviously have the advantage of body language, whereas you don’t often have that in asynchronous e-learning.

Brian Washburn: Mm-hmm. 

Cara North: My friend in the UK, Jo Cook, she’s written a lot about this concept called Digital Body Language. So it’s the footprint of everything that you do in an online environment. But the problem with that, from an engagement perspective, is it’s retroactive.

So you get this information after somebody went through it. And sure it can help improve an experience for somebody further down the road, but what about those poor people that maybe suffered in the meantime? So I don’t necessarily think that that’s the best way.

I keep going back to content.

Brian Washburn: Mm-hmm.

Cara North: If it’s written and delivered in a way that’s pithy and focuses on actually treating the person receiving it like a human being, your results will be so much better. 

Examples of Engaging Learning Design

Cara North: And so my friend Jonathan Rock, he took a PowerPoint presentation that was a compliance at his organization and created this really creative asynchronous e-learning with heavy inspiration from “Stranger Things”. And so you’re walking around your home and your workplace, and you’re collecting these orbs with these good manufacturing practices.

And the great part about it was they got the exact same content that they had in that massive PowerPoint, but it was delivered in a great way. And another one was made by my mentor Mike Taylor, and again, it was another compliance course. But it was about data, security, and phishing.

Brian Washburn: Mm-hmm.

Cara North: So instead of starting off talking about the learning objectives and how to safeguard your data, he started off with a question, “hey, would you like some free money?” And by hooking people in, you meet the star of this learning experience who’s named Shady Grady, and he shows you why people actually steal data and identities. So it’s getting the same content, but just in a different way.

Through Shady Grady it was how easy it is to do it, and you’re getting the same content. But again, it was more engaging. And I think I still remember both of those because it was so different with their delivery methods, and I don’t know about you, Brian, but creative challenges like these are why I’m in love with what I do everyday, and why I think L&D is such a great profession.

Brian Washburn: I couldn’t agree with you more on everything you said, and the fact that Mike Taylor is one of the best learning development professionals, I think, around. And I know exactly the module that you’re talking about. And the reason that both of us, I think, can remember it is because it was different. It was a different approach.

And so all of these ideas are really– they’re well and good, especially for people with some experience in our industry. 

Simple Advice for Getting Started with Designing Engaging Learning

Brian Washburn: What about for the person who’s just getting started? They’re not quite sure where to begin when it comes to unlocking some of these answers. What would you suggest might be one or two things that someone could do that would be considered low-hanging fruit when it comes to designing engaging learning.

Cara North: Sure. I’ll give you two. Focus on the content. 

Brian Washburn: Mm-hmm. 

Cara North: So it’s really worth the time and energy to make that content sing. Don’t give people the fire hose of knowledge that you’re getting from those subject matter experts. Really try to strive for Goldilocks– not too much, not too little, but just right.

And finally, my last little point about the whole learner engagement thing is engagement is in the mind. It’s not in the mouse. So use techniques like storytelling. Build these scenarios, based in the work and the organization. And use elements of surprise to keep the content coming in, in a way that is unexpected.

Brian Washburn: Engagement is in the mind not in the mouse. I love that. Cara, this has been really, really helpful, just in terms of starting the conversation around engagement. I’d love to have you back and talk a little bit more, because there’s a lot more to unpack here.

Get to Know Cara North

Brian Washburn: Because of the format of our show, we have a short podcast here, I’d love to wrap up with a quick speed round so people get to know you a little bit. Are you ready for it?

Cara North: Let’s go. 

Brian Washburn: All right. What is your go to pre-training delivery or conference presentation food? What food is your go-to meal?

Cara North: OK. For my drink, I rely very heavily on V-8 energy.

Brian Washburn: Wow! 

Cara North: Orange-pineapple flavor’s my favorite. 

Brian Washburn: Sounds very healthy. 

Cara North: Yeah. And for a snack, cashews are my go-to.

Brian Washburn: Nice. A little bit of energy packed in there too. How about a piece of training tech that you can’t live without?

Cara North: Live captioning. I love it. I’m obsessed with it.

I’ve been trying to be an advocate for it. I’ve been doing it since 2018. I try to do every presentation I can with live captioning because you never know who needs that captioning in your audience, and I want everyone to be able to enjoy anything that I put out there.

Brian Washburn: Is that something that is for virtual instructor-led? Is that something that you do live?

Cara North: Oh, both actually. So if I’m doing it virtual, like instructor-led via Zoom or teams, I put all of my presentation material in Google Slides and do the captioning through that. And then if I’m presenting somewhere, whether it’s in-person, rest in peace, or virtually, I do the caption in there too.

Brian Washburn: Fascinating. I’m going to have to explore that a little bit more. What’s a book or a podcast that learning folks should be paying attention to right now?

Cara North: I am super excited to see all of these new L&D podcasts pop up. So some of the ones that I like listening to are Erica Zimmer’s Learning Journal, Leslie Early’s Awesome ID, and Nyla Spooner’s I’m New Here. And also, if you watch YouTube, Cath Ellis has a show, Learning Pro that is highly addictive.

Brian Washburn: Cool! I’m going to have to check that one out. How about any shameless plugs? Anything that you want to plug for yourself before we leave?

Cara North: I am launching a L&D swag company with my partner in crime Joseph Suarez called L&D Tees, so it’s not your average run of the mill learning development swag. It’s got a little bit of ADDIE-tude. Ha ha. See what I did there?

Brian Washburn: I certainly did. 

Cara North:  And I’m speaking at a couple events coming up. So the Learning Guild, I’ll be speaking at the Measurement and Evaluation Conference at the end of September. Also speaking at Dev Learn in ATD’s virtual conferences in October.

And if you want to connect with me, you can find me pretty easily on Twitter @caranorth11. Also same on LinkedIn. And I post daily job postings on LinkedIn for L&D every morning at 8 AM Eastern time.

Brian Washburn:  Yeah, and so for folks that want to get a little bit more educated on all topics L&D, or as she just mentioned, if you’re looking for a job, definitely connect with Cara on LinkedIn. She is a wealth of information. Cara, thank you so much for joining us. This has been a lot of fun and I would love to have you back very soon to talk a little bit more in-depth about some of these things.

Cara North: Thanks it’s been a blast. I really enjoyed it too.

Brian Washburn: And everybody who’s listening, thank you so much for listening to us this episode. You can find Train Like You Listen on iTunes, on Spotify, anywhere where you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, go ahead and subscribe and why not also give us a little bit of a review. So until next time, happy training.

This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox.  Sign up today for a free demo at

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