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Active Learning Strategies to Engage Participants

by Jim Snack


As a professional speaker, I teach skills and motivate participants to make positive change.   When designing a program, I try to make it interesting and engaging as well as educational.  While my programs may be fun, they are not "just for fun."  The primary goal is to meet mutually agreed upon learning objectives, while engaging participants in active learning.  The core elements of active learning are student activity and engagement in the learning process, as contrasted to the traditional lecture where students passively receive information from the instructor.  Numerous studies show that training delivered in a more interactive and entertaining format increases learner attention and retention


Attention span during a lecture is roughly fifteen minutes (Wankat 2002).  After that, the number of students paying attention begins to drop dramatically with a resulting loss of retention of lecture material (Hartley & Davies 1978).  When designing a training program you should purposely vary the activities and teaching strategies approximately every fifteen minutes.  The techniques can include traditional lecturing, but also classroom demonstrations, collaborative learning, and problem-based learning.  You can use humor, brain teasers, physical exercises, storytelling, magic tricks and other activities to capture and hold attention while actively engaging participants in the learning process.  Studies show that mixed modality presentations improve results for subjects across the board (Coffield, Moseley, Hall & Ecclestone 2004).  For example:

  • Capturing attention is the most important part of instructional design because it initiates the motivation for the learners (Keller 2010).  Performing a magic trick is ideal for capturing attention and a illustrating point.  In a half or full-day training program, I might perform 2 or 3 magic tricks lasting about 2 minutes each.  While entertaining in nature, the purpose is not to merely entertain, but to capture attention and make a point in a memorable way. 

  • Humor has been shown to be an effective teaching technique for developing a positive learning environment (Ferguson & Campinha-Bacote, 1989; Hill, 1988; Schwarz, 1989; Warnock, 1989; Walter, 1990).  You can use humor to establish a supportive social climate and to enhance a sense of community.  The humor might be a funny one-liner, a cartoon, or a humorous story to illustrate a point.   As a result, students are more receptive to learning. 

  • One of the most widely used models of learning styles is Flemings VARK Model that categorizes learners as Visual, Auditory or Kinesthetic learners (Fleming 2001).  I use simple physical demonstrations from the martial arts when teaching conflict resolution and collaborative leadership skills, asking participants to stand and move.  The purpose is to help them better understand concepts using bodily-kinesthetic learning as well as auditory and visual learning. 

  • Numerous studies confirm that collaboration enhances academic achievement, student attitudes, and student retention (Johnson, Johnson & Smith 1998).  For example,  theater improvisation exercises help participants collaboratively practice interpersonal communication skills and creative problem solving techniques that can be applied on the job.

  • Using stories and anecdotes as a teaching strategy helps learners understand new information and link it to their lives (Caine & Caine 1994).   Whenever possible share a personal story to make your point memorable.

Your goal should be to create a program that surpasses the typical PowerPoint lecture -one that captures the attention of participants, engages them in active learning, and teaches specific skills to improve workplace performance.


What active learning strategies will you use in your next program design? 


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Caine, R. and N.Caine, Making connections: Teaching and the human brain, Somerset, NJ: Addison Wesley 1994.

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., Ecclestone, K. Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning. A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre, 2004.

Ferguson, S., & Campinha-Bacote, J. Humor in Nursing, Journal of Psychosocial Nursing, 27 (4), 29-34, 1989.

Fleming N.D., Teaching and Learning Styles: VARK Strategies Honolulu Community College 2001

Hartley, J. and Davies, I., "Note Taking:  A Critical Review," Programmed Learning and Educational Technology, Vol.15, 1978, pp. 207-224.

Hill, D.J., Humor in the Classroom: A Handbook for Teachers and Other Entertainers, Springfield, IL, Charles C. Thomas, 1988.

 Keller, J.M., Motivational Design for Learning and Performance: The ARCS Model Approach, Springer, 2010

 Johnson, D., R., Johnson, and K. Smith, Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom, 2nd ed., Interaction Book Co., Edina, MN, 1998.

Swartz, G. The Importance of Being Silly, Educational Leadership[, 46 (5), 82-93, 1989

Walter, G., Laugh, Teacher, Laugh, The Educational Digest, 55(9), 43-44, 1990

Wankat, P., The Effective Efficient Professor: Teaching, Scholarship and Service, Allyn and Bacon, Boston, MA, 2002

Warnock, P.,Humor as a didactic tool in adult education, Lifelong Learning, 12(8), 22-24, 1989