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Engaging Adult Learners: An Oxymoron?

By Susan Fisher, ILG Contributor

Increase Engagement in Learning Solutions by Respecting Learner Characteristics

Maybe you’ve seen the Salesforce commercial: Matthew McConaughey, dressed as an astronaut but piloting a hot air balloon, tells us “It’s not time to escape, it’s time to engage!” A very thinly veiled poke at certain billionaire tech giants, it asserts that we don’t need to travel to Mars or the Metaverse to find our future. Instead, we should look to improving our own, real, flawed but still-beautiful world. “The new frontier… It’s right here,” McConaughey says at the end.

The “Engagement” Buzz

I’ve seen the commercial about a million times1 by now, and it never fails to make me smile — mainly because I don’t want to live on Mars or in the Metaverse! But it also has me thinking about engagement in workplace learning. “Engagement” has become a buzzword in our industry, coming with hazy definitions and often with prescriptions for this or that technique or technology: if only you’d use (gamification, VR, microlearning, interactive video, mind-mapping, TikTok, or whatever), your learners would be engaged! Does it sometimes seem that entertainment is the real goal?

We all want our learners to be involved in their work and motivated to acquire the skills and knowledge to perform better. But the key to making that happen is not a particular training method, which is only a means to the end. What’s truly important to engagement is understanding two things: the adult workplace learner and what affects, positively or negatively, their openness to training.

Adult Learning Theory and Engagement Research

Rather than learning for learning’s sake, learners at work are focused on learning what’s needed to do their job. According to Malcolm Knowles’s Adult Learning Theory2, they also prefer to direct their own learning and learn best by applying new knowledge to real-life situations. Most important, their motivation to learn comes from within, not from external sources.

Let that sink in for a moment. Adults want agency and control…they know when and why they need training…and they want it to directly connect to their life.

Dr. Charles Dye, who completed a research studyin 2019 on the complex and dynamic nature of workplace learner engagement, uncovered some interesting findings:

  • To engage learners, the learning environment must be “effective and supportive” and provide “relevant and authentic instructional content,” regardless of the instructional method used.
  • Learners must perceive that the intent of the instructional content aligns with (is relevant to) their own learning intent.
  • Mandatory training has a negative impact on learner engagement, regardless of the quality of the instructional program. “In particular, emotional and cognitive engagement were very unlikely in mandated learning” (italics mine).

True engagement in adult learning is possible, if we remember and respect the characteristics of our learners when we design learning solutions. Is this a new idea? Nah… as Mr. McConaughey says, “It ain’t rocket science!”


1  Note: this is hyperbole.

2  New England Institute of Technology, “What Is Adult Learning Theory?”, April 8, 2021.

3  The Learning Guild, “Learner Engagement and Instructional Outcomes” by Charles Dye, PhD, January 20, 2022.

Susan Fisher has worked in L&D for four decades as a tech writer, trainer, instructional designer, and learning consultant. Currently an independent consultant, she was on staff at Innovative Learning Group from 2007 to 2019.

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