Student engagement: What marketing can teach learning designers

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Learning Designer Diana Foster shares tips on engagement from the marketing and communications sector.

Engagement is the holy grail of learning design. However, in learning design as in life, causing someone to do or notice something is hard. It’s analogous to selling a message. So what do insights from the fields of communication and marketing tell us?

Start with ‘why’

The key to influencing is starting with ‘why’, as opposed to the what and how, according to Simon Sinek, a speaker on leadership and selling. It’s a pattern, he says, that is common to those who inspire from Dr Martin Luther King to Apple. We believe in them, so we buy in to the idea. Lots of computers are good, he argues, but Apple makes us believe. And believing is intrinsic to motivation. So how do we bring the ‘why’ into learning?

How great leaders inspire action | Simon Sinek
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‘Why’ creates a strong first impression

So many learning experiences start with a ‘wall of text’ - often a long list of learning objectives that designers feel the need to put first. However, we know that first impressions count. From this perspective, often the list of learning objectives is too long, too detailed, too vague and switch learners off. Are they in fact aimed at evaluators of learning, rather than the learners?

One might argue that learning objectives are the ‘why’. But they don’t make the case for learning - especially when compared to the examples cited by Sinek such as Dr King’s “I have a dream”.

As Donald Clark points out in ‘Why we need to kill boring learning objectives’:

“Imagine if every movie started with a list of objectives: ‘In this film you will watch the process of a ship sail from Southampton…’”

This quote paints an evocative picture of exactly what we do not experience when watching Titanic.

Robert M Gagne’s nine steps of instruction starts with step 1, ‘Gaining attention’ and then step 2, ‘State objectives’.

There are many ways to do this, and these options don’t have to include tedious lists of what learners will ‘understand’, written in phrases that learners are yet to understand.

Prepare by priming

This is not to say that telling learners what they are about to learn is not important - it is. Signposting what’s coming up helps to prepare learners, it tells them where you’re going, and that repetition helps learning.

Priming also promotes an awareness of learning, in other words, thinking about what you’re about to learn, encourages what’s called self-regulation. This can be done in a swift and engaging way.

Tell me what's in it for me

How we gain attention is key. Stimulating interest or arousing attention is the first step in learning. This needn’t mean flashy animations, but making the purpose clear, and clarifying the relevance to learners.

Motivation starts with why; so making the why clear is essential. What’s in it for me? What is the purpose of this?

This is where knowing your audience helps. To a marketing strategy student, ‘the secrets of Apple’s success’ is a great hook; and is a way into the conceptual or theoretical content. To someone studying sustainable energy, it might not work.

Rather than starting with dry facts or theories, start with meaning and give real world context. Starting with a story of how a government successfully (or disastrously) implemented measures to reduce pollution, brings to life what follows: the measures governments can take to reduce pollution. It makes the purpose clear and it ‘sells’ the content. And even ‘measures governments can take to reduce pollution’ makes real-world sense, in contrast with ‘you’ll understand three theoretical models of pollution reduction’.

Show don’t tell

Whatever can be demonstrated will come across more strongly than what is reported. Journalism specifically exhibits this within the marketing communications sector. How humans respond to a story is well documented. We expect patterns.

Case studies are often used in learning as an application of theory, but using a short story at the start to illustrates the learning points makes what follows clearer. And this flipping of the sequence can make the learning more active, as learners can be asked to draw out the key points from the example. That’s where real learning happens - in getting students to think.

Starting with a context that learners can relate to, and relate the information to, also serves the purpose of ‘activating prior knowledge’. This is Gagne in practice again. It’s effective in learning because it primes the learner for what follows.

Many of Pearson’s products do engage with a case study at the start, such as those in HN Online. Pearson’s blended BTEC Higher National Certificate in Business (RQF) online courses, each topic starts with a short real-world ‘vignette’ to help learners relate the content to real life. A mobile app start-up business runs into financial difficulties, for example, to illustrate an aspect of accounting. With a non-academic audience, this approach offers an accessible way into content, so the ‘cases’ are chosen to be relevant to the learner’s level.

It is about giving real world context to the theory; context is a component of Michael Allen’s CCFA model of instructional design - challenge, feedback and activity are the other three - that will help engage.

Next time you look at online learning or websites, think about how they sell to you the ‘why’.


Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning: Building Interactive, Fun, and Effective Learning Programs for Any Company

Donald Clark's Why We Need to Kill Boring Learning Objectives

Robert Gagne's Instructional Design theories

Pearson’s learning design principles

About the author

Diana Foster is the lead learning experience design consultant for Pearson higher education in the UK.