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ATD Blog

Keep Learners Guessing to Increase Engagement and Retention

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

For most of us, our day-to-day lives are routine, safe, and comfortable. But too much comfort can be dangerous for learning. Our brains crave stimulation and novelty. As natural explorers, humans are driven to learn as much as possible; it’s one of our superpowers as a species. As learning professionals, we can harness this natural ability to create more effective, engaging, and memorable learning experiences.

Your Brain is a Natural Statistician

No matter what grade you received in high school math, your brain instinctively uses statistics to learn about the world. Using information from experience, your brain constantly predicts how people, systems, and the natural world will behave, applying a statistical called Bayesian inference. When reality doesn’t match what your brain expected, you feel surprised—and pay greater attention—seeking to uncover the reason for your surprise. This discovery is then used to update your brain’s predictive model for the next encounter: You’ve learned something.

Lest you think this is an inherently human ability, all animals learn the same way we do, applying their own predictive models to the world. This may explain why your cat comes running whenever you use the can opener, or why your dog can tell which people are most likely to respond to their advances. Recent evidence suggests that plants also learn and remember, responding more strongly to novel (surprising) stimuli. Even artificially intelligent agents learn to make better decisions through surprise.

For a deep dive into the underlying mechanisms involved in the surprise response, see Clark Quinn’s excellent article in TD magazine last year. Let’s focus on a few ways to incorporate more surprises into your instructional designs.

Don’t just teach the routine—teach the exceptions. While there is a place for repetitive drills on routine problems that learners will face on the job, it’s also important to sprinkle in some unusual examples that are less likely or occur less frequently. Presenting a situation that is less common triggers the surprise response and forces learners to use more parts of their brain, resulting in a stronger network of neurons involved in that memory. Remarkably, when the same practice set includes a combination of routine and surprising problems learner retention is improved for both.

One way to collect these more exceptional examples is to talk with people who are doing the job. Ask them for their most unusual case and what they learned from it. Turn their experience into a scenario or practice activity that gives others the same learning benefits.


Challenge learners to write their own ending to the story. Including activities which require learners to predict the outcome of a case study or scenario creates the opportunity for them to be surprised by the actual outcome. For example, try starting class with a story of how someone applied information gained from your class, but stop short of sharing the ending. Challenge learners to write their own ending to the story, then compare those endings to the real-world outcome. The comparisons can be a great jumping-off point for further discussion.

Introduce outcome variability in gamification. The terms serious games and gamification are topics for another day, but did you know that professional game designers consider the element of surprise to be a key factor in user engagement? They intentionally build variable outcomes into the experience so that users don’t get bored by overly predictable experiences. For example, stealing a talisman on level one might be a ticket to accelerated advancement, while on level three the same behavior will get you thrown into a dungeon. If you’re gamifying your learning, let your users be occasionally surprised by the results of their choices.

Resist the urge to overuse a favorite activity. Most instructional designers have a few favorite activities. That’s just our own brains using Bayesian inference to predict which techniques will work best in given situations—the ones we’ve used successfully before. But there are only so many small group discussions or scavenger hunts the curious-explorer mind will tolerate, so develop the discipline to vary your approach. For example, in developing ATD’s new Adult Learning Certificate, we used a variety of virtual activities, never repeating the same type of activity twice in a row.


Surprise Them—But Not Too Much

Variety can be a powerful learning tool, but it can also become its own version of a routine. When we’re exposed to too many surprising events in a row, learners can develop alert fatigue and stop paying attention, as their brain works on the model that nothing is predictable, therefore it’s useless to try to make sense of the world.

Even a small dose of surprise can be too much for learners to handle if your content is already challenging and requires critical thinking skills. In these cases, even presenting two or more non-routine practice problems in a row could create too much cognitive load, and retention may suffer.

It’s also important to make sure that your planned surprise has relevance to your learning objectives and the context of the learning experience. It might be fun to start your next online session in a clown costume, but it may not have the desired effect.

Key Take-Aways

  • To make sense of the world, our brains build models, or predictions, of how the world works.
  • When our predictions don’t match reality, we’re surprised, and this feeling inspires us to dig deeper and understand how and why we were wrong.
  • We can build the element of surprise into our learning designs to improve attention, engagement, and retention.
  • For a surprise to affect learning, it must be relevant to the audience and the task at hand. Surprise for its own sake has no positive effect on learning and may even distract learners from important content and objectives.

Surprise should be just one of the tools in your instructional design tool kit. It’s a powerful way to gain and keep learner attention and has been proven to support learner engagement and retention. But it’s just a tool, and how you use it makes a difference. You know the proverb, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail?” Make sure you can still recognize when a saw or a screwdriver might be a better choice for your learners.

About the Author

Margie Meacham, “The Brain Lady,” is a scholar-practitioner in the field of education and learning and president of LearningToGo. She specializes in practical applications for neuroscience to enhance learning and performance. Meacham’s clients include businesses, schools, and universities. She writes a popular blog for the Association of Talent Development and has published two books, Brain Matters: How to Help Anyone Learn Anything Using Neuroscience and The Genius Button: Using Neuroscience to Bring Out Your Inner Genius.

She first became interested in the brain when she went with undiagnosed dyslexia as a child. Although she struggled in the early grades, she eventually taught herself how to overcome the challenge of a slight learning disability and became her high school valedictorian, graduated magna cum laude from Centenary University, and earned her master’s degree in education from Capella University with a 4.0.

Meacham started her professional career in high-tech sales, and when she was promoted to director of training, she discovered her passion for teaching and helping people learn. She became one of the first corporate trainers to use video conferencing and e-learning and started her own consulting company from there. Today she consults for many organizations, helping them design learning experiences that will form new neural connections and marry neuroscience theory with practice.

“I believe we are on the verge of so many wonderful discoveries about how we learn. Understanding what happens in the brain is making us better leaders, teachers, parents, and employees. We have no limits to what we can accomplish with our wonderful brains— the best survival machines ever built.”
—Margie Meacham

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great post. Very informative.
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great post. Very informative.
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Great article. Thank you for all the reference and for noting the various contextual considerations (i.e., alert fatigue, cognitive load, etc.).
You're welcome, James! Thanks for the feedback.
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