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Move From a Virtual Event to a Robust Learning Experience

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

During the last year, learning practitioners have ramped up their skills with virtual experiences. Like other professions, we were thrust into virtual work without planning or a proper launch, and we met the challenge head on. We pivoted, shared, experimented, and learned. What’s more, as we did the pivot-left, pivot-right dance, we found silver-lining opportunities—new best practices that will continue to be a part of our repertoire.

Case in point: an increased use of virtual learning sessions. We have improved the use of such engaging practices as polls, chat, whiteboards, and breakout rooms. But many virtual learning experiences are still developed as one-and-done events. How can we develop these sessions to make a more robust learning experience that enhances performance results? Here are five suggestions to consider.

1. Provide Priming Questions

Give attendees priming questions prior to the session. For example:

  • What will I do with what I learn about XYZ? For instance, how could it help me accelerate the creation of a learning assets to meet the demands of changing business challenges? This question should reveal why this session is important to you.
  • What questions do I have about XYZ before I start the session?
  • What do I already know about XYZ?

Why are these questions important and how will they help you have a better learning experience?

According to Britt Andretta’s research in her latest book, Wired to Grow 2.0, priming with questions or a pretest is a type of implicit memory. It “creates a placeholder and when you do learn it becomes more memorable.” And this blog post from a recent Forum ConnectSpark provides a quick summary of Andretta’s revised learning model. Forum member Dana Koch and his Accenture team have conducted extensive research on learning in the future and produced various brain hacks to help their employees leverage this science. Check this post to learn more about the science behind priming.

2. Include a Placemat or Note-taking Guide

A placemat or note-taking guide can be a rich learning asset to help guide the participant with specific targeted questions related to the topic as well as present spaces for them to doodle and take notes. It can also include frameworks, models, and data that are included in the presentation. It can include connections to the presenter and have a list of related resources.

Encourage participants to print the placemat and write on it with a pen. While we know that this is not possible for everyone because of work-from-home limitations, it is important to understand why writing with pen or pencil is a preferred way to take notes.


Another reference to Andretta’s research indicates that handwritten notes take more effort, and effort increases the stickiness of learning. Because this method is kinesthetic, it adds another sensory element and helps with retention. For more information on the value of handwritten notes, sharpen your pencil, get your notebook, and read this blog post.

3. Support the Topic With a Resource List Curated for a Deeper Dive

While not everyone will want to take a deeper dive into the topic, having additional resources will make it easier for participants to take the first steps to act on their interest in the topic. This list should include the references used by the presenter and various learning assets ranging from blogs to articles, videos, and thought leaders.

4. Follow Up With a Reflection Sheet

We recommend ending all sessions with time for participants to reflect and post big takeaways. However, in short sessions, there may not be enough time for proper reflection. One way to enable reflection is to send a note to participants as soon as the session is over and either include a formal reflection activity or questions within the note.

There are many options for reflection triggers and forms. Most focus on the topic and content. A favorite one is What Squares. We have all heard and read about the importance of spaced learning over time. This reflection sheet is designed for that purpose. If you want to know the science behind the actual questions, Accenture has another brain hack available on YouTube.


Beyond reflecting on the topic, the goal for attending learning sessions is to take action. Michael Leimbach, a researcher with Wilson Learning and a ConnectSpark thought leader, has a saying that we have adopted (and tweaked): “It is not just about the learning; it is about the doing.” The first question for priming your brain is focused on “doing.” Several trigger questions on the placemat imply acting on what you learned, even if it is as simple as sharing the idea and resources with others in your organization. The triangle in the reflection focuses on what you want to change.

The reflection activity is important for the topic, but it can also be about personal engagement on the part of the participant. During a recent ConnectSpark with Marshall Goldsmith, there were numerous ideas to promote coaching dialogue, including questions for the coach to ask the coachee. However, one suggestion really stood out. It was not a question to ask others but one to ask yourself—after any activity. The ATD Forum version of Goldsmith’s multipart question goes something like this: Did I do my best to personally engage in the session; was I prepared when the meeting started? Did I use the placemat? Did I ask questions? Did I contribute to conversation? Did I demonstrate curiosity? Did I find meaning and, if so, how? And was I happy, and if so, how did it show? Goldsmith indicated that L&D leaders typically fixate on how to engage others rather than modeling engagement. What are your responses to these questions?

5. Provide Learning Assets Such as Job Aids, Tools, and Templates

Besides the reflection tool, how might other tools or templates help participants move from knowing about the topic to further research and experimentation with doing. While the resource list provides some hints, how might you help them jumpstart their deep dive learning?

One tool to consider is the KWHW (Know. What to Learn. How to Learn. Who can assist?) graphic organizer. Give yourself 10 to 15 minutes to complete it with the information from the session and the placemat. Then, once it is filled out, give yourself 25 minutes each week for a month to conduct research. For more information on the science behind timeboxing learning and spacing it over time, check out this Brain Hack from Accenture.

So, the next time you design a session—whether it is a one-hour presentation by a SME or a short learning session—ramp up from an event to a dynamic and robust learning experience. Provide learning assets and activities before, during, and after the session. Provide opportunities for participants to act in ways that enhance performance results.

About the Author

MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.

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Great tips- thank you!
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As always, MJ, you've done a brilliant job at providing great content with terrific supporting links. Thank you!
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Special thanks go to @DanaK and his team at Accenture for sharing their research via the Brain Hacks during our most recent Hackathon! I highly recommend you check the Accenture site for additional learning tips and techniques. They will be adding more Brain Hacks in the coming weeks.
Jerry Kaminski
ATD Forum Chair Emeritus and Executive Ambassador for Forum Recruiting
#ATDForum, #LeadingtheLearningFunction, #ATD
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