Business Team Meeting Seminar Training Concept

Let’s Have Some Fun! Keeping Learners Engaged and Learning

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Make learning fun. Those are some words of advice Robert Lucas offered in the ATD Links article, “Eight Tactics for Gaining and Holding Attention.”

As talent development professionals, most of us understand the need to engage with our learners; otherwise, we risk losing them. So, how can we make learning fun while still conveying what we need to in a way that will help our learners learn?

In his issue of Infoline (now TD at Work), “Memory and Cognition in Learning,” Jonathan Halls likens providing a good learning environment to child’s play or fun, calling it “SANDPIT” learning. The acronym stands for:

  • Stress: Am I doing what I can as a facilitator to lower the stress levels of my learners?
  • Attention: Do I alternate delivery methods and create multisensory experiences to keep participants engaged and attentive?
  • Networking: Group exercises, peer coaching, and teach-backs are methods to encourage social learning. Am I using them?
  • Develop: Am I incorporating practical exercises and experiments to help learners develop their memory?
  • Physiology: How am I feeding the brains of my learners to ensure they have energy? Am I incorporating breaks and physical movement in my training course?
  • Information: Am I avoiding cognitive overload by keeping information short and simple and staying on topic?
  • Topic: Have I broken down the topic into digestible chunks and arranged it logically?

The ATD Research report, The Science of Learning: Key Strategies for Designing and Delivering Training, lent insight into keeping learners engaged. The study provides the results of a survey in which participants were asked which learning concepts were given consideration to a high or very high extent. Sixty-three percent responded with connecting to prior knowledge; 53 percent identified motivation; and 48 percent indicated cognitive load.


Another method for reducing stress and motivating learners for the training ahead is offered by Carrie Addington, a facilitator for ATD Education. According to Addington, some participants—especially senior leaders—view training as a waste of their time. This impacts the energy of the room. To alter this dynamic, Addington asks participants write down their hesitations about the time spent in training. Then, she opens the classroom door and has participants crumple up their pieces of paper and throw them out the door. She closes the door and advises learners to let go of their negative thoughts about the course, at least until the end of the day.


While trainers are accustomed to gauging when learners need a break, it can be tempting to try to get through a session’s content before doing so. Sometimes it’s helpful for facilitators to hear from learners. Addington offers this advice: At the beginning of class, tell learners that you want to know if someone needs a break because of cognitive overload. Decide, collectively, on a word—something fun like "chocolate" works well—that can be said to indicate to the group that it’s time for a break.

Further, ask participants what kind of break they’d like to take: a stand-up, stretch, usual type of break, or a “break with a purpose.” The latter could be something like a content review, an icebreaker, or something else.

These activities give participants a say in the process, which is important for adult learners, and can add a social element if the break chosen is an interactive one.

About the Author

Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

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Thank you Patty. Love the SANDPIT acronym and will use it going forward.
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Totally agree with you Patty! Fun is a huge part of my philosophy and practice. In fact, I've developed several games to use in my workshops and with 1:1 clients. I think the reason many people have a negative view of training is because we've all experienced the "talking heads", people who just read from slides. Engagement and learning requires so much more. Love the SANDPIT acronym. I'll be referring back to that when developing my workshops. Thank you for sharing.
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