5 Ways to Gain Learners’ Attention—and 1 Way to Lose It

Billboard in the sky with a surprised-looking woman and the words "Made you look!"
This post focuses on how to effectively gain the learner’s attention and motivate them to want to learn what you have to teach.

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Reading Time: 7 minutes

Introduction

In your experience, what’s the hardest part of a lesson to design? For me, it’s the “hook”—the first screen of an eLearning course or the first few minutes of an instructor-led course. It’s not that it’s especially difficult, but it requires creative and careful thought. It’s also arguably the most critical part because it sets the tone for the rest of the lesson.

The introduction should have both emotional and cognitive elements. Build motivation while activating prior knowledge.

Learning Science for Instructional Designers, by Clark N. Quinn

How do you effectively gain the learner’s attention and motivate them to want to learn what you have to teach?

What NOT to Do

Like most instructional designers, I was taught to list the learning objectives at the beginning of each lesson. After all, how will learners know what to expect and what to focus on if we don’t tell them the objectives? I’m embarrassed to admit this way of thinking has led me to create some boring slides in the past, similar to the one pictured below.

Slide with a bulleted list. Slide text reads: Lesson Overview. Upon completion of this lesson, team members will be able to: Identify the cause of a workplace conflict for a given scenario. Determine when to involve a mediator for resolving workplace conflicts. Apply strategies for resolving workplace conflicts for a given scenario, through a role-play activity.

Lesson Overview

Upon completion of this lesson, team members will be able to:

  • Identify the cause of a workplace conflict for a given scenario.
  • Determine when to involve a mediator for resolving workplace conflicts.
  • Apply strategies for resolving workplace conflicts for a given scenario, through a role-play activity.

Woman and man standing back to back with angry expressions.

Be honest: did you read that list? As discussed in Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning, objectives have no benefit if learners don’t read them and reflect on them. And do you know learners who do that? I don’t.

Just say no to learning-objective slides at the beginning of the course.

Design for How People Learn, by Julie Dirksen

That’s not to say you shouldn’t share the objectives with the learner at all. To paraphrase Michael Allen again, if you don’t provide guidance, the learner will set expectations of their own—which may or may not align with your intentions for the lesson. Communicating learning outcomes is important. But we have to do it in a way that is meaningful to the learner.

5 Ways to Start a Lesson

If we’re not supposed to start a lesson by listing the learning objectives, what should we be doing? I’ll share my five favorite lesson starters, with examples of how to transform the boring list of objectives into content that learners will care about.

1. Address Pain Points

Start with your learner’s pain points and how the lesson will help solve them.

A simple and effective technique to build interest . . . is to show how it will bring learners benefits like comfort, competence, influence, self-esteem, and other prime motivators.

Michael Allen's Guide to e-Learning

Example

Consider the lesson overview below, which uses the same objectives as the previous example, but this time, they’re communicated with the learner’s pain points in mind.

What You'll Learn

Even the most high-functioning teams are bound to have disagreements from time to time—and when they do, they're going to come to you for help resolving them.

This lesson will help you:

  • Identify the cause of workplace conflicts 
  • Determine when to get a mediator involved
  • Practice strategies for resolving workplace conflicts 

This example provides some context to help the learner answer the all-important question, “What’s In It For Me?” (WIIFM). It speaks directly to the learner instead of about them. Each bulleted item is shorter, and some of the instructional design jargon is eliminated, such as “for a given scenario.” The list is more meaningful to the learner than the complete wording of the learning objectives. However, there’s still a chance the learner will skip over it, because it’s still a bulleted list.

Ask a Thought-Provoking Question

Asking a reflection or critical thinking question at the beginning of a lesson can motivate learners to learn more while also activating prior knowledge, as Clark Quinn advises.

. . . when questions are embedded in texts to help focus readers on the main ideas, the learning performance . . . improves

Make It Stick, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel

Example 1

We could take essentially the same slide as the previous example and replace the bulleted list with a question that compels the learner to keep going to find out more.

Slide example that reads: What You'll Learn. Even the most high-functioning teams are bound to have disagreements from time to time—and when they do, they're going to come to you for help resolving them. Are you prepared to address these conflicts when they arise?

Are You Ready?

Even the most high-functioning teams are bound to have disagreements from time to time—and when they do, they're going to come to you for help resolving them.

Are you prepared to address these conflicts when they arise?

Example 2

Another approach is to ask a question that relies on activating the learner’s prior experiences to provide motivation and context.

Slide example that reads: Think about a time when you experienced a conflict with a coworker, whether at your current job or a previous one. What caused it? How did leadership address it? If it wasn't resolved to your satisfaction, what could have been done differently to effect a better outcome? This lesson will provide you with strategies for resolving workplace conflicts, including identifying the cause and determining when to involve a mentor.

Introduction

Think about a time when you experienced a conflict with a coworker, whether at your current job or a previous one. What caused it? How did leadership address it? If it wasn't resolved to your satisfaction, what could have been done differently to effect a better outcome?

This lesson will provide you with strategies for resolving workplace conflicts, including identifying the cause and determining when to involve a mediator.

3. Use a Teaser

There’s a reason your local news station will offer a sensational tidbit like “A pregnant mom is being hailed a hero for rescuing three children today” with a promise of “More at 11.” Teasers get our attention and leave us hungry for more.

Example

Try writing your lesson introduction in the style of an internet headline or advertisement.

Slide example that reads: What You'll Learn. Are interpersonal conflicts jeopardizing your team's ability to work together? Find out three steps to restore the peace now!

What You'll Learn

Are interpersonal conflicts jeopardizing your team's ability to work together?

Find out three steps to restore the peace now!

4. Tell a Story

By far, stories are one of the most effective ways to motivate and teach. Starting a lesson with a relevant scenario immediately shows learners how to apply the information in a real-world context. You can present the story using videos, animations, photos, illustrations, or even plain text.

Stories are the most powerful delivery tool for information, more powerful and enduring than any other art form.

Resonate, by Nancy Duarte

Example

Jane comes to you complaining about three coworkers who've gone to lunch together every day this week without inviting her. Knowing that Jane has a reputation for being difficult to work with, you're tempted to dismiss the complaint. But you also don't want the situation to fester. You take a deep breath and consider how to respond. . . . Photo of an angry woman with a speech bubble that reads, "They leave me out all the time. It's like a clique."

Disgruntled-looking woman with a speech bubble that reads, "They leave me out all the time. It's like a clique."

Jane comes to you complaining about three coworkers who've gone to lunch together every day this week without inviting her.

Knowing that Jane has a reputation for being difficult to work with, you're tempted to dismiss the complaint. But you also don't want the situation to fester. You take a deep breath and consider how to respond...

5. Present a Challenge

Consider starting your lesson with a challenge question or even a brief quiz or self-assessment. I’ve had clients balk at the idea of “testing” learners before presenting content, but the fact is, it’s an effective way to teach.

Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.

Make It Stick, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel

Example 1

Challenge questions pair nicely with scenarios, like wine and cheese. Let’s pick up where we left off in the previous example and follow up with a question.

Slide that reads: Consider Jane's complaints about her coworkers going to lunch without her. What will you do next? A. Tell Jane you'll make sure her team members include her from now on. B. Talk to the coworkers Jane mentioned to get their side of the story. C. Involve a third-party mediator to provide a neutral perspective. Photo of a sad woman with a speech bubble that reads, "They leave me out all the time. It's like a clique."

Disgruntled-looking woman with a speech bubble that reads, "They leave me out all the time. It's like a clique."

Consider Jane's complaints about her coworkers going to lunch without her. What will you do next?

A. Tell Jane you'll make sure her team members include her from now on.

B. Talk to the coworkers Jane mentioned to get their side of the story.

C. Involve a third-party mediator to provide a neutral perspective.

Example 2

Cathy Moore begins her book Map It with a short quiz called “Are You Infected?” Readers are asked to record their natural reactions to 10 statements (disagree, agree slightly, or agree completely). That quiz helped me see some fallacies in my thinking and compelled me to keep reading.

Think outside the pretest box. Keep the focus on engagement and motivation.

Slide that reads, "Are You Ready? Are you prepared to handle conflicts among your team members? Answer these five questions to find out!" Button labeled "Begin."

Are You Ready?

Are you prepared to handle conflicts among your team members? Answer these five questions to find out!

Begin button

Summary

I like to start a lesson by using these five methods to motivate and engage learners:

  • Addressing pain points
  • Asking a question
  • Using a teaser
  • Telling a story
  • Presenting a challenge

What are your favorite ways to begin a lesson? Post a comment below.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like last week’s post on using reflection in lesson summaries.

References

As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn a small amount if you purchase from the links above. This doesn’t cost you any more than you’d pay otherwise.

(P.S. If you want to know about the pregnant hero, it’s a real news story.)

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